New England Patriots

Report: Bengals expected to franchise tag star WR Tee Higgins

The Patriots might have to look elsewhere for a top-tierWR in free agency.

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The group of veteran wide receivers who could hit NFL free agency next month is pretty strong, even though the top player on many rankings might not get to the open market.

Cincinnati Bengals wideout Tee Higgins is able to become an unrestricted free agent, and if he was available, would likely draw significant interest as a really good player in the prime of his career.

But the Bengals have the ability to franchise him, and according to The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr., "The writing is on the wall and all expectations are the Bengals will use a franchise tag on Higgins."

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Injuries limited Higgins to 12 games last season, but he posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2021 and 2022 as the No. 2 wideout in the Bengals' high-powered offense.

Higgins remaining in Cincinnati would not be a positive development for the New England Patriots, who badly need an impact player at wide receiver and have the third-most salary cap space (around $70 million, per Spotrac) of any team.

If Higgins never becomes available in free agency or via trade, the Patriots could turn to some of the other notable wideouts who might hit the market.

Calvin Ridley, who had a strong 2023 season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is one potential option. Our Patriots insider Phil Perry made the case for Ridley in a recent story on wide receivers the Patriots should pursue.

"If Higgins and (Michael) Pittman get tagged, Ridley might be New England's next-best option," Perry wrote. "After missing all of 2022 due to a gambling suspension and half of 2021 when he left the Falcons for mental health reasons, the former Alabama star racked up a 1,000-yard season in 2023. He's a more explosive option than Pittman, and he's a bigger player than (Marquise) Brown (6-foot-1, 190). ... Per Pro Football Focus, Ridley could command a deal that pays him about $16.5 million per season. If so, the Patriots could give him a three-year deal that would carry a first-year cap hit of about $9 million, leaving them with plenty of money to play with to sign, for instance, a free-agent No. 2 quarterback and a starting-caliber tackle."

Whether it's in free agency, the trade market, or the draft, the Patriots need to significantly upgrade the talent level of their wide receiver depth chart. They can't go into 2024 with Demario Douglas as their No. 1 or No. 2 wideout. And with lots of valuable draft picks and loads of cap space, there's no excuse for New England not to make a major addition at this position.

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