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Tee Higgins Hopes To Turn Almost Super Bowl MVP Into Another Bengals Playoff Run  

Tee Higgins outmuscles Jalen Ramsey.
Tee Higgins outmuscles Jalen Ramsey.

The Bengals had a day to mull their second pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and with the 2022 NFL Draft now 15 days away it stands as a great review how the best selections are made.

 Once the Chiefs picked LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to end a first-round the Bengals began taking the Tigers' most celebrated national champion, they ended up with a target for Joe Burrow.

 Clemson wide receiver Tamaurice "Tee," Higgins has been as good as the paper he was written on that April Friday.

The popular and productive Higgins had the kind of jump from his rookie year to his sophomore year that reminds position coach Troy Walters of perennial Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist Reggie Wayne's rise in Indianapolis. And at the two-minute warning of February's Super Bowl, he was the MVP with four catches for 100 yards and the Bengals had the lead with his two touchdown catches.

On Tuesday, when he visited Reds Opening Day, Higgins may have had his surgically repaired shoulder in a sling, but he had two hands firmly around how close he was.

"I talked to my mom about it," Higgins said of a recent talk with the person who knows him best. "Just knowing if we would have won I would have had a possibility to win it. It's crazy to think about. Now that I'm thinking about it again, I wish we would have won it.

"(Because) it's one of those accomplishments that put you in the highest level of your profession, your sport that you've been playing your entire life. Most Valuable Player in that position verse all these other professionals that have perfected their game in this sport. It's crazy to think about."

Not any crazier than Burrow gulping ballpark peanuts, shells and all, which impressed the heck out of Higgins. But not any more impressive than Higgins injuring his shoulder late in last year's second game, missing only the next two games and putting off surgery long enough to register his first 1,000-yard season in a year Pro Football Focus rated him the NFL's ninth best receiver.

During the last six weeks of the regular season, PFF graded Higgins in the top five as he finished the season with 37 passes over 10 yards downfield, fourth most in the league.

Still thinking about February, he says he'll be back in time for the first day of training camp

"That's the plan," Higgins said. "Hell of a game, but it wasn't the outcome me and my teammates expected. It's going to motivate all of us, but we know what it takes to get back to the Super Bowl. That's what we look forward to doing next season."

Walters, an eight-year NFL vet whose third season in the league in 2002 coincided with Wayne coming off a rookie season he was mired on the depth chart with just 27 catches, watched him grab 49 balls and double his yards.

"By the end of his second season, he was clearly the No. 2 receiver behind Marv," said Walters of Hall-of-Famer Marvin Harrison. "(Wayne) was still a little raw as a route runner and he needed to work on some of his technique.

"But in year two he had a great year and ever since then his career ascended and every year he got better and I see Tee as the same type. One year a learning experience, get better in year two and the sky's the limit. I'm going to stay on him to get better each year so now he's one of the elite receivers in the league."

Higgins came into his NFL second training camp lighter, leaner, smarter, more muscular and was rewarded with 18 contested catches, six more than PFF gave him as a rookie.

His progress is symbolized by his 75-yard touchdown catch on the first snap of the Super Bowl's second half. Higgins had enough strength to fight off one of the NFL's elite cornerbacks with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't pull of the face mask as he overpowered Jalen Ramsey while also making the catch.

"He got better in year one to year two when the ball was in the air," Walters said. "He was going up and attacking the ball and not getting pushed off his spot. Attack it like a rebound. All season he did that making explosive plays. He went over one of the top corners in the league and probably got away with something there, but it's a physical game and he made a play."

The selection of Higgins with the 33rd pick amplified two old saws about the draft.

1.) Stick to your grades. Take the best player, not the neediest position, if the grade is high enough.

2.) The collaboration of scouts and coaches can only enhance the process.

It will be recalled heading into the Burrow draft the Bengals biggest need was linebacker. They not only benefitted from it being Burrow's year, but it was also a deep draft for backers.

The Bengals had first-round grades galore on Higgins. Enough that he was in the top half of the second part of the first round on their board. While the Bengals didn't have Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson in the first round, they thought highly enough of him to make them wonder if they should take him at No. 33.

In the end, it came down to the grade. While they doubted Wilson would last to the top of the third round, they also thought the backer corps was deep enough to warrant taking a player with Higgins' healthy first -round grade.

Mike Potts, the Bengals director of college scouting who followed Higgins at Clemson, thought he had many of the similarities Burrow brought to the draft board: Good person, good teammate, extremely tough, a big performer on the biggest of stages.

Once Potts and the scouts were able to fill in the coaches on Higgins' enormous abilities during the spring, it was pretty much a draft room sweep. As Friday wore on in the first full day of the Age of Joe, the Bengals weren't budging from the top spot in the second round with a mid-first round pick staring at them.

And when Wilson made it through the New England-Kansas City gauntlet late in the second round to reach them at No. 65, it was the best of both worlds.

"(Higgins) is tough, he played hurt, he made plays, he did a good job," Walters said. "But Tee's the kind of guy who is always looking to get better. He wants to take the next step."

That means getting back to start training camp on the way back to the Super Bowl.

"That's the plan," Higgins said.