Over the last several years, one of the most consistent critiques the Patriots have gotten is their lack of star power in their wide receiver room, and that scrutiny has continued heading into the upcoming season.
Because they need a bounce-back season after a failed year in 2022, it was assumed that Bill Belichick would surprise the entire NFL and make a big trade for the WR1 the team has been searching for before or during the draft.
When that didn't happen, and the Patriots took two sixth-round receivers in the draft instead, the criticism picked up again, and many questioned Belichick's decision not to pursue any top-name player to boost the offense.
Things appeared to be changing when New England heavily pursued new free agent DeAndre Hopkins earlier this summer, even having an extended visit with him that made them look like the favorite to land the receiver. But they lost out on attaining the four-time Pro Bowler, who chose to sign with the Titans instead.
Now that the season begins in less than 24 hours, they won't add any new players to the roster. Of course, if they choose to, they'll have until the trade deadline at the end of next month to make any significant moves. And now they may have their opportunity to go for a coveted receiver that would be a good fit for New England.
According to the latest rumor, after the Bengals extended Joe Burrow to a massive contract that will up his annual salary to over $50 million a season, receiver Tee Higgins is said to not be in the future plans for the Bengals beyond the 2023 season.
Higgins was a potential trade target around the draft earlier this year, and because the rumors began to pick up steam, the Bengals shut down the idea of even listening to calls about Higgins being available. But it appears those plans have changed, according to Kelsey Conway of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
On top of the Bengals' need to determine how they can pay Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, and Higgins, contract negotiations between Higgins and Cincinnati are said to be stalling. Conway wrote that there was hope to get an extension done before the start of the season but "the two sides are not expected to reach a long-term deal before the Week 1 contest against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday."
Conway went into further detail about the negotiations throughout the offseason, stating an offer was made, but Higgins declined to sign it.
"Higgins was offered a contract extension this offseason but it didn’t meet what Higgins is expecting to get on the open market. Cincinnati’s front office will have the option to apply the franchise tag next offseason on Higgins to keep him around for one more season but that doesn’t seem likely."
This leaves a few options for the Bengals this season.
They can continue talks about an extension and hope they finally reach a deal with Higgins, who has stated he wants to remain with Cincinnati for his career. Or they could trade him before the deadline on October 31st and get some sort of return for the former second-rounder.
If those plans are not in the cards, they could choose to franchise tag him at the end of the year, keeping him around for at least one more season and elongating the process of reaching an extension agreement.
But that also depends on where the Bengals find themselves financially since tagged receivers are expected to make above $19.74 million next year, and Chase will also be looking for a new contract.
Then there's the idea of tagging and trading, which is a bit more difficult since the player has to sign the tendered contract before a trade can get done. Depending on what Higgins wants to do, it seems unlikely that he would be willing to do this, especially if he knows it's a tag-and-trade situation.
All of this creates an opportunity for the Patriots to go all-in on a proven receiver that could drastically change their offense. Higgins is just 24 years old and is coming off back-to-back seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards.
Belichick could attempt to trade for him this season, which would likely cost a pretty penny, and extend him immediately. Or he could inquire about a tag and trade, allowing for an extension afterward.
Waiting for Higgins to become a free agent is obviously on the table, too, especially with how much money the Patriots are reported to have in cap space next year. But it's a bit more risky given where the Patriots are in their rebuild and the other teams that will be clamoring to sign him right away.
It may all come down to how the 2023 season unfolds, especially with players like Kendrick Bourne, Mike Gesicki, and Hunter Henry set to free agency. But regardless of what path Belichick chooses to follow, hopefully, he will at least inquire about Higgins because he's too good of a receiver to pass up.
He's a proven talent who's incredibly young and hasn't even hit his prime yet. Pairing him with a young quarterback would make a difference, which we've seen around the league with other quarterbacks in recent years.