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From The Best Bengals WR Trio To The Next: 'They're Better Than Us Because ... They're Doing It As Babies'

Tee Higgins had a bunch of first downs Sunday.
Tee Higgins had a bunch of first downs Sunday.

What T.J. Houshmandzadeh told the Bengals the day they drafted Tee Higgins came through Sunday in the living color of 194 yards on 12 catches.

Houshmandzadeh, whose breakout game came against a Ravens team that also couldn't figure out who to cover, worked with Higgins two weeks before the 2020 draft and took the call the morning after the Bengals took LSU quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1.

He says head coach Zac Taylor and director of player personnel Duke Tobin were on that early Friday morning call (for Houshmandzadeh in Orange County, California) and they knew he also worked with USC wide receiver Michael Pittman, Jr., and were doing some last-day due diligence. Since the Bengals also had the top pick in the second round, Houshmandzadeh deduced they were looking for a running mate for Burrow.

 "I told them I think if Tee reaches his potential, his ceiling is higher," Houshmandzadeh recalled Monday. "Pittman is going to come in and he'll be ready to play. He'll work hard, he can play special teams and he'll do whatever you ask him to do. But Tee has potential through the roof and be a special player. With his height, he can sink his hips and he's a good route runner. He's faster than people give him credit. He's faster than he gives himself credit."

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Fox NFL analyst, fourth-leading receiver in Bengals history and resident seer. The Bengals took Higgins No. 33. The Colts are quite happy they took Pittman with the next pick, and he's 29 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season.

"It worked out great for both," Houshmandzadeh said.

In the greatest game a Bengals passer ever had Sunday, Higgins, 22, joined with 21-year-old rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase to make them the first Bengals 1,000-yard receiving tandem since Houshmandzadeh hooked up with Chad Johnson in 2006 and 2007. With Higgins at 1,937 career yards, only A.J. Green had more in his first 29 games as a Bengal.

"They're better than us because they're doing it at a younger age," Houshmandzadeh said. "They're babies. The Bengals are going to be good for a long time because their best players are extremely young if they don't screw it up like we did."

Houshmandzadeh, who had 507 catches in eight seasons with the Bengals, still thinks a lot more was there for his team that went to just one postseason in 2005.

"Probably because we took things for granted," Houshmandzadeh said. "We thought we were going to be there the next year and the year after that. But what you do this year does not matter for next year and the year after. Each year is independent of itself and you have to treat it as such."

Good advice for this crew young enough to make history. According to the NFL, the Bengals are the first team in history to have a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers all 25 or younger in the same season

That would be, of course, Higgins (1,029), Chase (1,163), running back Joe Mixon (1,159) and quarterback Joe Burrow (4,165).

And there's also slot receiver Tyler Boyd's 792 yards, giving the trio of wide receivers a total of 2,984 yards heading into the 16th game. The only trio close in Bengals history, the 2006 crew of Houshmandzadeh (1,081), Johnson (1,369) and Chris Henry (605) went for 3,055 in that 16-game season.

Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan came into the league about the time Houshmandzadeh retired a decade ago and before coming to Cincinnati he coached on an offense that won a Super Bowl and then went to a team that had a Hall-of-Fame wide receiver in Calvin Johnson. But he's never seen this kind of brew in the league.

"As far as these guys, for as young as they are in their careers and as productive as they've been, I don't think I've been around that," Callahan said Monday. "All of our skill players on offense are relatively young players, with Joe Mixon and TB and C.J. (Uzomah) kind of our stately veterans. They're still pretty young in their careers as well. But Tee and Ja'Marr, with the production they've had for their age, it's pretty incredible. Those guys, they're just fantastic players. They're great teammates and they're a lot of fun to be around. They love playing football and they've produced at a really, really high incredible rate."

Houshmandzadeh can sense the versatility. He played the slot reliably and tough like Boyd, but with a build more like Chase's. He sees the 6-4, 216-pound Higgins as an intriguing mix of Henry and Chad. They called Henry "Slim," because he was 6-5 and not quite 200 pounds while the monstrous Higgins can get down the field, too. Chad could fly off the line, but even he would tell you he couldn't high-point it like Higgins and Green.

This is how good Higgins is at high-pointing. When he ripped a jump ball away from not one but two Ravens on Sunday for a 52-yard play on yet another bomb in the last minute of a half, even Chase was disbelieving.

"I couldn't believe he made that catch," Chase said. "I was walking down the field with my hands on my head. I couldn't believe the catch I was like this (Puts hands on side of face). It's great watching Tee put up crazy stats like that game after game. It's just fun to watch, fun to watch him get better every game. To have someone in the room like that with you is even better."

When head coach Zac Taylor talks about an ego-less locker room, his No. 5 pick is at the top of the list.

"When you draft a guy as high as Ja'Marr, it's great to see Tee still get looks even though Ja'Marr is having a great year," Houshmandzadeh said. "(Boyd) is so dynamic in the slot and on third down, but Tee hasn't been forgotten. That's the good part of it.

"Tee is more like Chad the way he moves. He just doesn't have Chad's quickness. Nobody has that. Chad's quickness was ungodly. (Higgins) is like a more fluid Chris Henry. Ball skills. He's a better route runner than Slim. Slim was obviously better stretching the field than Tee, but Tee just goes up and gets the ball so easily."

There's no denying the toughness of these three. Boyd has bounced around in the slot long enough to be 16 catches shy of becoming the seventh Bengal to have 400 catches. Did you see the shot Chase took on the sidelines from Ravens safety Chuck Clark while holding on to a 17-yard catch Sunday?

And Higgins admitted Sunday after his career day he was nervous coming back from his shoulder injury that cost him two games in weeks three and four. Some guys may have not come back this year, but Higgins patiently played with it for three weeks and 138 yards before busting out in the eighth game with 97 yards.

"We talked a lot about the labrum issues, it's different for different guys, different positions, different types of labrum issues," Taylor said Monday. "I can certainly understand that he's a guy who has to high point balls, often as a receiver you land on it so it's in the back of your head. We ask our guys to dig out safeties in the box as well. He did a great job coming back when he was ready and able to. Early on I'm sure there was discomfort there. He pushed through it, and he looks to me like he's feeling really good now. Those injuries have different results. Some guys need surgery, some guys need to wait a couple weeks, it's different. He's done a really good job handling it."

It all has Houshmandzadeh thinking about the day it all began in Baltimore with the second 100-yard day of his career in 2004.

"In the first half they were double-covering Chad and I was killing them," Houshmandzadeh said. "Then they went back and forth. They couldn't make up their mind."

When it was over, Houshmandzadeh had 171 yards, Johnson had 161 and the Bengals had their first win in Baltimore in eight years. Sound familiar? On Sunday, Higgins and Chase combined for 319, the most yards by two Bengals receivers in a game since those 332 against those early Ravens.

"Pick your poison," Houshmandzadeh said. "They should be good for a long time. It can go two ways. Early success can make you content or it can motivate you for more. I hope it's the latter."