Chad Johnson, one of those high-rolling second-round wide receivers who gave first-round results for the Bengals, is waving his cigar on FaceTime while talking about the latest sensation.
"He's way ahead of the curve," says Johnson of the latest, Tee Higgins, a guy he advised earlier in the season to stop dancing at the line of scrimmage and is now running on high ground.
"He's special. He's special. He's ahead of where I was as a rookie … You make plays against teams like the Ravens and Steelers, those teams that identify with defense, and no offense to the rest of the league, but everyone else is going to seem like a cake walk."
Higgins is coming off Sunday's game in Pittsburgh where he had seven catches for 115 yards to become the first Bengals rookie receiver to have a 100-yard day against the Steelers. That puts him on a pace to give him the club's rookie receiving yards record held by A.J. Green, a record that stood for 30 years and shows you just how tough it is for rookie receivers to make an impact.
Just ask Johnson, who went from a second-round enigma (No. 36) and draft day gamble as a one-year wonder at Oregon State to the only wide receiver in the 21st century to lead his conference in receiving yards four straight years. But after getting hurt and unable to get in the starting lineup, Johnson could scrape together just 329 yards that first year of 2001.
"It wasn't anything physical. It was just more knowing the offense," Johnson said. "When you know the plays, you can play fast and the rest will take care of itself. Just knowing what the hell to do and when to do it."
It all started in the second round with Cris Collinsworth (No. 37) becoming the Bengals' first 1,000-yard receiver four decades ago. Then Carl Pickens (No. 31) went to back-to-back Pro Bowls while grabbing a franchise record 17 touchdowns in 1995. Darnay Scott (No. 30), who matched Higgins (No. 33) as the first pick in the second round of 1994, had 27 catches of at least 40 yards while becoming one of seven Bengals to catch 5,000 yards. Tyler Boyd (No. 55) is set to become the eighth, on the verge of his third straight 1,000-yard season in his fifth year.
But only Collinsworth went for 1,000 as a rookie. Boyd, who had a big rookie year with 54 catches, didn't get a 100-yard game until his third season. Higgins has two before his 10th game.
"I feel like he has great guys around him like myself to continue to keep him up and continue to make him want to come out and play each and every day," Boyd said earlier this week. "Just motivating him and let him know he's still one of the best players despite he's just a rookie. I want to talk him up as much as I can because he really can be a very special player in this league. He's just got to be more detailed in a few things. That's something all rookies have to work on. But I think he's headed in the right direction so far."
Higgins has been helped by the simple fact he's one of those rare rookie receivers who has been able to break in under the wings of multiple 1,000-yard guys in Green and Boyd.
Here are other factors why Higgins is having a rare rookie year, where he's second in NFL rookie receiving yards to only an old Joe Burrow target in Justin Jefferson:
Head coach Zac Taylor:
"Opportunity. We're a team that throws the ball quite a bit. That's been well-documented. A guy may go to a team where they play more (two receiver personnel as opposed to three) and they run the ball 50 times and you just get opportunities off play-action. We give guys a lot of opportunities in our drop-back game. And he doesn't have the pressure. We're eight deep at that position and he doesn't have to say, 'Oh man, I have to be the guy to make the play because otherwise this offense isn't going to move.'"
Assistant wide receiver coach Troy Walters, a brainy fifth-round pick out of Stanford at the turn of the century who had 102 catches in eight seasons:
"When you get into the NFL, you can be hit by the playbook and concepts and if you're not careful, it can overwhelm you. He's a bright kid. Football is important to him. What he did over Zoom during the spring and summer was awesome. Without any reps and just showing up for fall camp ready to go, that was impressive."
"The quarterback has been consistent. Do you know how hard that is to do for a rookie quarterback? I'm very optimistic about what that rookie quarterback is able to do. Putting up 30, 34 points a game. Everything else will come. The Steelers do everybody like that. The pendulum will shift."
Plus, Higgins is able to get the Bengals all-time leading receiver with the touch of a phone if he wants advice. Johnson says he got a call from Higgins after the first or second game.
"He was having a small issue with one-on-one matchups," Johnson said. "He was concerned with winning on the back side. I told him, 'No more dancing.' You strike first. Make a move, putting the DB in panic mode. Pick a side and go. Make him react to you. If you dance, it gives him time to relax."
Johnson may have been Dancing With The Stars back in the day, but he didn't become a star by dancing. Not at the line. No one was better getting off the line of scrimmage than Johnson. He was a ghost for cornerbacks that tried to press him. If they bumped him, he used those hellacious hands and burst to leave them. If they played off, he already had them beat.
"If you can win at the line of scrimmage, there's nothing they can do. Zero," Johnson said. "I told him, 'Don't work on any moves. Just pick a side and go and don't give them time to respond.' Since then, he's been going off. I'm not saying I'm responsible, but I like what he's doing at the line of scrimmage."
Every guy is different. Johnson had to slow down that heart he wore on his sleeve and channel his emotions rather than ride them. Higgins is more of an impassive player. Intense, but he holds his cards close. He plays with a demeanor that reminds Walters of one of his teammates with the Colts, perennial 1,000-yard receiver Reggie Wayne, a guy that got drafted six slots before Johnson.
"Reggie Wayne had a quiet confidence. He didn't say much," Walters said. "He went about his business the right way. He's focused. He reminds of Reggie Wayne (personality) as a young player."
And every guy has a different track to success. Like most young receivers, unlike Higgins, Johnson needed a turning point. His came in the fifth game of his second year in Indy.
Talk about a tough rookie year. Johnson came into that game with just five catches, a week after a nightmarish 10-target day against Tampa Bay with no catches. He had a career 72-yard day against the Colts, but dropped a fourth-down slant at the Indy 20 that got picked off with 23 seconds left and ended what could have been the winning drive.
Quarterback Jon Kitna didn't rip the devastated Johnson, but consoled him.
"That turned everything around. That game. That play," said Johnson, who went on to finish with 1,166 yards that season. "I'll never forget that. (Kitna) talked to me about not being reliable in that scenario. That I had to be able to make that play and make a difference for my team."
Every player is different. Higgins hasn't had to deal with all of that, but he looks to be headed to the same kind of place.
"To do what he's done already," said Johnson, waving his cigar, "that's nice. Sky's the limit. Sky's the limit."
It always seems to have a chance if there's a second-round Bengals wide receiver under it.