As Bengals change tune on Tee Higgins' future, could Bears make move for WR?

As Bengals change tune on Tee Higgins' future, could Bears make move for WR? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

INDIANAPOLIS -- What a difference a year makes for Tee Higgins, the Cincinnati Bengals, and, perhaps, the Bears.

Three-hundred and sixty-five days ago, Bengals general manager Duke Tobin silenced all talk that he might be considering trading Higgins, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract, to the Bears or any other team with a receiver need.

"I'm not in the business of making other teams better," Tobin said at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. "I'm in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better. So trading Tee Higgins is not on my mind That's their problem, they want a receiver, they can go find their own. In my opinion, Tee is a good piece for the Cincinnati Bengals, so the trade stuff is a little ridiculous."

Fast forward to Tuesday, and Tobin's tune has changed slightly. The reality of the NFL and the CBA will do that.

The Bengals placed the franchise tag on Higgins last week, locking him in for $21.816 million in 2024. But while the Bengals tagged Higgins, Tobin left the door open for a potential trade. Yes, the Bengals want to keep Higgins and need to prioritize maximizing as much of quarterback Joe Burrow's prime as they can. But with Burrow's cap hit set to approach $50 million in 2025 and Ja'Marr Chase in search of a long-term extension, Higgins might eventually be the odd man out in Cincinnati.

"The message is we really like Tee and we're a better team with Tee," Tobin told reporters Tuesday in Indianapolis when asked if trading Higgins was possible. "In terms of our intentions going forward and answering hypotheticals of what could and couldn't come about. 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 we feel strongly about Tee Higgins and his fit with us."

Tobin noted he prefers to find a way to keep Higgins long-term, but that is easier said than done.

"It's always a priority when you think about premier-type players and how long you want them," Tobin said. "We work within the confines of the CBA, like every other team does. And sometimes things come together on a long-term basis. Sometimes they don't. So we use the resources we have. But we're always thinking about the future of players and who's coming up and who all we want to have long-term relationships with. And it's a never-ending puzzle. Just when you put a piece in, somebody reaches over and takes a piece out, and so we're trying to fit more pieces in than they're taking out."

NBC Sports Chicago spoke with Higgins a few weeks ago at Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas. The Bengals receiver was aware that he was likely to be tagged. While he was clear he hoped to stay with the Bengals long-term, he, like every player, is interested in seeing what the free market would bring him should he ever get to true free agency.

"So we want to keep it together as long as we can," Higgins told NBC Sports Chicago. "But right now, I'm in a predicament where it's out of my control, you know, especially with the tag. So, you know, whatever happens, happens right now. And then, you know, if I want a hit free agency and, you know, whenever the free agency hits, then it'll be a market trial. Right? And so I got nothing. I can't do anything until then."

If the Bengals are open to trading Higgins this offseason, the Bears would be expected to, at the very least, kick the tires on what trade compensation and a long-term contract for Higgins would look like.

After the $30 million cap boom, the Bears will have around $68 million in cap space this offseason. A chunk of that will go to Jaylon Johnson via the tag or a long-term deal. The Bears have holes on the interior of the offensive line to fill and could go looking for a veteran safety.

But they also have no depth at wide receiver behind DJ Moore. The Bears could draft an elite wide receiver with their second first-round pick (No. 9 overall) or look to acquire a top-tier No. 2 receiver to pair with Moore via trade of free agency.

With the Bears expected to reset the quarterback contract clock by selecting a new quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, they should have the cap space to pay two high-priced receivers should they choose to allocate their funds that way. They also will likely have to restructure and extend Moore soon after he put together a career year in his first season in Chicago.

A fair projection for a Higgins extension is around $100 million for four years.

If the Bears lock up Johnson on a long-term extension and then acquire and extend Higgins, that's more than $40 million of their $68 million in cap space gone in two players. But the Bears have the money to spend if they want to use it in that fashion. That would likely take them out of play for a big-time edge rusher signing, but they could turn around and use the No. 9 overall pick on a rookie defensive end with Higgins in the fold.

Sinking $50 million a year into two receivers (assuming a Higgins extension and a reworked Moore deal) is an avenue available to the Bears with a quarterback on a rookie contract. The 49ers have been able to load up their roster with high-priced blue-chippers because Brock Purdy is the best bargain in football.

The Bears should start to do the same with Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, or Jayden Daniels likely set to take over this fall.

Moore was sensational in his first season as a Bear, but he needs a running mate. Higgins has the perfect skill set to play opposite Moore, and the Bears should prioritize adding another weapon to help aid their rookie quarterback's early development.

The Bengals don't want to move on from Higgins. But the NFL is all about making tough decisions. If Cincinnati eventually decides they won't be able to keep the Clemson product in the fold, the Bears should be the first to call to gauge the price to acquire and keep the star receiver.

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