On the Panthers’ last day of minicamp, receiver Rashard Higgins caught a red-zone pass from Sam Darnold, secured the ball and looked up. Thanks to a creative design from offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo — which sent two receivers from the left across the field and allowed Higgins to cross under them from the right — there were no defenders within five yards of the former Browns’ fan favorite. Higgins made a routine catch near the 10-yard line, glided into the end zone and capped the score with a celebratory pylon-aimed leap. All five Panthers linemen rushed toward the end zone for chest bumps and dap. Higgins’ all-inclusive, team-first mentality is already resonating with his new teammates. The only thing missing was his imaginary red carpet.
“Every game that I get in (the end zone), I’m trying to roll it out,” Higgins said of his signature celebration. “I may paint the bottom of my shoes red this season. Every pair, no matter what color it is, every bottom of my shoe is red. Just trying to put it on their mind and let’s keep pounding.”
Higgins signed with Carolina this offseason after spending the first six years of his NFL career in Cleveland where his charismatic character and signature touchdown celebration captivated Browns fans. After touchdowns, Higgins adjusts his collar and smoothly walks down an imaginary red carpet while teammates take photos with their pretend cameras, unlocking his “Hollywood Higgins” persona. Like Beyonce’s alter ego “Sasha Fierce”, becoming “Hollywood Higgins” helped the Colorado State product and 2016 fifth-round pick catch 113 passes for 1,615 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Browns. He filled an Odell Beckham Jr.-size hole in Cleveland in 2020, catching 37 passes for a career-high 599 yards and four touchdowns after Beckham tore his ACL in Week 7. Higgins started in six games that season. He led the team in receiving yards during a must-win Week 17 game against Pittsburgh and in the team’s divisional-round loss to Kansas City.
Though he became a household name in Cleveland, Higgins remains an underappreciated NFL commodity. He isn’t the strongest, quickest or most athletic. Instead, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder relies on a sound route running, technique and sure handiness to make plays. In 2020, Higgins was one of the most efficient receivers in the league. Football Outsiders ranked Higgins third in its DVOA metric, which measures a player’s efficiency per play ran. Only Will Fuller and Julio Jones ranked higher. He finished 23rd in yards per route run, which measures how far downfield receivers travel per pattern. The top receivers in the NFL consistently lead in this category. Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rashard Higgins catches a pass during NFL football practice in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, June 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond) Nell Redmond AP That season, Higgins caught 37 of 38 catchable targets, according to Pro Football Focus. He also picked up 31 first downs. “He’s a versatile wideout. He’s big.
He can catch. He’s smart,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said of Higgins. “We liked him on tape. Anytime you can bring a veteran in with that level of experience to come in and compete for a spot on the roster, you do it.” Cleveland will always be home to Higgins. He maximized each opportunity he earned and emerged as a favorite target of Baker Mayfield. But change within the NFL is inevitable. Following an underwhelming 2021 season, Cleveland moved on from Higgins and long-time Browns receiver Jarvis Landry. Odell Beckham Jr. was cut during the year and the team is in the process of trading Mayfield, possibly to Carolina. “My heart is in Cleveland forever. I love that team. They drafted me. Thanks to all those guys,” Higgins said. “But now I’m with a different team and I’m bought in. So life moves on.” Higgins anticipated his time expiring in Cleveland, which slightly eased his transition to Charlotte, but putting on different threads for the first time in his career, taking a new route to practice each morning and learning a new city is still a surreal experience. Life can be a whirlwind for a young professional in a new city, thousands of miles away from everyone they know and love.
However, he’s not embarking on his new journey alone. Higgins brought his family with him. His wife, Denae, and their nine-month-old son, Sevin, are making Charlotte home. Last Sunday, the young family celebrated his first Father’s Day. Higgins said his son changed his life in ways one can only understand through experience. “Before (my wife) was pregnant, I used to always ask Juice (Jarvis Landry), because he got two kids, ‘What does it mean? What is it? What does it feel like?’ ” Higgins said. “He was just like, ‘Man, honestly, you know how you love your mother? It’s 100 times like that. And I didn’t really understand him until I had my son.” Freshly motivated by the birth of his son and a new opportunity to again prove himself, Higgins quickly ingrained himself into the locker room. He immediately established himself as a veteran leader during the Panthers’ nine-week OTA program, where veterans and rookies were both learning a new scheme. He signed with Carolina on a veteran-minimum salary.
He’s no lock to make the final 53-man roster following training camp. But he took advantage of DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson’s (for different reasons) limited minicamp roles. Moore (along with about 12 other veterans) were held out of minicamp to rest while Anderson battled a nagging hip injury. With the top two wide receivers out, Higgins emerged as a favorite target of quarterback Sam Darnold. During a situational two-minute offense session on Day 3 of minicamp, Darnold targeted Higgins on back-to-back gotta-have-it plays. The duo misconnected on third-and-long but converted a fourth-and-long on a deep-out route on the next rep. “(Higgins) has seen a lot of football and been in a lot of receiver rooms,” Darnold said after a minicamp practice. “He’s a really good vet for other guys. Because the way he works, too. He just comes in here and works every day. He puts his head down and works.”
Carolina Panthers’ Rashard Higgins warms up at the NFL football team’s practice facility Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) Chris Carlson AP His range of possible 2022 outcomes spans as high as the No. 2 receiver behind Moore or a camp casualty. If it’s the latter then targets like Brandon Zylstra and Shi Smith provided more versatility. Smith is dealing with a pending legal matter after a March arrest for unlawfully carrying a handgun, drug possession and speeding in South Carolina. He is still listed on the team roster and participated throughout OTAs and minicamp. Higgins is not a special teams contributor. But if he makes the team then he’ll compete for reps as the No. 3 receiver with second-year pass-catcher Terrace Marshall Jr. If Anderson suffers any fallbacks, then all of a sudden Carolina will need a No. 2 option behind Moore. Higgins could fill that void.
It’s all speculation but a closer look at Carolina’s receiver room explains why Higgins joined the Panthers. There are opportunities. He’s also familiar with Rhule through former teammate and Baylor standout Corey Coleman. His relationship with Beckham gifted him favorable insight into offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Higgins said his relationship with Rhule, McAdoo, general manager Scott Fitterer and receivers coach Joe Dailey are all strong. And he’s enjoying the change of scenery. As the Browns remade their receiver room, Higgins and his former teammate Jarvis Landry are now division rivals. Landry signed with the Saints last month. Higgins said it’s surreal he’ll face his “brother” twice this season. He credits Landry and Beckham with helping him grow as a playmaker and person. “Jarvis is my mentor. That’s my brother,” Higgins said. “We were just together this weekend. I can go to him about whatever and just learn from him.”
Higgins turns 28 in October. There is plenty of quality football left in him. Still, dreams of life after ball creep into his mind sometimes when he looks over at his wife and son still sleeping as he rolls out of bed for 7 a.m. workouts. Having such peace at home prepares him for whatever comes next. He’s taken singular focus on helping the Panthers end a four-season playoff drought. “I’m 27 and I still feel like I’m at the peak of my game. When that time comes, it comes, but for right now I’m locked in and I’m ready to go,” Higgins said. “We got a young team. And we’re just looking to get over the hump. You know, make the playoffs, step by step.” Across that red carpet rolled out for him at Bank of America Stadium.