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Combine Quick Hits: Bengals' Plan For Tee To Stay; Joe Burrow's Wrist Rehab 'On Course,'; Salary Cap Take

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor speaks during a press conference on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 in Indianapolis. (Brooke Sutton/NFL)
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor speaks during a press conference on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 in Indianapolis. (Brooke Sutton/NFL)

INDIANAPOLIS _ Owners of a new franchise free agent in wide receiver Tee Higgins, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and director of player personnel Duke Tobin, met the national and local media here Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine.

The highlights:

The Bengals didn't put the $21.8 million tag on Higgins to trade him.

"We tagged him with the intent of him playing for us. He's a good player. We want good players. He fits us perfectly," Tobin said. "We tagged him for that reason. The hypotheticals of what could happen, it's hard for me to comment on.

"We want him on the roster."

This is why:

Asked about the possibility of three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase going into the slot more in response to the potential departure of unsigned slot receiver Tyler Boyd as a way to get him away from constant double coverage, Taylor talked about why it's hard to also take Chase out of the game even when he's on the outside.

"The thing about when you're playing outside and it's single safety, he has to cheat further to you," Taylor said. "And when you have Tee Higgins on the other side of you, that's a price you have to pay sometimes if you're willing to do that."

That's not to say Chase won't be seen more in the slot. Taylor points to last season's win in Arizona when Chase caught a franchise-best 15 passes.

"I think we're always looking for the best way to use Ja'Marr. And whether that's outside on the left or the right slot number two in the slot three in slot backfield. Getting Ja'Marr Chase the ball is good for all of our health," Taylor said. "And so we are doing everything we can to find the right spot for him game by game and give him those opportunities. And I think we looked at the Arizona game when he got all of those touches. He was everywhere."

JOE UPDATE: No news is good news. No update and no timelines on Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow's throwing wrist. Wednesday is the 100th day since Burrow underwent season-ending surgery for a torn ligament.

"Everything has been positive. Everything has been on schedule," Taylor said. "Six years on the job, I've learned not to give a timeline on injuries, so we're certainly encouraged. Everything has been positive. He's right on course. Excited to get close to the offseason so we have a better sense of all the involvement he'll have day one of the offseason. He does everything we've asked him post-surgery."

FREE AGENCY PEEK: With the salary cap a record-breaking $255 million and such key free agents like Boyd, nose tackle DJ Reader, and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie looming, Tobin had a take on the upcoming free agency period that begins in mid-March.

"I won't get into our strategies for roster building, but I will tell you that if there's more money, there's more opportunity to add people and that's just the reality about it," Tobin said. "There's also more opportunity for the other 31 teams to add people too, so maybe it provides a little flexibility. Hopefully, if you're talking about the same people just being paid more, it doesn't really fit the club. But as long as we can use those dollars to maybe supplement what we would have otherwise done, then I think it is a benefit for us."

In the last three years, the Bengals have set the NFL world on fire with bold moves in the first few days of free agency, a marked departure from the previous decade when they saved their biggest hauls for their own players. As they head into their first free agency season dealing with Burrow's richest NFL deal ever, Tobin didn't say which side would be the priority.

"I won't go into all of our roster-building plans as we go, but we do like our players and there's a number of them that we'd like to have back," Tobin said.

JOLTIN' JOE: While the Bengals were pretty adamant about the status of Higgins, the fate of starting running back Joe Mixon still seems to be evolving. After his fourth 1,000-yard season also featured 12 touchdowns running and receiving, Mixon, 27, is due a $3 million bonus on March 18.

"He had a really good season for us. I was proud of him. Over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns and it was a big factor for us," Tobin said. "In terms of predicting anybody's role going forward, I'm not going to do that up here on the podium. Those are roster-building strategies and those are things that we're talking through as this whole thing unfolds with every player on our roster. It's not specific to just one."

THINKING BIG: Reader, the free-agent nose tackle who is so key to it all, has been at Paycor Stadium daily rehabbing his torn quad. (Unless he signs, he can no longer rehab there once free agency starts next month.) The Bengals think he'll be back to his Pro Bowl-like self. But since they don't know if/when they can sign him, defensive tackle is big on the radar.

"We want to build the line of scrimmages. That's a part of the line of scrimmage. Maybe the most important part of the line of scrimmages is being able to hold up against the run," said Tobin, echoing last month's words at the Senior Bowl. "We play in a physical division. Teams are going to run the ball at us. We need guys in there that can play the run and we need somebody that can affect the passer. It is a position we are looking at, it's a position of need, it's always a position of need."

So is right tackle with Jonah Williams headed to free agency. Luckily, Tobin says this tackle class is the deepest he can remember.

"A lot of guys. A lot of different guys from different programs. Guys who have played the left side, the right side, guys that have played both," Tobin said. "Guys who are really good run blockers, guys who are really good pass blockers and that is exciting to see. Probably one of the deeper offensive tackle groups I've seen in the early parts of the draft and early rounds and that's good. They'll be doubled up, doesn't mean any of them are going to last, maybe they'll be the first six picks in the draft, I don't know. But there are a large number of them and that's good."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Remember the last combine? Michigan cornerback D.J. Turner II won the premier event when he bolted through the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds. The Bengals took him in the second round and Tobin is still raving about him.

"I think late in the season maybe his confidence fell off a little bit, but he really showed great coverage skills. He started really fast and he is a guy who could really level up and take the next step," Tobin said. "I'm excited about him because he's so athletic and he's tough, can play against the run and he's got some versatility to him and maybe we see him in at nickel some?

"From a skill set standpoint of feet, speed, attitude standpoint I love what he is all about and I'm looking forward to him continuing to grow with us." …

When the Bengals defense fell off last season, a lot of eyes fell on linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, viewed as one of the top tandems in the league. Tobin is expecting more big things.

"I don't know if they took a step back. I mean defensively it wasn't as good as we've been accustomed to seeing as a group and there were pieces missing," Tobin said. "There were new guys at different positions. I think those guys are always going to try to do too much and perhaps it was a little bit of that. I don't fear that they have hit a wall or anything. I think those two are fine football players and they're going to be really good football players for us and maybe we have to be a little bit stronger around them. I wasn't overly disappointed with those two guys." …

Tobin reiterated his take in Mobile when he said they may take a look if Dax Hill is at his best at free safety.

"I think that's something we do with all our players defensively is how we put them in the best position possible," Taylor said of re-evaluating Hill's position. "Dax is a guy we drafted who has a unique skill set. He's played a lot of nickel. He's played corner. We project him as a safety as well for us. We'll continue to assess all the roles as we go through the offseason." ….


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