Like last week, the hardest part this week is choosing which player to write about. The reason is different, as last week was primarily injury based whereas this week was breakout driven; as I suspected from the outset, the volatility is especially high this September. If Darrell Henderson and Mo Alie-Cox were available last week then I hope you picked them up, but if not and they are still out there, remedy that now. This section going into Week 4 is devoted to sifting through young wide receivers.
My fandom of Andy Isabella is well documented and he finally delivered on those small sample sizes that he teased in year one, but will the Cardinals actually keep him in that role when Christian Kirk is healthy? I think they should, but until I actually see them do it, I’m skeptical. If you aren’t familiar with Justin Jefferson then you should correct that, as he is the future of the Vikings passing game. That said, I don’t think he’s going to elevate beyond a secondary option on a team that at least wants to keep games close to the vest this season. Brandon Aiyuk took advantage of his opportunity as a lead receiver, but George Kittle and Deebo Samuel return this week, relegating him to a complementary role. So who does that leave? By process of elimination..
Say hello to Tee Higgins. He is not an A.J. Green clone, but the margin between the two is razor thin. He was gifted to the Bengals at the top of April’s second round because of some concerning testing numbers, but the tape was always clear about him. His not being a track star doesn’t matter given the way he moves with pads on. He consistently lifts the lid on secondaries, his body control along the sideline is like that of a veteran, he’s surgical in tight quarters in the red zone, and there was not a better contested catch receiver in the class. He really is a perfect fit with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, who is constantly pushing the ball downfield and trusts his play makers in tough situations.
For me the question coming into the season was how quickly he would get his shot as a starter. Between an abbreviated off-season and a stacked wide receiver corps I was skeptical it would be early, so he was not an August priority. With hindsight, the Bengals showed what was coming Week 2. Higgins was #2 in snaps in that game against the Browns, behind only the aforementioned Green. The veteran’s performance provided doubts about whether Father Time had caught up to him as he pulled in just three of his 13 targets for 29 yards. Higgins didn’t light up the box score, but you could see that his opportunity was coming.
Coming into Week 3 the Bengals gave disappointing veteran John Ross the healthy scratch treatment, all but confirming that what we saw Week 2 was on tap again. The Bengals would be rolling with a 3-wide set of Green, Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Boyd is a different type of receiver than the other two, so how the Bengals dolled out the workload of the other two contained the most intrigue. After A.J. Green’s struggles in the first two games, he not only saw his target share (six) dip below the rookie (nine), but he also ceded the red zone looks as Higgins pulled in two scores from inside the five-yard line. It’s now clear that the changing of the guard has taken place.
Don’t get me wrong, Green’s not just going to magically go away; the veteran will sustain a meaningful role in this offense. There is plenty of work to go around to make all three wide receivers playable and remember that we are just three games into the season, but Burrow is second in the NFL in pass attempts. Part of that is a product of a poor defense, but it’s clear Head Coach Zac Taylor is comfortable tasking the rookie signal-caller with trying to keep up with the opposition, rather than try to slow the game down as many coaches do with young quarterbacks. This is exactly the sort of ingredients we want to see in our game – a high volume attack that we can reasonably expect to be playing from behind with great frequency. Volume is, and always will be, king. When you combine that with Higgins’ strengths being downfield and in the red-zone and you have the makings of a top asset.
This week’s Flavor of the Week: Surf (Lobster) & Turf (Filet)
I’m setting the bar (unfairly?) high with this one. This smells like a league winner though. Do whatever is necessary to get him.