CINCINNATI -- As LSU dismantled opponents during their quest to win the 2019 national championship, many eyes in Cincinnati were fixated on Joe Burrow.
While the Bengals were mired in one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the ability to draft the record-breaking quarterback was the biggest reason for optimism.
One year after Burrow was drafted, another player on that LSU championship team is an enticing draft option.
Former Tigers wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has been linked as potential target for Cincinnati with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin watched Chase put up remarkable numbers at LSU’s Pro Day and stoke further excitement about the possibility of a reunion with Burrow.
Chase would give the Bengals’ offense a dynamic weapon in the passing game that hasn’t excited in a couple of years. But does that potential outweigh the risk?
The case for Chase
Chase is the No. 2 overall prospect in the draft, according to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay despite opting out of the 2020 college season due to the pandemic. In 2019, he led all Power Five receivers with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns, which are staggering numbers for a wide receiver. He bested teammate Justin Jefferson in both categories. Jefferson was a first-round pick last year and posted 1,400 receiving yards in his rookie season with the Vikings.
Chase played an integral role in LSU’s high-octane offense that fueled the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national title.
Burrow, who spent two years at LSU before joining the Bengals, has openly supported the idea of playing with Chase again.
“It’s pretty easy to throw to him when he has 5 yards of separation every snap,” Burrow said in January. “He’s an exciting player and a great guy and a friend as well.”
Cincinnati is in dire need of a speedy playmaker at outside wide receiver. For years, the Bengals relied on A.J. Green to win perimeter battles. Green signed with Arizona during free agency after limited production the past two years, mostly because of injuries.
In 2019, Chase was second in the Power Five in receiving yards when lined up on the outside of the formation, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also ran double the number of vertical routes as Jefferson that season.
Tyler Boyd has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot receivers and Tee Higgins had a breakout rookie season in 2020, but the Bengals lack quality depth at receiver. If the Bengals take Chase and he pans out, Burrow will have a trio of passing options that will immediately boost the offense.
The case against Chase
Taking Chase represents the risk of potentially passing on Oregon’s Penei Sewell, the top-rated offensive tackle in this draft. And between Cincinnati’s poor pass-blocking metrics in 2020 and Burrow’s season-ending knee injury, it’s clear the Bengals need to do a better job of protecting the franchise’s most important investment.
That isn’t the only reservation surrounding Chase. In an extended interview with Bengals play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard, Tobin expressed some trepidation about drafting players who didn’t play in 2020.
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, whose stock soared last season, is also a more versatile receiver than Chase and can be used as a traditional tight end as well. Pitts represents a multi-faceted threat that gives the Bengals some unique advantages given the way Burrow and coach Zac Taylor operate.
One could also argue that players like Pitts and Sewell are harder to find than outside wide receivers such as Chase, even if Chase ends up being as good as advertised. Quality wide receivers could become more abundant as college offenses continue to be geared toward spread-out passing attacks and turning out ready-made pros.
Last year, the top 10 rookie wide receivers averaged 805.3 receiving yards per game. In 2015, the top 10 averaged 541.6 yards per game.
But given the quarterback’s preferences and Cincinnati’s needs, the Bengals might have a tough time passing on Chase if he’s available on draft night.