Pay Burrow, Chase and 'let Higgins walk': NFL execs weigh in on Bengals' cap conundrum (2024)

The Bengals have been a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the past two years while reaping the benefits of the NFL’s most vital cheat code: a top-tier quarterback on a rookie contract. Cincinnati has utilized their ample cap space to build a formidable supporting cast around star quarterback Joe Burrow.

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And while they could conceivably squeeze another season out of that model, the likelihood is their budget will need to be reworked sooner than later.

It’s not just Burrow they’ll have to pay. Their two most dangerous playmakers, wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, also are in line for massive contracts in the next year, and it’s going to be a significant challenge to keep the three of them together.

Burrow is eligible for an extension now, a fellow 2020 draft pick who is set to play in the final year of his rookie deal. Chase isn’t eligible for a new contract until next year, but the Bengals are surely accounting for an impending pact.

The Bengals’ dynamic has become an interesting case study for other teams.

Can they pay all three and still contend?

“You can probably do it, but who are you going to lose?” a high-ranking league executive told The Athletic. “They’ve probably got some other players who are worthy of extensions, so you’re going to have to make a decision on where you’re going young and where you want to allocate all of those resources, especially at wide receiver because there’s only one football. So if you (extend) Higgins, is it going to cost you Tyler Boyd? Probably. The structure of your roster already cost you (tight end) C.J. Uzomah to a certain extent. Trey Hendrickson has been an impactful pass rusher. You (lost safety) Jessie Bates. You can always keep those three players. Is it feasible? Yes, but it’s going to cost you somebody.”

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The positional balance of the roster is key. Every team loses players in free agency, but the executive’s point about Uzomah was more along the lines of keeping the salary cap in check well in advance. That situation was also partly related to using the franchise tag in 2022 on Bates, who left last month for the Falcons. But to look at it another way, they did add tackle Orlando Brown to shore up an ongoing protection problem.

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As for the future, the first domino isn’t overly complicated. The Bengals will prioritize Burrow, who will likely sign for historic money based on the trend of quarterbacks leapfrogging one another with each passing deal. Short of a hometown discount, Burrow seems to be in line for a contract worth about $45-50 million annually.

However, the Bengals don’t necessarily have to pay Burrow now because he’s on the books for an incredibly affordable $11.5 million in 2023 and a fifth-year option in 2024 that is projected to approach $30 million, not to mention the available franchise tags for 2025-26. But it’s sensible to get out in front of his extension with the way quarterback contracts have exploded every year since Matt Ryan became the first $30 million QB in 2018.

Chase, the fifth pick of the 2021 draft, is already one of the best receivers in the league, and his chemistry with Burrow traces back to their time together at LSU. Chase is tracking toward a contract worth $25-30 million per year when he’s eventually eligible.

So where does that leave Higgins? Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin was adamant during his February news conference at the combine that they wouldn’t trade Higgins and hoped to extend him. But the 2020 second-rounder would almost certainly crack $20 million annually on the open market, so the idea of investing $45-50 million per year to two receivers would be unorthodox. And don’t forget, Boyd is entering the final season of his four-year, $43 million contract.

Four teams exceeded $45 million in average annual value in receiver contracts in 2022 (Buccaneers, Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders), according to Spotrac. None won a playoff game. (While salary cap figures can be manipulated each year, the AAV metric closer resembles the value of these deals.)

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In fact, among the top 10 teams in that spending category, only the Eagles and Jaguars captured a postseason win. It’s probably not a coincidence both of those teams, like the Bengals, employed a quarterback on a rookie contract.

Digging deeper, the Chargers were the only playoff team in 2022 with two receivers (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams) on contracts worth at least $20 million in average annual value. The Raiders (Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow), Bucs (Chris Godwin, Mike Evans), Rams (Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson) and Seahawks (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett) were the only others with two receivers averaging at least $15 million annually. The Broncos (Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick), Commanders (Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel), Giants (Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepherd) and Cardinals (DeAndre Hopkins, Robbie Anderson) each had a pair of receivers averaging at least $10 million.

The Giants were the only one of those nine teams to win a playoff game, and they accomplished that with virtually no production from the well-paid receivers. While past results don’t necessarily dictate the future prognostications with a unique situation in Cincinnati, there should at least be some hesitation with the idea of constructing a roster with two massively paid wideouts.

“It’s how you allocate those resources amongst your roster and where you want to be heavy,” the executive said. “But if you let Higgins go, do you have to use premium draft capital to give Burrow another weapon?”

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Beyond that, Burrow has already proven to be one of the most prolific passers in the league, and he should be able to improve the talent around him. Head coach Zac Taylor’s offensive system has also been conducive to well-rounded success. And receivers have become easier to replenish through the draft.

Pay Burrow, Chase and 'let Higgins walk': NFL execs weigh in on Bengals' cap conundrum (3)

How much money would Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins command on the open market? (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

“Higgins is good, but I think you let Higgins walk,” an assistant coach told The Athletic. “Honestly, you may want to try to trade him this year while there’s value and then go draft a young receiver. He’s really good in that system. He’s a good receiver, but I don’t think he’s so dynamic that you can’t replace his value or production. Chase is going to command so much more attention, that whoever is playing opposite of him is going to get favorable matchups.”

There’s a bit of an intangible factor in the mix, too. The Bengals are riding the most successful two-year stretch in franchise history, and they’ve got the coach and quarterback in place to believe in their sustainability. In another time, it might be more difficult to let a proven player like Higgins walk, but the Bengals can point to their recent run of personnel moves and on-field production to show the fan base that their plan has been working.

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“If it was me and I’m Cincinnati and they have a little bit of a runway from the success over the past two years, I would look for the replacement,” a second executive said. “I would go heavy on signing (Burrow) and Ja’Marr Chase and let Tee Higgins play out the year and look for his replacement. Or if there is some unbelievable trade option, consider that.”

While Tobin has said they wouldn’t trade Higgins, that wouldn’t prohibit teams from calling. And based on the way teams were scouring the trade market for receivers this offseason, thanks to a down year in free agency, it’s highly conceivable the Bengals could procure a quality draft pick if they relented.

Or the Bengals could simply go year to year. They should again contend for a Super Bowl in 2023, and Higgins would be a valuable asset in that pursuit. After all, what’s the point in accumulating talent if the team isn’t going to use those players to chase the ultimate goal?

It’s a fascinating dilemma, and one every team would love to try to navigate. The Bengals are in control at the moment, but matters will eventually become more complicated as negotiating deadlines approach or they attempt to become the exception by achieving their Super Bowl dream with potentially historic contracts at quarterback and receiver.

(Top photo of Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Pay Burrow, Chase and 'let Higgins walk': NFL execs weigh in on Bengals' cap conundrum (4)Pay Burrow, Chase and 'let Higgins walk': NFL execs weigh in on Bengals' cap conundrum (5)

Jeff Howe is the NFL National Insider for The Athletic. A native of Lowell, Mass., and a UMass graduate, he previously covered the New England Patriots from 2009-21. Howe, who has been with The Athletic since 2018, is the author of “If These Walls Could Talk: New England Patriots.” Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffphowe

Pay Burrow, Chase and 'let Higgins walk': NFL execs weigh in on Bengals' cap conundrum (2024)
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