Is Ja’Marr Chase ready to dominate in year one?
By: Brady Akins
With the option on the board to select an offensive lineman at their biggest position of need, the Cincinnati Bengals went all in on operation ‘Make Joe Burrow Happy,’ selecting a wide receiver for the team’s presumed quarterback of the future.
Not only a receiver, though, but Burrow’s former teammate at LSU — Ja’Marr Chase, the presumed top receiver from the 2021 NFL Draft.
Time will tell if Chase can live up to those high expectations, but as far as his rookie season is concerned, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism that the former Tigers standout can thrive at the next level.
The last time Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase hooked up to toss around a football, it went fairly well.
As in ‘National Championship, highest-scoring offense in college football historic, individual recording break for both Burrow and Chase’ well.
As teammates with the LSU Tigers, Burrow and Chase thrived to a 15-0 championship season that was largely effortless. That team success came in huge part from the offense, which broke the record for most points scored in a season with a staggering 726.
And the success of that record-breaking offense largely came from the passing attack– which earned Burrow a Heisman trophy on the heels of a 60 passing touchdown season, an all-time record, and earned Chase what was at the time an SEC record for most receiving touchdowns in a season with 20.
And wouldn’t you know it, those two record breakers at the helm for a record-shattering championship year in 2019 have now found themselves on the same NFL roster.
History favors that connection continuing to thrive, especially considering the circumstances around the Bengals roster. In order to draft Chase fifth overall, Cincinnati first had to pass up on the opportunity to select a high-ceiling offensive line prospect, one that you could argue was more necessary than addressing the wide receiver group.
That decision may prove to be fatal for the offense as a whole, but it could benefit Chase in the short term. Clearly from their time playing together at LSU, Burrow has come to trust Chase enough to make him the leading receiver on a Tigers’ offense stacked with skill position talent. And with Burrow missing six games of his first professional season, there’s a chance that the quarterback hasn’t had enough time to establish that same level of trust with any of his new pass catchers.
So, when the pocket collapses and the play goes off script, who is Burrow going to be looking for? The answer, hopefully, will be Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow attempted 40.4 passes per game in 2020, the third-highest rate in the NFL. If Chase’s skill is as advertised, and the chemistry the two Tigers’ developed through their time in college stays strong, Burrow could be looking to his rookie receiver early, especially in times of duress in the pocket.
Hopeful Projection: 85 Catches, 1,250 Yards, 12 Touchdowns
Of course, for Chase to have any chance at all of fantasy football relevance, he’ll need Burrow to stay on the field. Easier said than done.
The injury Burrow suffered in Week 11 isn’t the average everyday season-ender. The quarterback tore his ACL and MCL on the same play, and is now expected to miss the entire preseason in an effort to play it safe.
That missed time, especially for a pair of young players like Burrow and Chase, could prove necessary in order to re-establish the chemistry they once had at LSU. And even if (that’s a big if, by the way) the two players are completely healthy and both on the same page– it doesn’t guarantee that their play will mirror what it did in college.
Burrow and Chase weren’t the only two people making that elite offense what it was. They were among the two biggest on-field contributors, sure, but they also had Joe Brady calling the plays– the man now coordinating the Carolina Panthers offense who generated a fair bit of head coaching buzz this past offseason. They had the help of Justin Jefferson, the Minnesota Vikings’ first-round superstar, taking pressure away from Chase. They had Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the backfield, making sure the defenses couldn’t simply drop eight defenders in coverage.
And the Bengals have talent, sure, but relative to what LSU had on offense compared to the average SEC defense, Cincinnati doesn’t come close to that talent/play-calling mismatch. Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow aren’t in Kansas anymore. Or rather, in Baton Rogue. The defenses are tougher, and the man responsible for calling the plays of LSU’s offensive spectacle is off in a different conference.
And let’s talk about talent for a second too. Because the Bengals do have it at receiver. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were both factors in the Cincinnati offense, each with over 65 catches and 800 yards. And that was without Burrow in the lineup for a chunk of time. You don’t draft a receiver fifth overall unless you expect him to be the top guy in an offense, but that doesn’t make Higgins and Boyd non-factors. Rather, Chase will be competing for touches with that already established, proven pro-ready duo.
The Bengals drafted Joe Burrow’s favorite target in college, partially due to their established connection and chemistry. But that decision could end up blowing up in their faces in year one.
Doubtful Projection: 60 Catches, 790 Yards, Six Touchdowns
Here’s the thing about those doubtful projections. At the end of the day, if Chase hits that worst-case scenario, he’s still doing pretty well.
Definitely not a fantasy football star. Definitely not someone you would be happy to rely on in a 17-game season. But in terms of real-life football, that would be a strong rookie season, considering the questionable health of his quarterback and the recent struggles of the Bengals offense.
But here’s the reality. Ja’Marr Chase was drafted fifth overall for a reason. I won’t put on the role of NFL scout and break down Chase’s strengths and weaknesses, but I will trust the guy that was seen as the near-consensus best wide receiver in a draft that included the first Heisman winner at the position in three decades.
Without Joe Brady, expecting LSU numbers at any point in Chase’s career in Cincinnati would be foolish. Even with him, making 20 touchdown catches the expectation is somewhere near insanity. Especially considering who Burrow was as a player his rookie year. A solid, athletic, accurate young player with plenty of promise, but a guy who managed just 13 passing touchdowns in 11 games– a far cry from the 60 he had his final year in college.
That struggle to hit the endzone will reflect poorly on Chase, but will likely be made up for by the high-passing volume coming from the Bengals’ offense. Cincinnati was a bad team last year, even with Burrow. The Bengals won four games overall, and spent most of their time throwing the ball in a desperate effort to catch up. Cincinnati’s overall fate should still remain the same, with plenty of passing attempts in Burrow’s future.
And yes, the connection between the two LSU teammates should not be overlooked. Even with other mouths to feed in the receiving corps, Burrow and Chase thrived together with the Tigers, and will head into Week 1 with instant chemistry, cutting out any annoying growing pains from Chase’s fantasy production.
Chase should be good in 2021. Good enough to consider drafting as a high-end FLEX option.
Realistic Projection: 75 Catches, 1,050 Yards, Eight Touchdowns