Bengals' bold approach in drafting Ja'Marr Chase over bigger needs has been a home run

A few weeks prior to the 2021 NFL draft, a veteran talent evaluator with a team picking in the top 15 selections was in the midst of some war-game exercises, with his club playing out various scenarios of how the first allotment of picks might go in Round 1.

It's similar to a series of partial mock drafts that some teams perform as the draft draws closer. If Team A takes this prospect, then Team B could select that prospect ... and so on.

That practice helps each team develop best- and worst-case scenarios for who might be on the clock when their pick is up. From there, debates will ensue over specific prospects head to head — weighing, say, a cornerback vs. a quarterback, akin to comparing apples to kumquats. It's not easy, but it's necessary draft prep once teams have put a lid on their scouting reports in earnest.

It also gives a picture of whether it's most prudent to try to trade up from their pick, trade down or stand pat. The process is onerous but ultimately critical.

Some teams will endure dozens of these projections before draft day. For the 2021 draft cycle, there was ample time to conduct these mini-mocks, with the pandemic wiping out the NFL scouting combine, allowing scouts to finish the majority of their player reports earlier than they would in a typical year.

For this particular club, endless scenarios were played out, including a few surprise results, but one clear theme up high kept playing out more often than not following the San Francisco 49ers' bold trade up to the No. 3 pick on March 26.

"QB, QB, QB, (Florida TE Kyle) Pitts, then (LSU WR Ja'Marr) Chase," the evaluator said at the time in early April of that year, predicting how the top five picks would go.

But how could he be so sure?

After all, the Atlanta Falcons, picking fourth, and Cincinnati Bengals, at No. 5 overall, weren't roundly viewed as being a tight end and a wide receiver away, respectively, from competing for a championship. Atlanta was regarded as defense-deficient, and Bengals QB Joe Burrow was coming off a rookie season where he got pummeled with bad pass protection — and then suffered an ACL injury.

"Pitts is the only skill guy (Atlanta) might take over Chase, and the head coach (Arthur Smith) is a tight end guy," the evaluator said. "Chase can be a special player, too. We talked about (Oregon OT Penei) Sewell at five a lot.

"But the (Bengals) owner (Mike Brown) there is a wide receiver guy. He loves his receivers and isn't scared to take one over other needs. They took John Ross with the ninth pick, remember? We think they want to give Joe his guy instead of protecting him (with an offensive lineman)."

The words were spoken with a hint of derision. On the surface, it wasn't hard to see why.

The Bengals, long the butt of jokes in the scouting world for their small staff of scouts, often have been viewed suspiciously, as a team not always up to speed on the modern mechanisms of scouting. With a smaller staff of overburdened scouts, a lot of the legwork often was picked up by the team's coaches in the late winter and early spring.

For all the winning the team did under Marvin Lewis through the 2015 season, the club had totaled 21 victories in the four seasons leading up to the 2020 NFL draft. Zac Taylor, then the second-youngest head coach in the NFL at 35, was coming off a 2-14 maiden season with a young staff of assistants whose average age was 37.4 years. Lewis' final staff in Cincinnati averaged 45.4 years of age.

From the outside, the belief was the Bengals could ill afford to get Burrow beat up again. But somewhere along the road to that year's first round, the team — whether it was Brown or director of player personnel Duke Tobin, or the two working in concert — decided to take Chase over Sewell, Northwestern's Rashawn Slater or any other OL prospect.

And you know what? They were right.

Most opponents of the Bengals have not been able to handle the smoke of Ja'Marr Chase. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Ja'Marr Chase helped the Bengals win their biggest game in ages

Burrow could have been sacked 10 times (or more) Sunday, when the Bengals rallied to clinch the AFC North title. The Kansas City Chiefs did sack Burrow four times, hit him 10 times and Burrow ran five times, usually out of necessity.

It's a stretch to say that the Bengals' offensive line is markedly better than its 2020 version. They're certainly better at tackle, with a healthy Jonah Williams (who missed parts of eight games last season) at left tackle and Riley Reiff and replacement Isaiah Prince on the right side.

There are still issues on the interior, however. And because they want to get as many playmakers (Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Chase and others) on the field at once, Taylor's offense utilizes a lot of five-man protections, trusting Burrow to get rid of the ball quickly or evade any free rushers.

But Burrow is actually being sacked at a higher rate in 2021 (8.9% of dropbacks) than he was during his rookie season (7.3%). ESPN Analytics rates the Bengals as 30th in the NFL in pass-block win rate, at 49%. They're playing a lot of high-stakes poker because of that, but the results have revealed the potential payoffs.

The Bengals found themselves down 14-0 to the Chiefs on Sunday, having gained a mere 28 yards on their first eight plays. Burrow had been sacked twice already, hit once more, and Chase's first grab was caught short of the sticks, leading to an opening-possession punt.

But as the Chiefs' Frank Clark bore down, Burrow flicked his wrist and found Chase open 11 yards downfield. The rookie then did the rest of the heavy lifting, making one man miss, outrunning three more and racing 61 more yards for a thrilling touchdown to cut the lead in half.

“That’s just Ja’Marr Chase being Ja’Marr Chase,” Taylor said. “It really did catapult us because the momentum really was not in our favor.”

The Chiefs immediately countered and went up 21-7. Once more, Burrow knew where the ball needed to go. He targeted Chase five times on the ensuing drive, resulting in gains of 8 and 9 yards, a pass-interference flag drawn and an 18-yard circus TD.

Down 28-17 in the third quarter, the Bengals weren't about to reinvent the wheel. They saw the Chiefs in a two-high shell (designed to protect against big plays) and had the perfect call: a fade-out combination on the left side. Chiefs corner Rashad Fenton bit on Tyler Boyd's out route, thinking he had help deep, but safety Daniel Sorensen also crashed too hard on the underneath route.

That left Chase to coast free for one of the easier 69-yard touchdowns you'll see.

He'd catch five more passes on the day en route to an 11-reception, 266-yard performance in the Bengals' biggest game in years. His two final grabs on Cincinnati's game-winning drive might have had even higher degrees of difficulty than the touchdowns — first a 35-yard sideline tapper in tight coverage, followed by a 30-yarder on third-and-27 they'll be talking about for years.

The Chiefs sent an all-out blitz. On third-and-27, why not, right? Well, under normal circumstances perhaps. But Chase said after the game he adjusted his release (outside not inside) to speed up the process and gain just a hair more early separation. It was a brilliant, instinctive maneuver, and Burrow didn't miss Chase.

“You’re one-on-one with Ja’Marr if you’re (all-out blitzing), and so more power to you,” Burrow said. “Good luck.”

That last grab broke Chad Johnson's franchise record for receiving yards in a season. It also gave Chase more receiving yards in the game than the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes had passing yards.

Chase's rookie season has been one of the best ever by a wide receiver. His 79 catches are the 12th-most by any first-year player. His 1,429 yards are the most by a rookie since the NFL merger in 1970, 45 shy of breaking Bill Groman's 1960 mark with the AFL's Houston Oilers. His 13 TDs are tied for the most rookie receiving touchdowns behind Randy Moss.

Chase's five biggest games this season have totaled 852 yards and six TDs, totals that are matched or surpassed by only 20 NFL players for the entire 2021 season. Not bad for a player who opted out of the 2020 college football season and was mocked for his slew of preseason drops. He appears to have broken his slump.

WR or OT? Bengals settled draft debate by taking the best playmaker

Penei Sewell, drafted by the Detroit Lions with the seventh overall pick, and Rashawn Slater, taken 13th by the Los Angeles Chargers, both have had strong to very strong rookie seasons. Slater especially has appeared ready for the challenge of NFL rushers right from the get-go, but Sewell has rebounded quite nicely down the stretch and played good football for Detroit.

Sewell and Slater both look like future Pro Bowl-level players. Chase has played at an All-Pro level this season as a rookie.

There's an argument to be made that an offensive tackle might be more valuable than a wide receiver on the positional-importance hierarchy. But it's tough to say that a game-changing receiver, one who can catch 11-yard passes and turn them into 72-yard scores, isn't more valuable than an ascending pass blocker.

Chase has all the earmarks of a superstar. The Bengals clearly felt that if a 19-year-old wide receiver can catch 20 touchdowns in the SEC with Burrow en route to a national championship, he could have commensurate success with the same QB in the NFL two years later. The fact that Chase vaporized several talented future NFL corners (including Trevon Diggs and A.J. Terrell) along the way likely only strengthened their case.

LSU's Ja'Marr Chase capped off his college career by roasting Clemson CB A.J. Terrell, who has played well in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
LSU's Ja'Marr Chase capped off his college career by roasting Clemson CB A.J. Terrell, who has played well in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

It was sound logic. And it's not as if the Bengals completely ignored the offensive line. After taking Chase, the Bengals made three OL picks — Jackson Carman, D’Ante Smith and Trey Hill — in their next seven selections. They also scoured the waiver wire and added undrafted free agents. It hasn't always been pretty, but there's promise with Prince, Carman and others. Veteran pickup Quinton Spain has played well at times, too.

The good news for the Bengals is that the 2022 NFL draft offers depth and talent on the offensive line. The tackle crop might be better than the interior prospects, which is the bigger short-term concern for Cincinnati.

And though the 2022 WR class also appears to be strong, there's likely no prospect that will possess the skill and pedigree that Chase had coming into the 2021 NFL draft. Likewise, if the Bengals passes on Chase, they knew there was no way they'd find anything close to him in Rounds 2 or beyond.

The same evaluator we spoke with prior to the 2021 NFL draft was asked this week: It's obvious the Bengals made the right call in retrospect, right?

"I'd say yes," he said. "We thought (Chase, Sewell and Slater) had a chance to be special. Still do. The guy they got just happens to catch 60-yard TDs every other game. So yeah, they've got themselves a racehorse and a pretty special one."

And this Chase is still running hard and fast in the backstretch.