Selected with the 5th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, Ja'Marr Chase has high expectations from fans, media, and himself.
Drafting Chase over Penei Sewell was a statement of confidence for Jonah Williams, but it also had a lot to do with Chase's skills. The Bengals were willing to pass up offensive line help because they thought so highly of their newest wide receiver and what he could bring to an already talented room.
Statistically, it’s easy to make the case for Chase. He had 84 receptions for 1780 yards and 20 touchdowns at just 19-years-old. This performance would be astounding for any collegiate wide receiver, but he did this in his sophomore season only one full year removed from high school. He won the Biletnikoff Award in 2019 for the best wide receiver in college football. He won the award over now teammate Tee Higgins, his former teammate and NFL rising superstar Justin Jefferson, and wide receivers taken early last year such as CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs. Not only did he achieve these elite numbers, but he did it with Joe Burrow at quarterback. This makes Chase's future much easier to project.
Now that I have made the case for him statistically, let's take a deep dive into his film to see what he does well and what he struggles with.
The first thing that jumps off the screen is his ability to track the football. Tracking the ball is essentially the receiver’s ability to know exactly where the ball is going to end up once it is thrown. It is the same ability in baseball that outfielders have to know exactly where a ball is going once it is hit.
Chase runs an outside release vertical singled up on the backside of a 3 by 1 formation. He gives up his chest on the release allowing the cornerback to stick him with a jam, but then gets through it with his strength. Once he is free off of the line he puts his jets on and accelerates to get past the cornerback. With the corner on the inside and underneath, Burrow throws this ball to lead Chase, which allows him to make an over the shoulder catch away from the corner.
Chase can track the ball and make the over-the-shoulder catch without any adjustment. He does not show his hands until just before the ball comes in so that he does not tip off the corner on when to play the ball. This usage of late hands and the ability to track the ball is key for any deep threat.
Here is another play that shows high level tracking, but also showcases some of the abilities that Chase has that are set up by his elite tracking. Another outside release go from the backside of 3 by 1 or trips. He does a better job staying clean on this play as the corner’s jam hits him on the shoulder rather than the chest. Once the ball is thrown Chase knows exactly where it is going. He keeps his inside hand on the corner as they are running downfield and then once the ball is thrown and Chase knows that Burrow is leading him he gives just the smallest of pushes. This creates extra separation from the corner and allows him to make the beautiful over the shoulder catch. Chase would not be able to use his veteran push off move as effectively if he did not track the football as well as he does.
The next area I want to take a deeper look at is his body control. Body control is a receiver's ability to have full control of their body on the ground and in the air. This can be twisting their body while running full speed for the back shoulder fade or it can be adjusting in the air to a ball that was tipped.
Here we have Chase running an outside release go on the backside of trips/3 by 1 again. As you can see this was a common play for LSU and with good reason. The best showing yet for Chase on his release as he swipes away the jam from the corner. After that, he gives another one of those small pushes that never get called to create some more separation. Now the body control comes into play as he turns his body 180 degrees while moving full speed. This allows him to make the catch, shield the ball, and get his feet down. Also going to point out again how late his hands come up to make the catch. The corner has no idea when the ball is coming until it is too late.
Now we can look at how Chase’s body control and tracking come together with his high point ability. It’s another outside release go from the backside of trips. Burrow gets hit low on the throw, which causes it to be under thrown. Chase has this ball tracked and puts himself into the perfect position to dunk on the corner with a contested high point catch. He knows exactly when to jump, when he can get the ball at its highest point, and the body control to turn in the air to shield the ball and get upfield. Instead of the under throw from pressure ending in a missed opportunity, Chase can use his high level skills to turn this into an explosive play.
Next, I want to examine his hands. This is being able to catch the ball consistently when open, catching the ball through contact, and catching the ball away from his body. Starting with the idea that he needs to catch the ball consistently, I only saw one drop from him and at this point, I have watched every game outside of A&M and the FCS games. Also, I almost never saw him double catch the ball which further shows just how sticky his hands are. I think the previous clip shows him doing a great job of catching the ball away from his body to keep the ball out of reach from the defender. He's fantastic at two of the three areas already.
Here is an example of the third area I mentioned which is catching the ball through contact. Chase does not decelerate at a very good level, so he does not create a lot of separation on this curl route. Burrow is also late on the throw allowing the linebacker to get involved. This combines to allow the two defenders to sandwich him like an Oreo from both sides. Even with two defenders slamming into him he can hold onto this ball. It's not a catch that every receiver can make, but Chase does consistently.
Now let's examine an area in Chase's game that comes post catch rather than focusing on the pre catch or the actual catch. I'm talking about Chase's ability to create extra yards after the catch. Specifically, I mean Chase's strength and contact balance to remain upright when taking hits. He is built like a running back and can play a little bit like one as well.
In this play, Chase is in the slot to the boundary or short side of the field. The way he runs this route makes me think it's a Lucy/Lookie/choice route which is a slant/out option based on the leverage of the defender. The defender is playing inside, so Chase hesitates and then quickly cuts outside for the out route. On the catch, the outside cornerback gives him a heck of a shot that Chase is able to remain upright through. He then slips two more arm tackles before finally being brought down. He should have been tackled on initial contact. I think most wide receivers would have gone down to that hit around the 28-yard line. Instead, he shrugs that off and two more attempts to get to about the 34-yard line. The extra six yards here are huge, changing this play from a negative play into a positive play. All made possible by his outstanding balance and strength.
Speaking of Chase's strength, that is the last plus trait that I have listed for him. He's built like a running back. What I mean by that is that he has really thick legs and overall he's a workout warrior that trains as hard in the gym as he does on the field. This shows up on the field.
Despite giving up his chest again on the release, Chase is able to overpower the corner and toss him aside. He won't be able to do this to every corner in the NFL, but it's a great showing of his strength. He threw a future NFL player onto the ground at 19-years-old.
Now that we've hit all of the positive traits to be found in Chase's game, we need to talk about some of the areas that need improvement. Chase was awesome his last year in college, but he was 19 and predictably he also struggled with some of the technical aspects of playing wide receiver. This doesn't mean he will always struggle in these areas, but it's something to improve upon. Nearly every player in the league is working on improving themselves, so this is normal.
Let's start with his route running, which I have a couple of issues with, but mainly it's all about how he rounds his routes. Instead of cutting flat to the line, he rounds the route which allows corners to get in better position to break up the pass. Specifically, this appears to be happening because he turns his head before his body when running routes. PJ Fleck from Minnesota mentioned this as a common problem with young wide receivers.
This example really shows what I mean. I slowed it down because at full speed it's not easy to see. This appears to be a glance RPO from LSU with Chase on the glance route. Rounding the route has no impact on this play, but you can see how a better corner has more room to make a play. If he cuts harder off his outside foot and turns the body first before whipping his head, then this should be better.
In some of the training camp videos that have been posted it already looks like he has fixed some of this. I'm still listing it as an area that needs improvement because I want to see it on the field during an actual game first.
The other technical area that needs improvement is his release off of the line of scrimmage. Your release is how you beat the corners press jam technique. The first rule of getting clean off of the line is to protect your chest, which I have already shown a few clips of Chase failing to do that. At the NFL level these high level corners can really jam with authority, so to avoid being thrown off of your game entirely, you need to have a clean release.
To start this play he hops right at the corner with his arms to his side. This is just giving a giant target to jam, which Cam Dantzler does eventually do. College rules are more relaxed about holding and DPI, so once Dantzler gets him in the chest he clamps into him. Chase needs to bring his arms up tight to his chest against a corner in a press alignment. They can not be at his side. Think of it like a boxer with his gloves down. Keep them up to protect yourself and to use them. He does a decent job to swipe away jams, but that's easier to do with your hands up and ready.
The last concern I have will not be fixed and it's his height and length. It is weird for some people to see a guy so good at contested catch situations while playing around 6' tall, but it's not as uncommon as you may think. The pinnacle for this mold of wide receiver is probably DeAndre Hopkins who is 6'1". Initially watching him I thought that maybe he could be like Hopkins, but Hopkins is freakishly long (33½" arms!) despite shorter height. He can still play like him, but it's more uncharted territory. I think this changes his high end comparison to someone more like Anquan Boldin who had a myriad of success playing this way despite 30" arms. Chase's came in just a hair longer than that at 30¾". He also has the physicality and run after catch ability that made Boldin special.
All of this is to say I think Chase was a fantastic prospect and worthy of the fifth overall pick. The Bengals certainly believed so as they pushed their bigger need in the offensive line aside to take the player. He should slot into the Bengals offense as an outside wide receiver who threatens the defense vertically. I would say "X" wide receiver, but I think Higgins and Chase will split that duty. He is also able to take sweeps, screens, and shorter passes for huge gains with his after catch ability. Only time will tell how well he plays in this offense, but he completes a trio of wide receivers that are all very talented. The Bengals offense could be very exciting this year with all of the talented weapons they have amassed.
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