How Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins have Bengals ahead of the curve

CINCINNATI -- Maybe the Cincinnati Bengals knew something other teams didn't.

After taking Tee Higgins in the second round of the 2020 draft, the Bengals selected Ja'Marr Chase fifth overall in 2021, stacking the team’s wide receiver room with two star prospects.

The strategy has helped yield a top-five offense. Since the start of 2021, Higgins and Chase have amassed more than 4,600 combined receiving yards, more than any other pairing during that span. Their elite production underscores a larger NFL trend: In a league that revolves around the passing game, good offenses are ones that tend to have multiple quality receivers, and the Bengals have two of the best.

"I think you're seeing a shift of philosophy where teams are trying to load up on the guys that score touchdowns," said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "And those are the receivers."

While more top receiver duos have emerged since -- notably with the Miami Dolphins (Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle) and Philadelphia Eagles (A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith) -- Cincinnati was ahead of the curve when drafting Chase. At the time, there was speculation about whether the Bengals should've taken an offensive tackle, especially considering quarterback Joe Burrow’s rookie year in 2020 was cut short by a season-ending knee injury while being sacked in the pocket.

But the Bengals opted to give Burrow an additional playmaker. That approach led to Cincy possessing the NFL's most explosive offense in 2021 (it led the league in yards per attempt), an attack that helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.

In 2022, even though teams looked to limit Cincinnati's offense from explosive plays through the air, Higgins and Chase remained productive. They were one of five teammate pairings to each have more than 1,000 receiving yards last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, joining Hill and Waddle, Brown and Smith, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf (Seattle Seahawks), and Mike Evans and Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Higgins and Chase "continue to raise the standard," with assistant Troy Walters getting the credit for pushing them the past two seasons. Walters said it's a "coach's dream" to have two No. 1 receivers. But perhaps just as importantly, Higgins and Chase get along well and are unselfish on the field.

"There's no envy," Walters said. "There's no jealousy. They care about one another. When one is doing well, the other one is happy. And they understand they need each other."

That relationship can be felt in real-time on gamedays.

Higgins said when either player may not be feeling 100%, one will encourage the other to make a big play. In other situations, Higgins and Chase may defer to the other on who should be the targeted option.

And it's never an argument.

"He wants me to eat at the end of the day," Higgins told ESPN. "And I want him to eat at the end of the day. And Joe [Burrow] wants us both to eat at the end of the day."

Whenever Burrow has discussed his potential contract extension and the constraints it could create for future salary caps, he has repeatedly mentioned the importance of having quality receivers. That was also evident during last year's AFC championship game, when Higgins and Chase each made difficult catches in critical moments in the 23-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Burrow, who is recovering from a strained right calf, is entering his third year with the current group of starting wide receivers which also includes slot receiver Tyler Boyd. He said one of the byproducts of working with the same group for multiple years is the conversations just turn into shorthand.

"When something happens," Burrow said, "sometimes you just look at each other and you just say, 'Yeah.' You don't really have to say anything.

"When you have that it just makes things progress so much faster and you can get better faster than you could before."

Cincinnati still has to figure out if it can afford contract extensions for both Higgins and Chase after Burrow receives his mega deal. But for now, the Bengals have arguably the best 1-2 punch in the NFL. Just don't expect them to buy into the hype surrounding them.

"I see all of the media, where they're putting us at," Higgins said. "But there's still more work to be done at the end of the day. And we want to be the best."