Keep it simple.
Advice for life, and as it also turns out, advice for Ja’Marr Chase’s pre-draft and pre-season evaluation.
He produced one of the most prolific receiving seasons in college football history at the ripe age of 19. He torched current NFL starting cornerbacks like A.J. Terrell and Trevon Diggs in less than 20 amateur performances. He outplayed and outproduced his LSU teammate and the eventual NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up, Justin Jefferson, despite being younger and less experienced.
It’s one of the best, if not the best resume for a wide receiver since maybe Michael Crabtree. And yet, in typical draft fashion, months and months of having little to talk about made us pry and probe for the tiniest little problems to lower him down the board. It’s been done with several players before Chase—he’s not the only one who has led draftniks down this road—but he’s certainly one of the greatest cases of the ‘galaxy brain’ process taking full force.
I’ll admit, I fell victim to certain parts of it. I still had Chase WR1 on my final board—something I made sure to find a way to not-so-subtly gloat about in this article one way or another—but I did worry about his ability vs. press and some of his overall separation concerns. Turns out, when you're the type of athlete he is and you spend your year off working to add more overall nuance, those concerns turn into strengths awfully quickly.
Ironically, it’s that year off that ended up helping him out with some of the finer aspects of the position that caused so many to overthink his evaluation. After (smartly) deciding to forego his junior season at LSU a year ago, Chase left a gap of more than 365 days between his dominant National Championship performance and the day that the Cincinnati Bengals eventually drafted him.
Naturally, that makes for a lot of time to stew over things, debate with yourself back and forth, and convince yourself of false narratives—which is what a fair amount of evaluators ended up doing.
Don’t get me wrong, many, including Cincinnati, saw the jump-ball freak, playmaking LSU machine for what he was and nothing less, with their opinion of him staying extremely positive no matter the number of pages that flew off a calendar since he last suited up. But it’s easy to warp your mind into a Mandela-effect sort of situation with that long of an absence, especially when other 2021 draft class receivers like DeVonta Smith shredded defenses while Chase sat out.
All this talk about his season-long absence also doesn’t even include everything that happened post-draft. Immediately after being taken, Chase was a scrutinized pick for his inability to play OL for a Bengals team in desperate need of protection. He then had a disastrous (but in hindsight, expectedly rusty) pre-season that gave fans their first misguided representation of his game in more than two years. To make things even worse, taken-out-of-context comments about how it’s harder to catch footballs without stripes sent the media into a frenzy. His masterful work at LSU seemingly changed from 'best wide receiver prospect in a century' into 'he's a bust' with the snap of a finger.
Just as quickly as many were able to turn on Chase, however, he’s given them no choice but to flip them right back to the other side of things with his play to start the year. Producing a rookie season for the ages through seven weeks, Chase has not only put up gaudy numbers but he’s also taken quarterback Joe Burrow and turned his biggest weakness into his greatest asset.
After being accurate on just 7/40 deep passes a year ago—good for the worst rate in the NFL—Chase has brought Burrow’s killer LSU deep ball back, giving the signal-caller an elite vertical threat that has shifted the way the entire offense plays. Burrow has never had the greatest arm—it’s what makes him avoid the middle portions of the field for the most part—but the added factor of Chase has given him a short/deep balance that has allowed him to take his next step as an NFL passer. As much as added protection would help, drafting an offensive tackle fifth overall isn’t doing all of that for Burrow. Chase is.
The first-year wide receiver is also the landslide favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year at this point, which the stats and film both back up in nearly every single column. The best yards after catch player in the entire league, Chase is near the top of the league in basically every category, including yards per target, air yards, and receiving yards. When it comes to more of the nitty-gritty tape side of things, Chase is also already attacking cornerback blindspots like a 10-year pro, using patience to set up defensive backs on more complex double moves, operating as a technician on the LOS, and beating press like it's no one’s business.
At the end of the day, the pass-catcher is dominating in even a way that Jefferson wasn't able to do in Minnesota as a rookie, proving he was truly as easy of an evaluation as it gets. Evaluating draft prospects is already extremely hard. Chase is an example of why there's no need to make it harder.