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2021 NFL Mock Draft: Cincinnati Bengals reunite Joe Burrow with his college teammate

With the 5th overall pick in the 2021 Bleeding Green Nation community mock draft, Cincinnati Bengals GM Dr_Horrible selects ...

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - LSU v Oklahoma Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

The Bengals have a lot of areas of need, but in a big picture sense, the top priority is building an offensive core to grow with Joe Burrow. Tee Higgins is coming off a good rookie year, and Tyler Boyd is good in the slot, but another outside weapon would be welcome, and better pass protection would be as well. Enter Ja’Marr Chase.

Penei Sewell would be a consideration here if he were still on the board, but he’s not in this scenario, and while I think Rashawn Slater is good, I think he’d be a slight reach here. In the “weapons for Burrow” category, the main alternative considerations are DeVonta Smith and Kyle Pitts. I like both of them a lot and expect both to be good NFL players. I think Smith is being underrated because of his Todd Pinkston build, but it really doesn’t cause him any problems on tape. Pitts is a WR/TE hybrid type of player who can be moved around and create matchup problems, but he doesn’t separate well enough vs. CBs to make me see him as a full-time WR, and I don’t think passing on an elite WR prospect for him is the right move for Cincy. Ultimately, Chase just makes too much sense to pass up here.

College Performance

As you are probably aware, Chase broke out in an enormous way as a true sophomore as part of an LSU offense that set a lot of records and steamrolled its way to a national championship. He had 84 catches for 1780 yards and 20 TDs, winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top WR. On a star-studded offense with future NFL star Justin Jefferson (painful, I know), Chase was the clear #1 WR that defenses focused on. Moreover, he did all of this as a 19-year-old facing high end CBs like 1st round picks C.J. Henderson, A.J. Terrell, and Noah Igbinoghene, 2nd round pick Trevon Diggs, and 3rd rounder Cameron Dantzler, and he dominated most of those matchups except Dantzler (where he still managed 5 catches for 41 and a TD).

Chase chose to sit out his junior year, and while you’d always like more tape to evaluate, the decision was understandable given that there was no way to raise his stock any further, and playing always brings the risk of serious injury. In any case, we know his performance was off-the-charts good. Let’s look at how he did it.

Physical Attributes

Chase’s physical measurements (6-0 3/8, 201 lbs) are almost exactly average for an NFL WR. That’s okay! Most of the NFL’s top receivers not named Metcalf or Hill are basically similar size to Chase. His athletic testing numbers are actually a bit better than I would have guessed from his tape. 40 time is nearly useless for predicting WR success, but I’m sure he was still happy with a 4.38, and his agility drills (3.98 shuttle, 7.00 3-cone), and jumps (41” vertical, 11-0 broad) round out an athletic profile that’s elite across the board. On tape, the physical traits that stand out are less the raw speed than his strength, balance, body control, and quickness.

Route-running

“Route-running” is sort of a big category that encompasses lots of things: physical attributes like agility to make sharp cuts without losing speed, technique like appropriate footwork, feel for finding holes in zone coverage, deceptiveness with fakes, double-moves, varying speeds, etc. With draft prospects, I’m usually looking less for the technical polish and more the things like movement skills, deceptiveness, feel for setting up defenders, and knowing where you need to be.

Chase is a very good route runner, if not necessarily a flashy one. He really excels at stacking CBs quickly in vertical routes, often after beating them at the line (more on that later), part of what made him the most productive downfield receiver in the country in 2019 (a staggering 24/36 for 840 yds and 14 TDs on throws 20+ yards downfield). He also can make quick, fluid changes of direction. He ran basically a full standard route tree and generally ran it well.

Here he is running a dig route against Texas A&M. Nothing flashy, but a key here is that he subtly shifts toward the outside to get himself into the zone defender’s blind spot before making his break at the top of the route, which makes it difficult for the DB to know whether he’s breaking in or continuing downfield. By the time he sees, it’s too late to react.

And here he is against Trevon Diggs snapping off a nice comeback route. He uses his hands to win at the line and gets even with Diggs, who has to respect the vertical threat. Consequently, he’s toast when Chase makes a quick fluid turn to get separation. The balance to break his tackle and gain extra yards at the end is just a bonus.

Releases

If you want to be an X receiver in the NFL, you need to be able to beat press coverage. There are several ways to do this—quickness and agility that make it hard for a defender to get hands on you, deceptive release package, strength to run through contact, etc. For Chase, his calling card is his hands. He has violent hands that let him essentially wipe away the arms of CBs trying to press him, and usually get into his routes with an advantage. You see this over and over again in his tape, but he really put on a clinic in this regard against A.J. Terrell.

This play came toward the end of the game and Burrow didn’t see him, but Chase wins at the line with his hands almost immediately and this would be a long play if Burrow had looked in his direction.

This is a simple speed release to the outside. Chase gets the advantage quickly. Terrell tries to use his hand to stay connected, but Chase chops his arm away to separate and get a huge gain downfield

Here we see more great hand usage to get Terrell off him and off-balance enough that Chase can get by him. He also shows nice ball tracking here and burst to pull away at the end.

Ball Skills

Ball skills are really one of the things that makes Chase so special. He has great hands and incredibly good ball tracking ability, as well as great jumping and ability to take advantage of the superior positions that he gets himself into. All of this makes him much better at the catch point than you might expect given his average size.

This ball is underthrown by Burrow, and Diggs is in pretty good position in coverage, but it ends up not mattering thanks to Chase’s ability to track the ball, then go up and attack it in the air.

Here Chase beats press coverage, wins on a go route and makes a nice adjustment to get the ball on a back shoulder throw and keep his feet in bounds.

After Catch Ability

Chase effectively turns into a running back once he has the ball in his hands. He’s not overly shifty, and you won’t see Jeudy-like ankle-breaking jukes, but he has good vision to go along with top-notch strength and balance to break tackles. You wouldn’t think someone with his measurements would be so hard to bring down, but he’s really tough to tackle. Interestingly, LSU rarely used him on screens, but his tape with the ball in his hands suggests he could be productive on those as a pro.

Here we see his ridiculous contact balance and strength in action. Note that all those defenders still never actually brought him down—the play got blown dead for forward progress.

This play is a nice encapsulation of his RAC abilities: catches a slant, breaks a tackle, then has the vision and understanding of how to use his downfield blocker to get a TD when it initially looks like defenders will have an angle on him.

Potential Concerns and Conclusion

One potential question mark is that we’ve only ever seen Chase produce with Joe Burrow as his QB. Chase did a lot of work getting Burrow somewhere to throw the ball, but those windows were sometimes tight, and the production probably wouldn’t look as good with a lesser QB. This might be more cause for concern if not for the fact that the Bengals are obviously also planning for Joe Burrow to be his QB for the long haul. Burrow, of course, wants his old college weapon, and it’s nice to know that the two already have that chemistry where each knows what the other is going to do.

If I had to pick my biggest concern with Chase, it would be how well he’ll separate against high-end NFL CBs. He gets separation routinely against even high-level college competition, but it’s often the “just enough” variety of separation where he has the DB stacked but can still be caught up to. He doesn’t often make a move that gets him really open vs. off-man coverage, and he’s more of a tackle-breaker than a shifty make-you-miss type when he has the ball. He can also sometimes seem to be a bit lackadaisical on plays where he’s not heavily involved.

All of that is kind of quibbling, though. What’s easy to forget about all of this is that Chase was just nineteen when he was setting the world on fire at LSU. He could just be scratching the surface of his abilities, which should be a scary thought for the NFL teams he’ll be facing. Weirdly, the player comparison that kept coming to mind watching Chase was Larry Fitzgerald when he was in college. Fitz is obviously bigger, and Chase is probably faster, but the style, the elite balance, body control, and ball skills to dominate at a young age all remind me of him. The Bengals shouldn’t overthink this one.

Poll

Do you approve of this pick?

This poll is closed

  • 86%
    Yes
    (438 votes)
  • 13%
    No
    (66 votes)
504 votes total Vote Now

2021 BGN Mock Draft Order

1) Jaguars (Phoenix X Minimus): QB Trevor Lawrence
2) Jets (eagles.north.of.the.border): QB Zach Wilson
3) 49ers (I Need a Username): QB Trey Lance
4) Falcons (chewy wellington): OT Penei Sewell
5) Bengals (Dr_Horrible): WR Ja’Marr Chase
6) Dolphins (20Safety_Hazard):
7) Lions (drc242):
8) Panthers (wildcatlh):
9) Broncos (ItownBallers22):
10) Cowboys (Kephas):
11) Giants (Billmington):
12) Eagles (ablesser88):
13) Chargers (Georgia_eagle):
14) Vikings (Philliesandthebees):
15) Patriots (SakPrescott):
16) Cardinals (Carson Wentzs ACL):
17) Raiders (dshelton5):
18) Dolphins (J. Wil):
19) Football Team (Negadelphia Norm):
20) Bears (Happy24):
21) Colts (CSsdV):
22) Titans (Friendly Neighborhood Philly Fan):
23) Jets (Asap Stocky):
24) Steelers (Gregnado):
25) Jaguars (“Snax”):
26) Browns (gerouxman1956):
27) Ravens (Brendanekstrom):
28) Saints (grantspectations):
29) Packers (Philly_Philly):
30) Bills (doublefry):
31) Chiefs (Leo Bedio):
32) Buccaneers (phuckdallas):


Now it’s time for you to vote for who YOU think should be selected in the 2021 BGN Community Consensus Mock Draft.

Poll

Who should the Cincinnati Bengals draft at No. 5?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    WR Ja’Marr Chase
    (245 votes)
  • 20%
    OT Rashawn Slater
    (73 votes)
  • 12%
    TE Kyle Pitts
    (45 votes)
363 votes total Vote Now

1) Jaguars: QB Trevor Lawrence
2) Jets: QB Zach Wilson:
3) 49ers: QB Justin Fields
4) Falcons: OT Penei Sewell
5) Bengals: