State of the Cincinnati Bengals — Big Questions About Big Contracts at Wide Receiver

The Cincinnati Bengals head into the offseason with all the leverage when it comes to keeping the Ja'Marr Chase-Tee Higgins tandem together.

The Cincinnati Bengals had arguably the best wide receiver trio in the league for three seasons, as Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd played huge roles in helping the team win two division titles and five playoff games while on the way to a Super Bowl appearance.

The Bengals ran 1,694 plays with all three on the field at the same time — the last of which was an incomplete pass intended for Higgins on 4th-and-27 with 1:14 remaining in the Week 17 loss at Kansas City.

State of the Bengals Franchise: Wide Receivers

The chances of there being a 1,695th snap with the trio in tiger stripes are close to zero.

As we continue our look at the state of each position group heading into the offseason — following looks at quarterback and running back — wide receiver is where the biggest and most important question resides.

Can the Bengals keep Higgins around for 2024 — and possibly beyond?

Let’s take a look at each wide receiver on the 2023 roster and what to expect in 2024, followed by an overall assessment of the group, and where it could be headed.

Ja’Marr Chase (Signed Through 2024)

Chase is coming off his third consecutive 1,000-yard season and Pro Bowl selection, and he is eligible for a contract extension that could reset the entire wide receiver market.

The Bengals want to keep him paired with QB Joe Burrow for as long as possible, and the expectation is that they will negotiate to make that happen this offseason. Still, Chase has talked about wanting to wait for Justin Jefferson to sign his deal first, and that may not happen this offseason, as the Minnesota Vikings have already used their fifth-year option on him.

Chase is going to be the focal point of the receiver group for years to come. It just comes down to the timing for finalizing his massive deal.

Tee Higgins (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Burrow stoked some optimism with his comments at his news conference the day after the season ended, saying, “Everyone’s expectation is that Tee is going to be back.”

Yes, this scenario was discussed when Burrow and the Bengals were working out his deal, but a good-faith promise saying they plan to keep Higgins could still be upended if Higgins doesn’t think the offer is good enough, or if he wants to go somewhere else to be a WR1 — or both.

Still, the Bengals have all the leverage with the ability to use the franchise tag on Higgins, and they can keep him around for another season at roughly $21 million. No matter how much Higgins wants to be a WR1, or how much he would be disappointed by not getting a long-term deal done, he’s not sitting out and giving up that much guaranteed money — especially knowing the Bengals could turn around and tag him for the same amount next year.

Chance of return: 80%

Tyler Boyd (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Boyd is the consummate professional who played a key role as the bridge from the Marvin Lewis regime to the Zac Taylor era, and he’s liked and respected by everyone in the building.

MORE: Cincinnati Bengals Were Among the Best in the League in 2 Key Categories, Setting Stage for 2024

But given the huge contracts the Bengals have allotted elsewhere, with another one or two to come in the receiver room, there likely isn’t room for a slot receiver who will turn 30 in the middle of next season.

Boyd is far from washed, but these are the types of hard decisions that come with doling out the dollars needed to keep the core intact.

Chance of return: 10%

Trenton Irwin (Unrestricted Free Agent)

He has Burrow’s trust, and that goes a long way. The receiver is the kind of receiver every team needs: one who can step into any role and not have a debilitating drop in ability. The Bengals drafted two rookies last year with succession plans in mind, but there is room for Irwin to come back on an affordable one-year deal.

Chance of return: 75%

Andrei Iosivas (Signed Through 2026)

The rookie sixth-round pick showed his value on special teams early and slowly worked his way into more reps on offense before finishing with a bang with Higgins out due to a hamstring injury. Iosivas caught two touchdowns in the finale to double his season total, and he appears poised to have a much more significant role in 2024.

Charlie Jones (Signed Through 2026)

A broken hand in Week 3 delayed Jones’ development, and the Bengals were content to let him focus on his punt-returning duties, rather than working him into the offensive scheme. They drafted him to be Boyd’s replacement in the slot, and even with Jones getting minimal reps this year, that still appears to be the plan.

Kwamie Lassiter II (Signed Through 2024)

A member of the 2023 undrafted college free agent class, Lassiter recently signed a Reserve/Futures contract to stay with the team in 2024. He spent most of the season on the practice squad this year, but he had one catch for two yards in the game against the Arizona Cardinals, where his late father starred also as an undrafted player out of college.

Shedrick Jackson (Signed Through 2024)

Bo Jackson’s nephew was part of this year’s undrafted free agent class and appeared in five games without a catch, mostly logging snaps on special teams. He signed a Reserve/Futures contract earlier this month.

Kendric Pryor (Signed Through 2024)

Pryor came in with Lassiter and quickly left when the Jacksonville Jaguars claimed him off waivers after cutdown day in 2022. He didn’t appear in a game for the Jaguars last year or this year before being waived, leading to his reunion in Cincinnati. Pryor signed a Reserve/Futures contract earlier this month.

Stanley Morgan (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Morgan did not sign a Reserve/Futures contract and is free to sign elsewhere once the new league year starts. If he doesn’t find any takers, the Bengals could have some interest in bringing him back for his special teams skills — even though they weren’t enough to keep him off the practice squad for the bulk of 2023.

Chance of return: 40%

What’s next?

It’s going to be tough to replicate the amount of talent the Chase-Higgins-Boyd trio brought to the offense, but with Burrow slinging the passes and position coach Troy Walters leading the unit, the receivers are positioned to be one of the strongest position groups on the team for years to come.

Aside from the big question of whether they can sign Higgins to an extension early in the offseason will be how soon the Bengals target the position in the draft.

MORE: Podcast — Cincinnati Bengals Free Agent Draft, Brian Callahan’s HC Interviews, and More

They are going into this offseason with more needs than they’ve had in a long time, and while the resources are sure to be depleted, it’s hardly going to be a position of poverty, as long as Chase is around.

Will the Bengals look for their next Higgins in Round 1 or 2 this year, or will they focus on the more immediate needs of the offensive and defensive lines?

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