On September 11, 2021, Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase was bitten by a radioactive spider and became unstoppable.
Fine, I have no proof of this. But you must admit it would make some sense.
Since he was drafted fifth this spring, Chase has done two things: (1) appeared in the preseason as though he had forgotten how to catch a football, and (2) played like Randy Moss. Critically, he did the former when the games did not count and has done the latter while they very much do. Chase caught only one of five targets and had four drops in the preseason, yet he’s now seventh in the NFL with 456 receiving yards and second with five touchdowns through the first five games of this season.
Concerns based on Chase’s preseason weren’t exactly unsubstantiated—one of his drops came on a screen pass—but by the laws of August overreactions, Chase’s firm dismissal of those concerns entitles the Bengals to gloat.
“He’s everything we expected him to be and hoped to be and so far through five games that’s what we’ve seen from him,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said Sunday. (This amounts to gloating for Zac Taylor.)
Taylor is right. It’s not that the drops have entirely vanished—Chase has two drops on 25 catchable targets, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s just that they’ve been overshadowed by what else he’s done on the field. Like this:
Drops are relatively random; the ability to get separation, Chase’s best skill, is as consistent a foundation as there is for an NFL receiver. With that touchdown catch, Chase became the third rookie since at least 1990 to catch at least five passes in each of his team’s first five games, putting him in good company with Moss in 1998 and Calvin Ridley in 2018. He is also the fifth rookie in NFL history with at least 50 receiving yards in each of those first five games. In Week 5’s overtime loss to the Packers, who were playing without top cornerback Jaire Alexander and therefore without much hope of covering Chase one-on-one, he caught six of nine targets for 159 yards and a touchdown and brought in three of four contested catches, according to PFF. His 159 receiving yards are the second most by a rookie in Bengals history, behind a player in 1969 whose nickname was literally Speedy.
He has quickly become the field-stretcher the Bengals needed, in multiple ways.
He can turn a short pass into a big gain:
And he can connect with Joe Burrow on deep passes like this one, where both quarterback and receiver respond to the cornerback playing on top of Chase the same way, by putting the ball and turning for the catch just slightly underneath the coverage. Chase leads the NFL with six deep-ball receptions, per PFF, and ranks third in yards per catch at 19.8.
“I’m on the same page as Joe,” Chase said Sunday, describing that play. “If [the defender is] over top, we’re thinking back shoulder. If he’s behind, then we’re throwing it down the field. It was just a back-shoulder ball and I adjusted to it really well.”
That comfort with Burrow is not surprising. These two go back a while, you see.
And it’s probably time to mention that Burrow did not play in the preseason, when Chase, who was also getting back into football shape after opting out of the 2020 college season at LSU, had his issues with drops. That doesn’t fully explain why a player good enough to go fifth had those troubles, but it makes them look like a random anomaly.
Chase’s well-established connection with his former Tigers teammate Burrow, however, does not look anomalous.
“I think what he did in college has really carried over,” Taylor said.
The Bengals needed a boost for 2021 to show some improvement around Burrow in his second year, and there are far worse ways of doing that than drafting his favorite college receiver. Rookies are being asked to play earlier and earlier in the NFL, and Chase and Burrow look like the best-case scenario for short-cutting some of that development by pairing up elite young talents who already know how to work together. Burrow and the Bengals are averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt after averaging 6.7 in the games Burrow played last season.
Chase has not turned the Bengals into a Super Bowl contender overnight. There was little question he was a great NFL prospect ahead of the draft, but many analysts and Bengals fans would have preferred to have seen Cincinnati help its offensive line by drafting Penei Sewell with the fifth pick instead. Remember this meme?
Sewell, who was taken no. 7 by Detroit, has struggled while being asked to swap between right and left tackle through his first five games with the Lions, so the Bengals have to feel pretty good about their choice. Even Chase, though, thinks Burrow is still getting hit too much—Burrow’s taken 14 sacks in five games despite averaging 2.3 seconds per throw and had to go to the hospital because of a throat contusion after Sunday’s loss to Green Bay.
But even if Burrow is getting hit, the more accurate portrayal of the Bengals’ offense this season has him heaving up a deep ball and Chase getting in the right position to snag it for a touchdown. Their connection never needed to be sketched out, anyway—there’s a trove of video evidence that’s been growing since they first started playing together at LSU in 2018. Two talented players who know each other well getting off to a hot start together is usually a solid bet and, right now, it’s one the Bengals are glad they made.