Bengals’ brass talks Tee Higgins’ franchise tag. Would they listen to trade offers?

INDIANAPOLIS — Last year at the NFL Combine, Cincinnati Bengals executive Duke Tobin didn’t hesitate to squash any notion the organization might be looking to trade Tee Higgins. That wasn’t the case this time.

One day after the Bengals announced they had used the franchise tag on Higgins, Tobin addressed questions from media about that decision Tuesday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, but he left the door open on the possibility Higgins could be traded.

Tobin’s response to trade speculation last year — as the Bengals were heading into negotiations for a long-term contract extension that never matriculated — was “go get your own wide receiver,” but he had a much different message Tuesday.

“The message is we really like Tee, and we’re a better team with Tee,” Tobin said. “In terms of our intentions going forward and answering hypotheticals of what could and couldn’t come about, you know, I won’t get into that. But we feel like we’re a better team with him. The reason we franchised him is because we would like to have him. He’s not under contract. And it’s hard for me to predict all the different scenarios that could happen. But you know we feel strongly about Tee Higgins and his fit with us.”

The Bengals were the first team to use the franchise tag after the window to do so opened last week. NFL teams have until March 5 to designate one player for a franchise tag, and often organizations tend to wait until closer to the deadline to make that decision.

Tobin said the organization already knew its intentions with Higgins, so there was no need to delay.

“It’s really simple,” Tobin said. “It’s you know, he’s a good player. We want to keep him and we have resources to do that. So we decided early to do it and that’s where we are. We like Tee. We’re a better team with Tee. So you know, with the way that we’ve managed our cap, we had the ability to put the franchise tag on him and we did.”

“We got the salary cap numbers and we knew kind of where we were heading with it,” Tobin added later. “As soon as we got the salary cap numbers, there’s no point lingering on this. We made the decision and went with it, so it wasn’t any more thought to it other than this is what we’re going to do, why don’t we just go ahead and do it?”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Higgins was due to make No. 1 wide receiver money somewhere if the Bengals didn’t tag him. The organization had tried negotiating a long-term extension last year but couldn’t reach an agreement while also considering other players needing paid. Burrow got his $275 million extension in September. Ja’Marr Chase is due for one this year.

It helps the NFL raised the salary cap by $30.6 million, but the tag is expected to be worth around $21.8 million, fully guaranteed. The Bengals and Higgins now have until mid-July to get a long-term deal done, otherwise Higgins will be set to play on the one-year tender. Of course, a trade also is a possibility, but Tobin said he’s never been through that process so it would be new to him.

“I’ve never done one,” Tobin said. “So again, we tagged him with the intent of him playing for us. He’s a good player. We want good players. He fits us perfectly. So we tagged him for that reason. The hypotheticals of what could happen, you know, it’s hard for me to comment on.”

Higgins, the team’s No. 33 overall in 2020 behind Burrow, was a key part of the rebuild that led to Cincinnati’s first playoff wins in 31 years leading up to a Super Bowl LVI appearance his second season. He had 908 yards receiving as a rookie when Burrow played just 10 games, and Higgins followed that with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in 2021 and 2022, helping the Bengals to back-to-back AFC Championships.

This final season of his rookie deal was impacted by a pair of injuries, including a rib fracture and hamstring injury that limited him to 12 games and just 656 yards receiving and five touchdowns.

Asked how Higgins reacted to the tag, Bengals coach Zac Taylor said his conversation with him was brief when he left the player know about it, but Higgins left no indication he would not want to play this season.

“We take a lot of value in the relationship we have with Tee for moments like this because the business side, I understand can be frustrating,” Taylor said. “Tee has not given me any of that. I’m just excited to attack this offseason and see where it goes from there, but I expect huge things for Tee next year. He’s going to be a big part of the success we have. He knows that, and we know that.”

The Bengals have made clear that keeping Chase for the long term is a priority, but Higgins is still in the plans at least for now.

“It’s challenging,” Tobin said. “You can only have so many super high-priced guys on your team. And so yes, it’s a challenge. We try to work within the rules that are there for us, you know. The CBA is the CBA. It was negotiated. Our job is to work within it to try to have the best team possible year over year. Our thoughts are that this is a way to have the best team possible next year. We’ll work through the challenges that come with that as we go.”

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