If the Bengals had just a little more depth to their young core of talent, they might sit atop these rankings.
But if you had to go with a young 1-2 punch, it would be hard for any other NFL team to match quarterback Joe Burrow and receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the former LSU teammates who have been at the heart of Cincinnati’s playoff runs the past two years. A franchise that had gone 30 years without a playoff win has totaled five in the last two seasons, losing in the Super Bowl two years ago and the AFC Championship Game last season, each by just three points.
Burrow, 26, has thrown for 9,086 yards and 69 touchdown passes in the past two seasons and going 22-10 as a starter. Chase, still only 23, has 22 touchdowns in 29 career games, earning Pro Bowl nods in both seasons. Add in another young receiver in Tee Higgins, and you have three supreme young talents, all of whom are going to get paid in a big way — by Cincinnati or someone else — in the next year or so.
An NFL franchise has a limited window for success while a star quarterback is still cheap on his rookie contract, and that window is closing quickly. Even as a No. 1 overall pick, Burrow will only have made a total of $36 million by the end of his fourth season, but that will balloon to $30 million or so for his fifth-year option in 2024, followed by a mega-contract sure to pay about $55 million a year, again resetting the top end for NFL quarterbacks.
Burrow would be an easy pick, but we’ll go with Chase, who dazzled with 13 touchdowns as a rookie and then followed up with nine last year despite missing five games due to injury. To see what he’s truly capable of, go back to Week 17 of his rookie year, when he went off for 11 catches for 266 yards and three touchdowns — including 72 and 69 yards — in a 34-31 win over the Chiefs. In a tie game late, Chase had catches of 35 and 30 yards in the final five minutes to set up the winning field goal. Healthy again for 2023, he has a chance to challenge Justin Jefferson and Tyreek Hill as the most electric playmaking receiver in the NFL.
We will shift to defense, and a name you might not have heard: 2022 first-round pick Daxton Hill, a safety who played only 131 defensive snaps as a rookie. Cincinnati had two solid starters in Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, but they signed with the Falcons and Panthers in free agency, so the challenge is on Hill to step up and keep the safety play at a high level. His 4.38 speed is fast for a safety, and he can shift to nickel with extensive experience there as well.
Contracts to consider
Huge, huge checks to write. Burrow’s deal will surely trump Justin Herbert‘s five-year, $262 million jackpot — we’ll say $275 million with $150 million fully guaranteed. Can the Bengals afford to keep his top two receivers around? Higgins has averaged just over 1,000 yards in three seasons, totaling 19 touchdowns, and he’ll likely fetch $20 million a year. NFL.com ranked him as the No. 2 free agent at any position, behind only the 49ers‘ Joey Bosa. That deal will pale in comparison to what Chase will command. He’s eligible for a new deal after this season, though in theory his fifth-year option would keep him in Cincinnati through the 2025 season without a huge extension.
- The Bengals have ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring in each of the past two seasons, and thanks to Burrow, they ranked in the top five last year in passing yards, third-down efficiency and red-zone success.
- In the postseason, however, Burrow has only nine touchdown passes in seven career playoff games, and the Bengals have ranked 13th and 12th out of 16 playoff teams in red-zone success the last two postseasons. Cincinnati has scored 20 points in their past two playoff losses, and the last 25 NFL teams scoring 20 or fewer in playoff games are 4-21 in those games.
- Burrow is the first NFL QB to defeat Patrick Mahomes in three straight head-to-head matchups. Burrow joined Tom Brady (3-3) as the only QBs to defeat Mahomes three times.
- In 2022, Ja’Marr Chase became the second player in NFL history with 2,000-plus receiving yards and 20-plus receiving TDs at age 22 or younger (Randy Moss). Chase is one of three players in NFL history with more than 3000 receiving yards in his first two career seasons (regular season plus postseason), joining Moss and Justin Jefferson.
- Tee Higgins’ 3,028 career receiving yards are the second-most by a Bengal in his first three seasons, trailing only A.J. Green.
- Between Chase and Higgins, the Bengals are the first team in NFL history with multiple players with 1,000 receiving yards before turning 23.
“Cincy, you do those three [Burrow, Chase, Higgins], and that’s almost it. Pratt and Logan WIlson are both in that mix. It’s weighted because they have one of the best quarterbacks and one of the best receivers.” —NFC personnel executive
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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