Why the Cincinnati Bengals Nailed the Ja'Marr Chase Draft Pick

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After the 2021 NFL Draft, the draftnik Twitterati sneered at the Cincinnati Bengals for choosing JaMarr Chase (a mere wide receiver) with the fifth overall pick over Penei Sewell (a righteous and strong offensive lineman). Nevermind that Chase was widely considered to be one of the best receiver prospects in recent history or that Chase and Joe Burrow (the Bengals franchise quarterback) were former college roommates—by passing on Sewell, the Bengals had condemned their franchise quarterback Joe Burrow to a career of punishment and pressure behind a deeply permissive offensive line. 

This year, Chase is proving that sometimes, it turns out, memes are wrong. Through the first seven games of his career, Chase is on pace to become the greatest rookie receiver ever—no receiver has ever been more prolific than Chase through the first seven games of their career. And beyond the scope of history, Chase has also been one of the most best pass-catchers in the NFL this season: he has the second-most receiving yards (754) and yards per catch (21.5 yards), the fourth-most touchdowns (six) and the fifth-most yards after the catch (267).

In addition to his individual productivity, Chase has provided kindling for a suddenly explosive offense. Whether it be causation or correlation, the Bengals’ offense has surged this year with Chase, averaging 27.0 points per game, up from 21.3 points per contest in the 10 games that Burrow started last season; with a 5-2 record, the Bengals have already won more games than they did in either 2020 or 2019.  

The most startling thing about Chase, though, isn’t just his immediate greatness; it’s how naturally his greatness has manifested itself. There’s nothing revelatory about his game—he’s a fast, but hardly a burner like Tyreek Hill; he runs crisp routes, but lacks the hummingbird twitchiness of Davante Adams; he has strong, sure hands (in the regular season, at least), but not DeAndre Hopkins’s magnetic grip. Instead, Chase succeeds by simply being better than the guy guarding him; it’s hard to identify a single reason for his unstoppableness besides the fact that nobody can stop him. 

As such, Chase represents the crest of the new wave of wide receivers that has crashed upon the league in recent years. Within the last decade, football coaches at all levels have ditched the old customs and empowered players like Chase as offensive spread and air raid principles have been mainstreamed and, in turn, passing attacks have grown increasingly high-wattage. Viewed from a macro lens, the emergence of Chase—or a Chase-level rookie receiver—is inevitable; in this sense, Chase’s most special and singular accomplishment isn’t simply setting any record, but rather creating an expanded realm of the possible so that the next person can one day break it. 

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