NFL draft steal: Tee Higgins completes Bengals' absurd WR trio

Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Clemson WR Tee Higgins

Cincinnati Bengals
6-foot-4, 216 pounds
2020 NFL draft: Round 2, No. 33 overall

There's the rookie sensation, Ja'Marr Chase, who has overcome his long-forgotten preseason drops to become a star overnight catching passes from Joe Burrow, his college QB.

There's Tyler Boyd, the brash but affable veteran who has maintained his steady production since breaking out during some lean years for the Bengals.

And there's Joe Mixon, who is having a career season in 2021, third in the league in touches and touchdowns.

But the Bengals can't claim their team success in 2021 either without the play of Higgins, who often is the forgotten member of Cincinnati's skill-position conglomerate.

There was some worry that Higgins would see a slight reduction in his impressive rookie-year totals of 67 catches, 908 yards and six TDs, given that the Bengals spent the fifth overall pick on Chase and, after all, there are only so many balls for Burrow to dish out each game.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins has had a brilliant Year 2. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins has had a brilliant Year 2. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)

But Higgins quietly has stepped up his game even more, matching or surpassing his rookie receiving numbers despite missing two games with a shoulder injury. Chase might lead the team in targets, receiving yards and TDs, but Higgins — in two fewer games — paces the club in catches, 100-yard receiving games and yards per game.

He's been their go-to guy recently, as the Bengals are on the verge of their first 10-win season since the heyday of the Marvin Lewis era. Higgins has 583 receiving yards over his past five games.

Higgins doesn't turn 23 for another few weeks, too.

The Bengals clearly have been able to replace A.J. Green and have put together one of the most dangerous collections of offensive playmakers in the NFL. There were some questions about Higgins' NFL upside when he was coming out for the draft, and his 2021 season did get off to a slow start.

Yet he's been undeniably huge in stepping up when his team has needed him most. Higgins didn't fall too far when he entered the NFL, drafted with the first pick of the second round in 2020. But that also made him the seventh wide receiver drafted that year, which is almost hard to believe even 20 months later.

We look back at the questions surrounding Higgins coming out that year and why he wasn't able to crack the first round.

Why did Tee Higgins slip in the draft?

Higgins was a 5-star Rivals recruit out of high school, one of the 15 best players in the country that year. Following a promising true-freshman season at Clemson when Higgins often was a big-play, downfield specialist, he emerged as a lynchpin for the championship-winning Tigers in 2018. He then backed that up by bettering his overall numbers in what would be his final college season in 2019.

The 6-foot-4 Higgins was on the three-year plan at Clemson and entered the NFL with 28 TDs in 37 college games and a career receiving average of 18.1 yards. On the surface, he looked like a future star.

But there were questions about his transition to the league. Namely: Could he separate? Winning one-on-one battles against overmatched ACC corners was one thing. But Higgins wasn't regarded as a burner, he lacked elite twitch and wasn't going to see the free releases and wide-open opportunities at the next level, at least not regularly.

Higgins also battled some injuries late in his final season and wasn't able to test athletically at the NFL scouting combine, eventually turning in sub-par pro-day numbers that paled in comparison to some of the top prospects in what appeared to be an unusually deep WR class in 2020.

That's at least one reason why we can say he didn't go higher than 33rd. A lack of great play strength, smaller hands and a limited route tree in Clemson's offense also worked against him.

But the Bengals viewed Higgins as a potential Green replacement, and a quick rookie succession allowed the team to allow their longtime star to walk in free agency to the Arizona Cardinals. That plan couldn't have worked out much better, it appears.

Tee Higgins' production at Clemson was unquestioned, but his pre-draft workout numbers were hardly elite. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
Tee Higgins' production at Clemson was unquestioned, but his pre-draft workout numbers were hardly elite. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

How we viewed Higgins as a prospect

Higgins was our No. 26 overall prospect in the 2020 class, which looks pretty solid in retrospect. We must point out, however, that we had him one spot ahead of LSU's Justin Jefferson (ouch) and two spots behind TCU's Jalen Reagor (yikes).

Higgins hasn't been as good as Jefferson, but he's clearly surpassed anything Reagor has yet done in the league. That context matters, even though we're happy we stuck to our guns with Higgins displaying clear starter potential in college, even as some analysts soured slightly on him as the draft process rolled along.

And we'll also do a self-back pat for this suggestion — and check out the time stamp on that puppy:

Here was our bottom line on Higgins coming out:

There’s a bust factor to Higgins’ game, and the question is whether he can separate from man coverage consistently. But in a vertical passing game, he could be an outside 50-50 winner who develops the other aspects of his game and exploits his rare gifts.

That mostly holds up. Higgins dabbles in the slot, but that's mostly where Boyd and TE C.J. Uzomah thrive. Chase and Higgins more often line up outside the numbers and have hauled in Burrow's deeper and intermediate shots this season, with Higgins providing enough separation to put up big numbers and earn Burrow's consistent trust.

Future forecast

Chase appears to be the ace of the group, but in another situation Higgins could be a WR1, we believe. Sure, the elite talent allows Higgins now, just as it was in college, to see more favorable looks and coverages to thrive. But he's displayed enough one-on-one prowess to undercut some of our pre-draft concerns.

We'd love to see the Chase-Higgins combo stay together as long as possible — who knows what this pair, with Boyd's help, can achieve over the next few years?

But if the Bengals decide they can't afford to keep both (as well as Burrow, who could be due a monster extension in the coming 18 months), Higgins certainly could strike out on his own, and we suspect he'd be highly sought for his lofty production and appealing age. He's due to hit free agency following the 2023 season or, if the Bengals franchise tag him, after 2024.

How many 25-year-old receivers of his ability hit the open market? Not many. He'd have plenty of suitors if that were to happen.

But he's also made a great home in Cincy. Higgins grew up in Tennessee as a Bengals fan, has a quiet and low-key demeanor, is well-liked by teammates and appears happy where he's at. And the way things are going, he and Chase might one day pass Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as the best pair of Bengals wideouts ever.