Ja’Marr Chase demands your rookie of the year attention

The Cincinnati Bengals are 5-2 and in first place in the AFC North. This is wildly surprising.

The 2021 Bengals were supposed to be the worst team in their division. Their preseason win total was set at 6.5 games. They were +500 just to make the playoffs and +2000 to win the North, per Tipico.

It’s still early in the season — Cincinnati has 10 games left to squander any and all goodwill, after all — but this turnaround has been stunning. How did the Bengals get here? Well, offseason acquisitions Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi have each punched up a depleted defense and a patchwork offensive line has dropped Joe Burrow’s pressure rate down from 24 percent to 18 percent this fall.

That’s not especially exciting, however, and thus not what we’re here to talk about. This column is all about 2021 offensive rookie of the year favorite and barely-contained cyclone Ja’Marr Chase.

Chase’s preseason case of the dropsies lowered him to a +1300 underdog for the award as the season approached — eighth best in his class. His explosive playmaking in the two months since have moved him to a +250 pick, lowest among any first year player and light years from the next closest wideout (DeVonta Smith and Rondale Moore, +2000, per Tipico). He doesn’t just lead all rookies in receiving yards by a significant margin (though he’s got nearly 200 yards on No. 2 Kyle Pitts), he’s also second in the entire NFL and on pace for a rookie-record 1,830 yards this fall.

Of course, that all somehow fails to capture the secondary-breaking chaos he brings to the field each week. It looks something like this:

He said he was going to break records.

Watch on CBS pic.twitter.com/xQWFlrj3YC

— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) October 24, 2021

It’s all a wild journey for a player whose selection at fifth overall sparked (completely legitimate) questions about whether Cincinnati should have drafted an offensive lineman instead. Chase joined a well-established receiving corps and rose to the top of it by Week 1. Reuniting with the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback he boosted at LSU paid immediate dividends. In turn, last season’s 27th-ranked passing offense currently ranks 12th.

Here’s how this stunning turnaround is taking place.

Why Ja’Marr Chase is a tempting offensive rookie of the year bet, even at +250

Though seven weeks, here’s where Chase ranks among all rookie wide receivers and tight ends in pass catching stats

Let’s repeat that last number again because it bears repeating. Joe Burrow gains, on average, 14.8 yards every time he decides to throw the ball in Ja’Marr Chase’s direction. Those aren’t just stunning numbers for a rookie, they’re incredible production in general. For comparison’s sake, let’s juxtapose Chase and 2020 offensive rookie of the year runner-up Justin Jefferson (his former LSU teammate) through his first seven games as a starter:

Not only has Chase been better than Jefferson, but he’s also got a two-game head start on him since JJ was a relative non-factor to start the Vikings’ season last fall. Jefferson would have been a worthy ORoY last season, but instead was beaten out by Justin Herbert. Let’s dial things back to the last wide receiver to win the award: New York Giant Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014:

Chase has a massive advantage over OBJ’s start, though it’s worth noting the All-Pro wideout truly separated himself from the pack in Weeks 14-17 that season (43 catches, 606 yards, seven touchdowns). If Chase can hold this pace, he’d finish the year with 500 more receiving yards and three more touchdowns than Beckham in ’14.

Traditional stats clearly love Chase’s chances to be 2021’s most impactful rookie. What do advanced stats say? By measure of average cushion, he’s one of the most tightly-covered targets in the league when it comes to where opposing defensive backs square him up. He’s also been fairly well covered, too; his 2.0 yards of separation per target are fourth-lowest in the NFL. Of course, once he gets the ball in his hands he’s a nightmare. Chase runs for more than eight yards after the catch per reception — approximately five more yards per catch than NFL’s Next Gen Stats would reasonably expect a similar receiver to gain. Only one other player, teammate CJ Uzomah, averages more than 3.7 surplus YAC over expected.

This could mean regression is coming as teams give him more respect at the line of scrimmage. Or it may mean coverage is tight and he just happens to make plays anyway because he was lab-built to handle all this. Chase can turn a deep ball or a crossing route into a 50-yard touchdown, which means even as teams begin to double him there’s no simple trick to slowing him down.

So Chase gets the ball and does more with it than anyone else in the league. How does that translate to the scoreboard? Expected points added (EPA) breaks down every play to determine how many points a player would typically be responsible for in any given game, per RBSDM’s Ben Baldwin and Sebastian Carl. It’s not a perfect metric, but it’s a useful tool for player-to-player comparisons to see who is making the most of his snaps.

And Chase is making the most of his snaps. Here’s how he stands against the other WR/RB/TE rookies selected within the top 50 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft:

Holy crap! His best game was twice as valuable as anyone else’s best game except Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. He’s the only player in this group to not have a negative EPA in any week this season. He is lapping the competition when it comes to skill players. How about quarterbacks?

Yep, still checks out.

Is Chase a lock to win the award?

No, of course not. There’s a five-man rookie class of starting quarterbacks, and a midseason surge from any of them could catapult them into the lead.

Mac Jones, sitting at the second-best odds through seven weeks (+400), could overtake Chase by becoming the first non-Tom Brady quarterback to lead the New England Patriots to the playoffs since Drew Bledsoe in 1997. As seen above, he’s the only other rookie inside Chase’s stratosphere when it comes to total EPA. Justin Fields’ Chicago Bears are still in the postseason race at 3-4. While he’d have to have a massive come-up to elbow his way into the discussion, he can’t be ruled out just yet.

But rookie of the year voters don’t hold quarterbacks on a pedestal the same way they do when it comes to MVP voting. Saquon Barkley held off Baker Mayfield’s hot finish in 2018. Todd Gurley won the 2015 award despite a 4,000-yard season from Jameis Winston. That’s not the toughest competition, but Jones/Fields/sure-why-not-Trey-Lance-too will probably fall into that range rather than the Herbert/Dak Prescott/Kyler Murray tier of QBs who’ve won the award.

If that lends an advantage to skill players, there may only be two fellow rookies capable of unseating Chase. Jaylen Waddle is the only first-year player with more receptions than the Bengals star, hauling in 44 passes with a stellar 77 percent catch rate for an otherwise woeful Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately for him, those have mostly come on short-range dump offs — his average target depth is 5.6 yards compared to Chase’s 14.4 — and he’s been increasingly let down by second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

The more realistic threat may be the player who went one spot ahead of Chase in last spring’s draft, Kyle Pitts. Pitts took a few weeks to drop into gear, but has emerged as a worthy successor to Julio Jones’ place in the hearts of Falcons fans across the globe:

SHEESH. @kylepitts__ #NationalTightEndsDay

📺: #ATLvsMIA on FOX
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/bz2iz7WEAS

— NFL (@NFL) October 24, 2021

Pitts had 15 catches for 189 yards in his first four games. He’s had 16 for 282 the past two — both Falcons wins. That’s the kind of pace he needs to sustain in order to catch Chase, and it’s going to be tough to do. Even so, he’s proven he can be a high-value target alongside Calvin Ridley. If he can help lift Atlanta to an unlikely playoff berth the same way Chase is, he’ll provide award voters with a tough decision.

But if the Bengals wideout is the beneficiary of a small sample size, Pitts’ is downright tiny. Games against the one-win Jets and Dolphins aren’t exactly the kind of evidence you’d base a 1,200-yard season on. Hanging 200+ yards on the Ravens? That’s a little more sustainable.

So yeah, a +250 ticket on Chase to win offensive rookie of the year isn’t a bad bet. You can wait as see if an early season hiccup makes those odds a little longer, but with showdowns against the Jets (No. 23 passing defense), Browns (No. 20), and Raiders (No. 17) looming, this might be the most favorable number you get from here on out.

But hey, if you want to read too much into Pitts’ last two games, you can still get him at +2200 to steal the award away from his fellow SEC veteran.

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