In 2019, the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers had one of the most dominant seasons in college football history. Led by Heisman winner and 2020 No. 1 NFL draft pick quarterback Joe Burrow, the Tigers went 15-0 and won the national title. Burrow, along with prolific receivers Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase, led arguably the greatest college offense ever.
Jefferson was taken in the first round of the 2020 draft and made his impact immediately. Jefferson had as productive a rookie receiver season as anyone since receiver Randy Moss, tallying a record 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. This year, Chase — the Tigers’ other wide receiver — was controversially chosen fifth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals— and he has been even better than advertised.
Chase won the Fred Biletnikoff Award, awarded annually to college football’s best wide receiver, in 2019. In 2020, he would likely have been the first receiver taken in a loaded wide receiver draft, including CeeDee Lamb and Jefferson. But since he was only a sophomore in 2019 and thus ineligible to play in the NFL, Chase had to wait until this year to hear his name called on draft night.
Instead of coming back for his junior season, however, Chase chose to sit out because of COVID-19 concerns, somewhat complicating his standing on draft boards. Even so, the Bengals bet on his talent and made him the first wide receiver taken, selecting him with the fifth-overall pick.
Many questioned the Bengals’ decision-making when they took Chase. Pundits and fans wanted Cincinnati to take stud left tackle Penei Sewell to protect its quarterback, but the Bengals believed Chase’s talent, paired with the chemistry he and Burrow already had from LSU, would be more beneficial to the team.
In the preseason, it seemed Chase was going to have far more issues than many anticipated, scrambling to grapple with challenging drops and miscues. In the regular season, however, that narrative has completely flipped.
Through Week 7, Chase has not only been the best rookie wide receiver, but arguably the best receiver in all of football. After his monster 201-yard performance against the Ravens on Oct. 24, Chase ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards, is tied for third place in receiving touchdowns and leads the league in yards per reception with a mind-boggling 21.5. Chase has done it in every way: winning jump balls, racing by cornerbacks deep and making plays after the catch. As long as he doesn’t get injured, he has essentially locked up Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. At this pace, he should end up being a Pro Bowler and even maybe an All-Pro. While his individual success has been awesome to watch, what’s even more fun to see is how he has single-handedly transformed the Bengals offense.
Last season, before his injury, Burrow was criticized for his lack of a downfield passing game. He averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt, 25th best in the league and 10.2 yards per completion, tied for 28th. This put him in a similar category to quarterbacks like Mitch Trubisky and Sam Darnold.
This season, the story could not be even more different. Burrow averages 9.2 yards per attempt, second to only quarterback Russell Wilson, and 13.4 yards per completion, ranking first in the NFL. Of course, that difference is reflective of Burrow’s offseason work and the Bengals’ coaching staff, but that drastic change only a season later must have some other reason as well. That reason is Chase.
Before drafting Chase, the Bengals already had two capable wide receivers in Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Both are good at getting open and have good hands, but they lack game-breaking ability. Burrow didn’t throw deep last season because he had no one to throw deep to. Chase changed that.
Chase’s arrival has produced team success. After Sunday, Cincinnati has a 5-2 record and holds the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The offense has been the team’s engine, averaging 27 points per game, seventh-best in the league and 6.2 yards per play, which ranks third. While he will rack up individual accolades this season and throughout his career, that level of team impact is way more important. Very few players, let alone rookies, make that type of impact. Yet Ja’Marr Chase is already doing so. He’s not just another first round talent. Ja’Marr Chase is different.
Tim Brennan is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. Any Given Sunday appears in print and online every other week.