The Fantasy Case Against Ja'Marr Chase: Rookie WR Trends & Crowded Depth Chart Stifle Scoring Potential

SI Fantasy analyst Michael Fabiano can't deny Ja'Marr Chase's talents; however, predicting his role is too clouded given his average draft position
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The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.

Based on those parameters, I've already broken down the likes of Justin Herbert, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, and Saquon Barkley (among many others, as you'll see in the links below) in my "The Fantasy Case Against" series heading into 2021 fantasy drafts.

The Fantasy Case Against ...

However, fantasy managers also need the 411 on rookies entering the league in prominent roles at the next level. I’ve already examined Zach Wilson and his potential value for fans in dynasty formats, not to mention his teammate, fellow rookie Michael Carter. Now, let's look at the top wide receiver in the 2021 draft class, Ja'Marr Chase. Can he make a Justin Jefferson-level fantasy impact in his rookie campaign? 

Let’s see what we find.

2020 Season

Chase opted out of the 2020 collegiate season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but his 2019 campaign was next-level impressive in the stat sheets. He produced 84 catches, 20 of which he took to the end zone. He also ranked seventh among wide receivers in yards after the catch and broke more tackles (23) than any other player at his position. In his final active collegiate season at LSU, Chase's starting quarterback was Joe Burrow, who is of course the current starting quarterback of his new team, the Bengals. 

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Chase was so good in 2019 that he still led the nation's wide receivers in terms of the most 20+ yard touchdown catches over the last two seasons. And again, he didn't play a single snap in 2020. The former Biletnikoff Award winner has the skills to thrive at the next level, possessing the quickness, playmaking ability, route running, and strong hands to win 50/50 balls and contested catches. He's the complete package. However, Chase only had one huge season in the stat sheets as a member of the Tigers. 

Historical Trends

The emergence of Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Chase Claypool, and Brandon Aiyuk last season has many fantasy managers excited about this year's class of rookie receivers. However, their success didn’t immensely change the negative trend of rookie wideouts.

Since 2010, a total of 36 first-round receivers have scored at least 2.5 fantasy points as rookies. (I wanted to use as many first-rounders as possible for this exercise). Among those 36 players, only Jefferson (WR6 – 2020) and Odell Beckham Jr. (WR7 – 2014) finished in the top 10 among fantasy wideouts. Three others, including A.J. Green (WR13 – 2011), Kelvin Benjamin (WR17 – 2014), and Amari Cooper (WR17 – 2015), went on to produce top-20 totals. So, 14 percent of first-round wideouts have put up a top-20 fantasy season over the last 11 seasons. That doesn’t bode well for Chase.

Now, let’s take an even deeper look at rookie wideouts.

If we include receivers with at least 2.5 fantasy points as rookies selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2010 (134 players), Michael Thomas (WR7 – 2016) is the lone player not selected in the first round to have a top-10 finish. Two others, Keenan Allen (WR19 – 2013) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR20 – 2017), ranked as top 20 wideouts. In all, six percent of rookie receivers selected in the first three rounds since 2010 have finished in the top 20. Two percent have finished in the top 10.

Coaching Changes

Head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have run the Bengals offense since taking the reins in 2019. Wide receivers haven't had a ton of success in that time, as only Tyler Boyd (2019) has had a top-20 finish in those three seasons. Tee Higgins did show flashes of potential as a rookie, however, averaging 12.2 points per game. His 194.6 fantasy points rank 17th among all rookie wideouts since 2010.

In the 10 games the Bengals played last season with Burrow under center, they ranked third in both average plays per game (70.7) and pass percentage (63.8). The offense was also second in pass attempts per game (41.5), so the Bengals are likely to throw the football a ton. That's good news for Chase, Higgins, and Boyd heading into 2021.

Verdict

I want to lead things off by saying that I love Chase this season. I've ranked him 20th among wideouts. I like that he has a built-in rapport with Burrow from their time together at LSU, and the Bengals figure to throw the football a lot this season.

Still, there are plenty of red flags, maybe none more than the terrible trend of rookie wide receivers over the last decade. That period is littered with first-round wideouts who have been absolute duds, including guys like Laquan Treadwell, Josh Doctson, Tavon Austin, and DeVante Parker (to name a few). The Bengals also have many mouths to feed, so Chase isn't even guaranteed to lead his team in targets as a rookie. In 2020, Boyd led the team in targets with 110. Higgins had 108, while Green had 104.

The offense does have open targets available with Green no longer in the mix, but will Chase have a ceiling in that department with Higgins and Boyd in the passing attack? The answer to that question, assuming no injuries, is yes. So, if we project Chase on the high end of the team’s target scale, he’ll be in the neighborhood of 110 as a rookie. In 2020, only four wideouts in the top 20 based on points had fewer than 110 targets.

While there's a lot to like about Chase, fantasy managers have to consider trends and simple math to project the rookie this season. If you can land him as a No. 3 fantasy wideout (he's the WR23 based on average draft position data from the Fantasy Football World Championships), I think that’s the sweet spot for Chase. Just be aware that a Jefferson-level impact, at least based on the trends, is unlikely.

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!