Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins could be an ideal target for the Patriots in free agency, but might not be available. “I’m not in the business of making other teams better. I’m in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better, and so trading Tee Higgins is not on my mind,” said Bengals GM Duke Tobin. AJ Mast/Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — With a lackluster free-agent crop and unimpressive draft class looming later this spring, if the Patriots want to land a No. 1 receiver before next season, they have only one avenue: trade.

But don’t hold your breath for a blockbuster any time soon, especially if it involves Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins.

“I’m not in the business of making other teams better. I’m in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better, and so trading Tee Higgins is not on my mind. That’s their problem,” Bengals GM Duke Tobin declared Tuesday at the NFL Combine. “If they want a receiver, go find your own.”

Tobin went so far as to call rumors of a possible Higgins trade “ridiculous.” Those rumors stem from the fact Higgins is entering a contract year, and the Bengals are all but guaranteed to extend massive deals soon to superstar quarterback Joe Burrow and fellow wideout Ja’Marr Chase. The expectation is Cincinnati will not have the necessary cap space to retain all three players, given Burrow and Chase are already Pro Bowlers and Higgins a 1,000-yard receiver for consecutive seasons.

Last season, multiple teams declined to pay their young star receivers and instead exchanged them for first-round picks, like the Titans did sending A.J. Brown to Philadelphia on draft night. While it’s unclear whether the Patriots would be interested in such a deal, Higgins would be far from the only receiver they might consider in this scenario.

There’s Denver’s Jerry Jeudy, who could have two years remaining on his deal if the Broncos (or his next team) elect to pick up a 2024 team option in his contract by May 1. Doing so would cost a projected $14.1 million in 2024, a reasonable price for a budding No. 1 receiver. Jeudy has improved every season of his young career and recently posted career highs with 67 catches for 972 yards and six touchdowns, including some of the best receiving numbers versus man coverage across the NFL.


Jeudy, 23, is a former first-round pick who overlapped with Patriots quarterback Mac Jones at Alabama when Jones was a college backup. If the Patriots’ objective is to simply surround Jones with the best possible talent, Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins offers another trade target. Though, the five-time Pro Bowler would arrive with a cap hit north of $19.1 million, eating up more than half of the Pats’ current space.

Arizona Coach Jonathan Gannon and GM Monti Ossenfort are reportedly looking to trade Hopkins as they enter a full rebuild in Year 1 of their new regime. But they also spoke as if they were open to keeping him, even if the 30-year-old receiver doesn’t fit their new timeline.

“I’ve had a conversation with DeAndre and DeAndre’s representative. Those have been very productive conversations,” Ossenfort said. “I’ve watched from afar the last 10 years, or whatever it’s been with DeAndre and been on teams that have had to compete against him. … I know he’s tough to defend and so I’m glad he’s on the team.  … He’s a valuable asset for us.”

ACCORDING TO AN NFLPA survey of 1,300 players, the Patriots offer some of the worst working conditions in the NFL, ranking 24th out of the league’s 32 clubs.

The inaugural survey was established to “highlight positive clubs, identify areas that could use improvement, and highlight best practices and standards,” per the NFLPA’s website. Players anonymously rated the quality of their teams’ facilities and their daily work experience in eight categories: locker room, travel, training staff, strength staff, training room, weight room, nutrition and treatment of families.

The Patriots’ training staff rated highest with an A grade, while their weight room received the lowest mark of a D. Overall, players expressed concerns about the team’s facility, describing it as “old, dated and in need of renovation.” Gillette Stadium is currently undergoing a $225 million renovation that is expected to rehouse the team’s football operations department by the start of the 2023 season.

Players also raised issues over staffing the weight room and training room. Per the report, only 64% of players believe club owner Robert Kraft is willing to spend the money necessary for upgrades. Kraft ranks 26th among the 32 owners in this category.

The Patriots’ nutrition program, which received a B grade, was the only other area where the team ranked above average relative to the rest of the league. Their remaining grades and rankings were as follows: locker room (C+/18th), training room (C-/22nd), treatment of families (C-/22nd), travel (D+/25th), strength staff (B+/28th) and weight room (D/31st).

The Vikings earned the NFL’s highest grades, followed by the Dolphins and Raiders. The Commanders ranked dead last with four grades of F or F-.

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