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Is Tee Higgins an overhyped NY Jets free agent target?

Tee Higgins
Tee Higgins

The idea of pairing Tee Higgins with Garrett Wilson is a tantalizing one for the New York Jets

Looking at the list of 2024 free agent wide receivers, Tee Higgins’ name might be the flashiest of the bunch. Higgins is still only 25 years old and has shown glimpses of WR1 talent in Cincinnati while working as the WR2 behind Ja’Marr Chase. He’s shined on the Super Bowl stage, filled up the box score, and made countless highlight-reel catches with his alluring set of physical traits.

Higgins is particularly interesting for the New York Jets because they would be projecting him into the same role behind Garrett Wilson. Unlike other teams who might be betting on Higgins’ ability to handle a jump to WR1 duties, the Jets would be asking him to play a role he’s already proven he can succeed in.

However, the catch with Higgins is that he most likely won’t hit the open market. Higgins is a strong candidate to receive the franchise tag from Cincinnati, meaning the Jets and other interested teams would have to trade for him if they want to pry him away from the Bengals.

Is Higgins worth a sizable contract and trade compensation? If he somehow doesn’t receive the tag, how aggressively should the Jets pursue him? Let’s dig into his profile to find out.

Jets free agent profiles:

Basic info

  • Age: 25.0
  • Height: 6-foot-4
  • Weight: 219 pounds
  • College: Clemson
  • Experience: 4 years (Drafted Round 2, Pick 33 by Cincinnati in 2020)
  • Teams: Bengals (2020-present)
  • Previous contract: 4 years, $8.69M (Rookie contract)


  • Data from 2020 Combine (via Mockdraftable)
  • Percentiles among all-time wide receiver prospects


  • Height: 6’4″ (91st percentile)
  • Weight: 216 pounds (83rd)
  • Arm length: 34.125in (95th)
  • Hand size: 9.25in (39th)

Higgins tested at Clemons’s pro day and posted the following numbers:

  • 4.54 forty
  • 1.66 ten-yard split
  • 31-inch vertical
  • 123-inch broad
  • 4.53 shuttle

Overall, Higgins recorded a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 4.13/10 based on his pro day testing.


In 2023, Higgins served as the Bengals’ No. 2 passing-game weapon behind Ja’Marr Chase, although Higgins and Tyler Boyd were fairly close.

Higgins had an average snap percentage of 74%, ranking third among the team’s skill-position players behind Chase’s 87% and Tyler Boyd’s 76%. However, if you remove two games where Higgins left early due to injury, his average snap percentage rises to 79%, slightly passing Boyd.

Higgins also ranked second on the team with 6.8 targets per game, trailing Chase’s 9.1. Boyd was third at 5.8.

In terms of snaps and targets, Higgins played essentially the same exact role that he did in the previous two seasons. From 2021-22, Higgins’ average snap percentage was an identical 79% after removing injury-shortened games. He saw 7.3 targets per game, only 0.5 more per game than he did in 2023.

Higgins predominantly lines up on the outside. For his career, Higgins lined up out wide for 78.8% of his passing-game snaps. He was at a career-high 82.3% in 2023, although there has been little fluctuation, as his career-low is still 72.1%.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here is a look at the distribution of Higgins’ route tree in 2023 based on the percentage of his routes run (all routes, not just targeted routes) that were classified as each route type.


With nearly a third of his routes being go routes, Higgins was primarily used as a vertical threat for Cincinnati. Maximizing the cushions that he received due to his high frequency of go routes, the Bengals also liked to send Higgins over the middle on some slant routes and in routes.

2023 performance

Down year

The 2023 season was a disappointing one for Higgins as he aimed to impress in a contract year. He averaged career-lows in receiving yards per game (54.7), receptions per game (3.5), first downs per game (2.8), yards per route run (1.66), and catch rate (55.3%).

For comparison, his 2021-22 averages in those categories were 70.7 yards per game, 4.9 receptions per game, 3.3 first downs per game, 1.99 yards per route run, and a 67.6% catch rate.

Was already happening with Joe Burrow on the field

It’s easy to chalk up Higgins’ down year to Joe Burrow’s injury, but Higgins was already struggling before Burrow went out. He actually put up better numbers after Burrow got hurt.

Here is a comparison of Higgins’ numbers with and without Burrow in 2023:

  • With Burrow (7 games): 46.9 yards per game, 3.9 receptions per game, 2.9 first downs per game, 1.41 yards per route run, 52.9% catch rate
  • Without Burrow (5 games): 65.6 yards per game, 3.0 receptions per game, 2.8 first downs per game, 2.01 yards per route run, 60.0% catch rate

To be fair, Burrow was clearly not in peak condition when he was healthy, and this affected all of the Bengals’ receivers. Ja’Marr Chase also averaged a career-low in receiving yards per game by nearly 10 yards per game. Tyler Boyd had his lowest average since 2017 by a shade under nine yards per game. Higgins was not alone.

Poor hands were the root of the problem

While Burrow’s health could be used as an excuse for Higgins because of the similar declines experienced by his teammates, the problem is that Higgins’ decline was largely due to factors within his control. His hands were very poor this season. That played a larger role in his struggles than the quarterbacking.

Despite making only 42 receptions, Higgins was credited with six drops, per Pro Football Focus. This gives him a drop rate of 12.5%, the league’s second-worst rate among the 61 wide receivers with at least 70 targets.

On top of that, Higgins was poor in contested situations. Higgins was credited with eight contested receptions on 23 contested targets, giving him a 34.8% contested-catch rate that ranked 45th out of 61 qualified wide receivers.

These numbers were outliers for Higgins. His career drop rate is much lower at 7.4% (which is still below average, although not nearly as brutal) while his career contested-catch rate is 42.5% (also below average). Considering how drastically far off he was from these numbers in 2023, he should be expected to bounce back to his career norms in the future.

Still, it’s not as if he excels in either category; his career drop rate and career contested-catch rate are both mediocre. Because of this, he’ll always be prone to a bad game or even a bad season in either area. Higgins’ hands are not impressive, contrary to what most people would think from watching his highlight reels.

Terrible deep production

Previously one of the better deep threats in the NFL, Higgins became a non-factor down the field in 2023. Higgins caught just 3-of-14 deep targets (20+ yards downfield), a 21.4% catch rate that ranked eighth-worst among the 78 wide receivers with at least 10 deep targets.

On these deep targets, Higgins had one drop (25% drop rate) and caught just 1-of-8 contested targets (12.5%). His seven incomplete contested targets on deep passes tied him for the fifth-most among wide receivers, despite the fact that his 14 total deep targets were 52nd at the position.

Basically, the Bengals were just chucking up a bunch of fruitless prayers to Higgins.

On this play, Higgins (top) is called for offensive pass interference due to a push-off, and he still fails to corral a contested pass that hits his hands.

Higgins doesn’t come back to the ball on this deep shot and has it knocked away by Grant Delpit.

Coming back to the football could have at least yielded a defensive pass interference penalty. This is another thing Higgins struggles with. Despite his high frequency of deep targets – specifically contested deep targets – he didn’t draw any pass interference penalties in 2023. In fact, he’s only drawn one in his entire career, which is concerning for a player of his size and play style.

That deflection by Delpit was too frequent of a sight. On deep shots to Higgins in 2023, it was more common for the DB to earn statistical credit than Higgins. While Higgins only caught three deep passes, opposing DBs recorded four pass deflections on Higgins’ deep targets.

He did make this incredible play, though.

Comparing 2023 performance to previous track record

As we discussed, the 2023 season was a down year for Higgins. Over the past two seasons, he established himself as a great WR2 alongside Ja’Marr Chase. From 2021-22, his per-17-game averages were as follows: 84 catches, 1,201 yards, and seven touchdowns.

In 2023, Higgins caught 42 passes for 656 yards and five touchdowns across 12 games. This put him on pace for 60 catches, 929 yards, and seven touchdowns over 17 games.

Higgins’ efficiency also declined. From 2021-22, he caught 67.6% of his passes and produced 9.7 yards per target. In 2023, he caught 55.3% and produced 8.6 yards per target, over a full yard lower.

There are a few particular areas where Higgins took a step back.

Most importantly, his hands declined from about average to downright awful, as we broke down earlier. Higgins proved in 2021 and 2022 that he is dangerous enough of a deep threat to produce at a high level despite average hands, but in 2023, Higgins’ catching was far too inconsistent for him to make the impact he used to.

The deep game is where Higgins’ hands affected him the most. Prior to a brutal season as a deep threat in 2023, Higgins was strong in this area.

In 2022, Higgins caught 11-of-24 deep targets (45.8%) for 376 yards and four touchdowns, including a 7-for-10 performance on contested targets with zero drops.

Higgins was not quite as prolific in 2021, although he was still effective, catching 9-of-23 deep targets (39.1%) for 378 yards and three touchdowns. He went 5-of-12 (41.7%) on contested deep targets and had no drops.

The Higgins we saw from 2021-22 was a high-end WR2 with a chance of succeeding as a WR1 if given the opportunity. The Higgins we saw in 2023 was a low-end WR2 at best. For Higgins to get back to his previous level, he must reclaim his success as a deep threat, and that starts with cleaning up his hands.

If he can get his hands back to at least an average level, Higgins should be able to return to prominence as a deep threat, which is his bread-and-butter. Without that part of his game, he’s not all that great of a player, as 2023 showed. That’s not to say he was bad, but he wasn’t nearly good enough to justify the investment he is about to command.

Whichever team adds Higgins in 2024 – whether it’s the Bengals keeping him on a $21.7 million franchise tag or another team trading for him and giving him a large contract – will be paying him for the ceiling he showed from 2021-22. If Higgins keeps playing like he did in 2023, he will be a massive disappointment relative to his pay grade.

Numbers without Ja’Marr Chase

Higgins’ performance without Chase backs up the idea that Higgins could break out if he gets the chance to be a WR1. When given the opportunity to be the Bengals’ top gun, Higgins has risen to the occasion, producing with insanely good efficiency on high volume.

Higgins has played five games without Chase since the latter was drafted: four in 2022 (Weeks 8-12) and one in 2023 (Week 16). In those games, Higgins caught 31-of-44 targets (70.5%) for 511 yards (11.6 per target / 102.2 per game) and three touchdowns.

Over 17 games, those numbers put Higgins on pace for 105 receptions, 1,737 yards, and 10 touchdowns. That’s top-five territory. And considering he averaged nearly 12 yards per target with a 70% catch rate, it’s not as if he was just eating up Chase’s vacated targets, either. His efficiency rose alongside the volume – a formula for flat-out dominance.

Higgins’ best game of 2023 came with Chase on the bench. In Week 16 against Pittsburgh, Higgins caught 5-of-8 targets for 140 yards and a touchdown.

Five games is too small of a sample to definitively say that Higgins will maintain these numbers if given the chance to be another team’s WR1 for the full season. Still, his utterly fantastic play in that five-game sample serves as strong supporting evidence for those who believe Higgins is a true WR1 just waiting for his chance to take the reins.

Scheme fit

Higgins would be an interesting fit in the Jets’ offense. He makes sense in some ways but does not in others.

Higgins’ high frequency of go routes would work well alongside Aaron Rodgers. During his time under Nathaniel Hackett, the go route was Rodgers’ second-favorite route relative to the NFL average. Rodgers would surely be eager to give Higgins plenty of shots down the field.

However, Higgins’ three other preferred routes – in, slant, hitch – are all low on Rodgers’ list. Meanwhile, Rodgers likes the crossing route, which is Higgins’ least frequent route relative to the league average.

Here is a look at Rodgers’ 2019-21 route preferences alongside Higgins’ 2023 route tree.



Rodgers likes to take his shots when they’re there, but he primarily wants to feast on safe throws that facilitate YAC and minimize interception risk. This is why flats, screens, and crossers are so high on his list. These routes offer high completion percentages, high YAC expectancy, and low interception probability.

In 2021 – when he last won MVP and played with Nathaniel Hackett – Rodgers ranked 26th among 31 qualified quarterbacks in air yards per completion at 5.3. Comparatively, he was fourth in YAC per completion at 5.9. He was one of the most YAC-reliant quarterbacks in football.

Higgins has never been an elite YAC guy. His career average of 4.4 YAC per reception is middle-of-the-pack; it would have ranked 30th out of 61 qualified wide receivers (70+ targets) in 2023.

Higgins is a pretty good playmaker after the catch when he gets the ball downfield, but as his route tree shows, he is rarely deployed on routes that are designed to facilitate YAC, especially Rodgers’ top three preferences: flats, screens, and crossers. He’s a vertical jump-ball threat, not a horizontal YAC threat or screen threat.

These limitations could make Higgins a peculiar fit in the Jets’ offense. However, as we discussed with Calvin Ridley – who is also a vertical threat with limited YAC skills – it might not matter.

In their WR2, the Jets don’t necessarily need someone who will get a ton of YAC by himself. If the WR2 is able to take the top off the defense, he can create YAC for his teammates by opening up space underneath. This can make it so much easier for Rodgers to throw his preferred flats, screens, and crossers to everyone else on the offense (especially Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall).

Like Ridley, I think Higgins would be a good fit in New York for that reason. He’d bring the Jets a much-needed vertical threat, creating space and favorable matchups underneath.

Still, I’d be at least somewhat curious about his fit because of the stark difference in his route tree and the preferences of Rodgers. This concern would become most apparent if Higgins ever has to replace an injured Wilson as the WR1.

As we saw with Davante Adams in Green Bay (and with the limited time Rodgers and Wilson played together in camp/preseason), Rodgers wants a WR1 that he can rely on to win quickly. Rodgers doesn’t like holding the football. He wants to identify a matchup pre-snap, hit the depth of his drop, and get it out.

Can Higgins play that role effectively if he’s thrust into it? He’s not a guy that you love on quick screens (which Rodgers loves to check into if his WR1 has space) nor is he the best after-the-catch guy in the underneath area if you hit him with a quick throw. His drop-proneness also isn’t ideal for a high volume of underneath targets.

Ultimately, Higgins makes a lot of sense as a WR2 complement to Wilson, but as a backup to Wilson, I’m skeptical of the fit. At the price it will take to get Higgins, he should be capable of providing legitimate WR1 production if called upon, and I’m not sure he’s an ideal fit for that role in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.


Higgins has played 58 out of 66 possible regular season games in his career (87.9%), which is about 14.9 out of 17 games. He also appeared in all seven of Cincinnati’s playoff games.

While Higgins is yet to suffer a major injury, he has dealt with several nagging injuries throughout his career, which have tended to affect his play after returning.

In 2021, Higgins missed two games early in the year with a shoulder injury. This injury seemed to affect him for a few weeks after his return.

For the next three games, Higgins’ snap count was held slightly lower than his typical rate (65% vs. 79% in all other 2021 games) while his production was underwhelming (46 YPG vs. 87 YPG in all other 2021 games). He returned to full capability around Week 8 and was dominant from that point on.

The 2020 and 2022 seasons were clean for Higgins, but he went through an injury-riddled 2023 season where he was rarely at 100%. Missing five games over three separate stints, Higgins only played 12 games. In three of the games he played, he either left early due to injury or was used in a limited capacity as he returned from a previous injury.

Higgins left around midway through the Bengals’ Week 4 game with a rib injury, which knocked him out for the following game. He returned in Week 6 but played a limited snap count (54%) and only caught 2-of-4 targets for 20 yards.

Ahead of the Bengals’ Week 10 game, Higgins suffered a hamstring injury in practice, which ended up ruling him out for the next three games.

Higgins suffered another hamstring injury in Week 17, which sidelined him for a significant portion of the game, although he did return. However, the injury held him out of the Bengals’ season finale (although it was a meaningless game and there was no reason to force it).

Higgins’ various injuries in 2023 could serve as a reasonable explanation for his declined production. If you only count his nine games where he did not leave early due to injury or play a limited role in a return game, his numbers look a lot better:

  • 3 limited games (Week 4 left early, Week 6 limited in return, Week 17 left early): 19.3 yards per game, 1.7 receptions per game, 0 TD, 50% catch rate, 1.0 first down per game, 0.95 yards per route run, 5.8 yards per target
  • 9 non-limited games: 66.4 yards per game, 4.1 receptions per game, 5 TD, 56% catch rate, 3.3 first downs per game, 1.79 yards per route run, 9.1 yards per target

While still a slight step down from his past two years (particularly in catch rate and Y/RR), his numbers in the nine non-limited games are a lot closer to his previous heights than his full-season numbers with the three limited games included. And that’s with Higgins still battling through the rib and hamstring injuries for the majority of those games.

For comparison, these were Higgins’ overall averages from 2021-22: 70.7 yards per game, 4.9 receptions per game, 0.43 TD per game (pace for 3.9 in a 9-game sample), 3.3 first downs per game, 1.99 yards per route run, a 67.6% catch rate, and 9.7 yards per target.

The numbers Higgins posted in his non-limited games are a major plus on his resume. While his full 2023 season looks ugly at a glance, signs of hope are revealed when you dig deeper. Despite Joe Burrow’s injury woes and his own nagging injuries, Higgins’ 2023 numbers in non-limited games really weren’t that far off from what we became used to seeing from him in the past.

Projected cost

The franchise tag for wide receivers is projected to be around $21.7 million, per Over The Cap. That’s the Bengals’ issue, though. If the Jets trade for Higgins, they would sign Higgins to a new contract.

Spotrac projects Higgins is worth $18.6 million per year. Production-wise, that seems fair, as it puts him in the ballpark of Christian Kirk ($18M) and Diontae Johnson ($18.4M), who had similar high-end-WR2 numbers before signing their contracts.

However, I think Higgins’ reputation will inflate his value. Because of his tools and his untapped upside due to playing behind Chase, it seems very possible that Higgins will be valued in the WR1 ballpark.

Mike Williams is a comparison that makes a lot of sense to me. Williams signed a three-year, $60 million deal with the Chargers in March 2022. Williams was a bit older than Higgins when he signed his contract, already being 27 years old, but he had a lot of similarities.

Like Higgins, Williams was a big-bodied vertical threat whose game was visually appealing and screamed WR1, but his box-score numbers were closer to the WR2 tier, largely because he played with another great receiver who out-targeted him (Keenan Allen). Williams averaged 63.1 yards with 16 touchdowns in his three pre-contract seasons. Higgins is at 66.1 yards with 18 touchdowns since 2021.

Given that Higgins is two years younger than Williams and that the cap has significantly risen since 2022, I think he will outdo Williams by a few million. Something around $22 million per year – right in the neighborhood of the franchise tag number – is where I believe he would land.

An average of $22 million per year would currently rank ninth among wide receivers, sliding between Terry McLaurin ($23.2M) and D.J. Moore ($20.6M). Mike Williams is right behind Moore in a tie at No. 12, matching Amari Cooper and Chris Godwin at $20 million per year.

On top of the contract, the Jets would have to trade for Higgins. Cincinnati would probably want to outdo the compensatory pick they could receive by simply letting Higgins walk, meaning a second-round pick would probably be the starting point.

The verdict

To me, this is a pretty clear “no” for the Jets.

Acquiring Higgins will cost an arm and a leg, and he just isn’t safe enough to be worth it. Paying WR1 money and yielding a high draft pick for Higgins – who is coming off an injury-plagued season, does not have reliable hands, and has really only produced at a WR2 type of level in his career – is too risky for the Jets in their current predicament.

A team that desperately needs a WR1 could justify making a pursuit of Higgins. His upside would be worth the risk for that kind of team.

The Jets are not in that boat. They already have a Batman in Garrett Wilson. All the Jets need is a Robin, so there is no need to shell out WR1-level assets for a player who isn’t going to carry the load in their passing game.

Calvin Ridley is a far preferable option to Higgins if the Jets are looking for someone to fill the Robin role at a price that makes sense. Ridley has produced at a similar level to Higgins, will not require a trade, and will likely sign for a much cheaper contract.

Picture it this way: would the Jets rather have Calvin Ridley, a mid-level free agent starting guard, and a second-round pick… or Tee Higgins?

If the Jets want to go all-out and splurge on another star to form a super-duo with Wilson, they would be better off pursuing Mike Evans.

It’s possible that Evans could be more expensive than Higgins, but he will not require a trade, and on the field, he has shown a higher ceiling and a higher floor than Higgins. Evans’ average season is better than the best we’ve seen from Higgins so far. He’s much more of a known commodity.

Splurging on Evans is a worthwhile endeavor for the Jets because they know they’d be forming a one-two punch of superstars with Wilson and Evans. Is Higgins a superstar? We don’t know that. He could be. For now, though, all we know is that he’s a good WR2. And that’s not enough to justify his cost.

Evans is the best superstar option because he doesn’t require a trade, but if Evans cannot be acquired, I’d also argue it would be preferable to trade for Davante Adams instead of going after Higgins.

It’s the same deal: we already know Adams is a superstar, especially when he plays with Aaron Rodgers. If the Jets are going to allocate a large chunk of cap space and a trade package to try and build a super-duo with Garrett Wilson, they must target someone who has proven they are worth that type of investment.

Higgins is an exciting player. If he stays in Cincinnati, he will continue to be a tremendous weapon in their offense as long as he’s healthy. If he finds a new team that is willing to make him the focal point of their passing game, he does have a realistic chance of proving he can be a legitimate WR1 when given the keys.

I just don’t see a scenario where it makes sense for this Jets team to cough up more than $20 million per year and a premium draft pick for him. He’s good, but not to that extent. The Jets have a lot of holes to fill, and they don’t have a lot of assets to do it. They should only splurge on someone if that player is a surefire game-altering superstar, and Higgins is not that guy.

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