Why the 2022 season could be big for three Bengals on rookie contracts, including QB Joe Burrow

Joe Burrow will be in line for a massive payday when he's eligible for an extension next year. AP Photo/Aaron Doster

CINCINNATI -- After finishing with the league’s worst record in 2019, the Cincinnati Bengals hit big in the 2020 draft, as evidenced by their first Super Bowl berth in 33 years last season being fueled by a youth movement.

But all good things come at a price, and for Cincinnati, it could be quite steep. A trio of key players from their Super Bowl team -- quarterback Joe Burrow, receiver Tee Higgins and linebacker Logan Wilson -- will be eligible for contract extensions in 2023, which means the Bengals will have some major decisions to make. Compounding matters, second-team All Pro receiver Ja'Marr Chase will be eligible for an extension in 2024.

It’s an intriguing time for a franchise hoping to establish consistency among the league’s elite, and that goal will be predicated on whether it makes the right moves with its young core.

Joe Burrow, QB

2021 stats: 70.4 completion percentage, 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 54.3 Total QBR

Stock evaluation: Coming off a major left knee injury that ended his rookie season in 2020, Burrow cemented himself as the franchise quarterback. He withstood an enormous amount of pocket punishment -- 70 sacks in the regular season and playoffs. And Burrow answered the biggest question about his game -- regarding arm strength -- with 26 passes of 20 air yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Burrow’s completion percentage on those deep targets was 11.9% over expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats. With a revamped offensive line and his first full offseason as a pro, he may be on the cusp of his best year to date.

Outlook: Everything points to Burrow receiving a contract extension that puts him at -- or very close to -- the top of the market. Historically, the Bengals haven’t been shy about paying quarterbacks. In 2005, Carson Palmer received a contract extension that was worth nearly $119 million, which was massive money at the time.

In June, Burrow said he knows the quarterback market is exploding. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed a three-year, $150 million extension in March. But Burrow said the topic isn’t on his mind. “I like to make jokes about it, but really, I haven’t thought about it much right now,” he said.

Tee Higgins, WR

2021 stats: 74 catches, 1,091 yards, six touchdowns, 11.68 air yards per target

Stock evaluation: When the Bengals drafted Higgins, he was someone who could have filled the role as the team’s top wide receiver. He showed that capability in the middle of the 2021 season and took advantage of defenses looking to stop Chase, who went on to win the Associated Press Rookie of the Year award and have one of the best receiving seasons in franchise history. Between Week 11 and Week 15, Higgins posted four 100-yard receiving games, including a 12-catch, 194-yard performance against the Ravens in Week 16. His biggest moment came in Super Bowl LVI, when he had a 75-yard touchdown reception that gave the Bengals a lead in the second half.

Outlook: The wide receiver market has skyrocketed this offseason. According to Roster Management System, 11 wide receivers currently make more than $20 million a year. The Los Angeles Chargers are the lone team with multiple players in that group (Mike Williams and Keenan Allen). The Chargers, like the Bengals, will have a big financial decision to make about a quarterback currently on a rookie deal (Justin Herbert). Cincinnati is projected to have about $74.4 million in salary-cap space in 2023.

Logan Wilson, LB

2021 stats: 98 tackles, one forced fumble, four interceptions, four pass deflections

Stock evaluation: After spending his rookie season as Josh Bynes’ understudy, Wilson wore the “green dot” on his helmet, signaling his status as the defense’s on-field communicator and as a go-to player. He battled through a shoulder injury that forced him to miss three games and returned to have a brilliant postseason, including a stellar Super Bowl LVI. Wilson turned in an MVP-worthy performance in the big game -- nine tackles, three of which came behind the line of scrimmage, and a pass deflection.

The outlook: Inside linebackers generally cost less money than outside linebackers, particularly ones in 3-4 defenses who are really just edge rushers. According to Roster Management System, just eight inside linebackers make more than $10 million. Given the upcoming potential contract extensions for Burrow, Higgins and Chase, the Bengals will have to be judicious in their defensive spending. But a contract extension for Wilson could represent a financial win for both sides.