Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins said he doesn’t feel like a newbie anymore. He doesn’t look like one either.
The 2020 second-round draft pick was a consistent target for Joe Burrow early last season but things started to click for him during the second half of the season and now the Bengals believe he is poised for a big leap in Year 2.
Higgins already is showing some confidence this offseason while participating in voluntary Organized Team Activities.
“Everything is just way slower to me,” Higgins said. “I know the playbook really well and this offseason I was able to prepare my body the right way for the season and for these first little few weeks of OTAs so that’s the main thing right now.”
Higgins had a breakout rookie season, catching 67 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns despite just one targeted incompletion in the finale before exiting with a hamstring injury. However, he felt like he could have done more.
The former Clemson standout, like everyone else in 2020, didn’t have an in-person offseason workout program to get acclimated, and just as he finished his season, he started it out with a hamstring issue in training camp that limited him early.
Despite that, he had a chance to reach 1,000 yards going into the season finale vs. the Ravens. He tied the the franchise’s rookie receptions record in the Week 16 game at Houston.
“I’m really excited about Tee, " Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I think that you saw in the last couple games last year that the switch kind of flipped for him a little bit. …They didn’t have the offseason (last year). Tee came in and had a little hamstring (injury) early in training camp last year. You’re asked to go through a 16-game schedule as a rookie with no offseason and you’re not full-go in training camp, that makes it tough. I thought Tee battled through that and had a really good year, particularly at the end.
“I’ve seen Tee come back in outstanding shape. He’s one of our most detailed receivers. He’s got a really high football IQ. It all makes sense to him. He wants to be detailed. I’m really excited to see what’s in store for him. We got a good receiving corps but I think Tee has been really impressive so far this offseason.”
The hamstring issues – especially the one in the finale that kept him from claiming the rookie receptions record for himself and the receiving yards milestone he was seeking -- led him to a different approach this offseason.
Not being able to run at first while the hamstring healed forced him to work out other ways.
“My biggest thing was to get that stronger,” Higgins said of his finale hamstring injury. “I didn’t do any routes, I didn’t run. I was just really in the weight room for the most part. Then, once I was able to actually get on the field and do like a workout or something, I just went out there and it felt good. And then I just felt like I had to get stronger so I focused a little bit more on the weight room as well again. Now I’m weighing like 220 and it feels good. Last year I came in at like 220 and it was too heavy for me, so I had to lose a few pounds. Now it feels really good and I feel even faster.”
Looking back on film from last season, Higgins saw some clear things he wanted to work on, but knowing the playbook better now also helps with some of that. That added comfort level not only translates to his routes and pass-catching ability, but also it has developed him into a better mentor for newcomers like rookie Ja’Marr Chase.
“I’m way more fluid in my routes and that’s one thing I look back on tape -- I’m like, ‘(Dang), that route was poor,’” Higgins said. “I just worked on it this offseason when I was able to run and now I feel like I’m way more fluid and I feel really good out there running and I just can’t wait for the season to start.”
Higgins had pointed out last season that he was showing his hands too soon, especially on deep balls. That also is something he continues to work on, so defensive backs can’t as easily see when to put their hands up to try to bat down a pass or make an interception.
On Tuesday when media was allowed to watch the OTA practice, the Bengals incorporated deep-ball passes into the session for the first time, and Higgins believes he can make a bigger impact in that area as Joe Burrow tries to implement more of those. That could be a big key for opening up the Bengals offense in 2021.
“Last year I didn’t capitalize for the most part on deep balls,” Higgins said. “This year I’m really focusing on capitalizing on those deep balls because they’re key plays in games. It felt great going out there and catching those deep balls. And hopefully we can keep it going for the season.”