Futures: LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase
The last time we saw Ja'Marr Chase play football, the LSU Tigers were hoisting the National Championship trophy after a win over Clemson to finish off one of the most magical seasons in college football history. Shortly thereafter, the COVID mess unraveled and put college football at large in an awkward position, which ultimately led to Chase and many others opting out of playing in 2020. While some players may have lost their shine as prospects after not seeing the field for a year, Chase's stock is still as high as ever.
As a 19-year-old sophomore, Chase led the country in both receiving yards (1,780) and receiving touchdowns (20) on 84 receptions, averaging a stunning 21.2 yards per catch. LSU's offense was an unstoppable machine from top to bottom, but Chase was their go-to guy on the outside. Chase left nothing to be answered through another year of play, even if every single college football fan would have loved to see it.
Chase is the dream bully-ball iso receiver. A true X who can be left alone to one side of the formation, as he often was at LSU, Chase is at his best on slants, glances, hitches, and go balls. Anything that allows him to take just a few steps and snap the route off, or continue working the sideline, is ripe for Chase's moderately explosive and overly aggressive playstyle. Granted, Chase's route tree was a bit limited to just those throws, but it is worth wondering whether that has more to do with his potential rawness as a route-runner or LSU finding their formula and having no reason to stray from it.
Either way, Chase's game is defined by how he plays against contact. Chase is dominant both at the line of scrimmage and further down the field from a physicality standpoint. It is rare that Chase does not outright win the battle of strength as a means to separate. And even if he does not, Chase has shown the perseverance and concentration to win at the catch point despite still being contested.
Former Alabama and current Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (top) found out the hard way what it is like to opt into playing Chase's game. By the middle of the second quarter of the 2019 LSU-versus-Alabama match, Diggs began resorting to a reckless, all-in style of press coverage in which he just threw his body at Chase full-force and hoped for the best. Perhaps Diggs believed simply knocking Chase off-balance at the start would be enough. No technique, no balance, just vibes. As illustrated in the clip, Chase holds his ground, shrugs off Diggs entirely, and takes off down the field for a wide-open completion. Even with Diggs' all-out tactic catching Chase off-guard a bit, the LSU star had zero issue absorbing the contact and immediately using Diggs' aggression against him.
While few cornerbacks tried to get this reckless against Chase over the course of the year, few press reps of any kind went well for opposing defensive backs. What is perhaps more exhausting for defenders is that sticking with Chase off the line of scrimmage was no guarantee of a pass breakup either. Some receivers lose the rep if they lose to press at the snap, but Chase's bully-ball mentality and strength allow him to continue working through the contact and find the ball even when contested. Chase's first half of the Clemson game against now-Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell was uncharacteristically bad in this regard, but for the most part, his film screams of someone who can win with a cornerback draped over his back.
Chase is the slot receiver to the top of the screen. Auburn's slot cornerback honestly does well to be patient with his inside leverage and jam Chase with two hands as the receiver tries to cross his face. The cornerback sticks right onto Chase after flipping his hips and is in a decent position to play this throw from behind the receiver's back. Chase, being the muscled-out bully he is, boxes out the cornerback right as the ball arrives anyway. Even with the ball being placed on Chase's back shoulder and the cornerback draped all over him to disrupt his upper body movement, Chase gets his hands up together right where the ball is. Not once does Chase look like he's straining to fight through the contact or locate the ball while being contested. That kind of assertion and play through contact is critical for third-and-short situations such as this one.
Not that it comes as any surprise, but Chase's yards after catch often come as a result of his mean streak as well. Chase does have good speed and will simply sprint by people from time to time, but it is rare that he breaks down and makes a highlight reel juke move. That just is not how he wins, and that is fine. Chase wants to run through a defensive back's face and he is not afraid to grind out for an extra few yards, which is absolutely necessary for an iso-ball receiver such as himself. No single Chase performance put that on display more than the Ole Miss game.
Chase is to the bottom of the screen in the first clip and top of the screen in the slot for the second clip. Once the ball is in his hands, Chase plays like a running back. He proves himself willing to lower his head and grind it out for a few extra yards, which must be exasperating for defensive backs who already struggle covering him. These are not the kind of YAC plays that end up on SportsCenter, but constantly churning out a few extra yards is how an offense stays ahead of schedule and squeaks out first downs they may not have otherwise earned.
Most of Chase's bully tendencies are easy to see and appreciate. Beating press, fighting through contact, trudging forward for extra yards—it's all just a matter of outmuscling the other guy. Where Chase's play strength becomes more fascinating is during vertical routes.
The production shows Chase as a phenomenal deep threat, yet on film it is rare that he is just sprinting by people. Chase reportedly ran a 4.38s 40 at the LSU pro day, which can probably be adjusted closer to 4.48s because pro day times are often generous, but he is not a special burner. Chase instead makes his money down the field with exceptional hand-fighting and the ability to extend an arm to slow down cornerbacks at the last second without losing any of his own speed. In other words, Chase often is not "open" until literally right before he needs to be.
Chase (bottom) just does not allow cornerbacks to get "in phase" comfortably. Auburn's cornerback does fine to press Chase and turn to run with him. However, the moment the cornerback wants to lean in to attach to Chase's hip, Chase starts fighting with him and never really gives him a clean transition to get in phase. Just after the ball goes up, Chase slightly slows his stride, leans into the cornerback, and extends his arm to propel past him while forcing the cornerback to slow his stride. This kind of subtle, effective contact makes it so easy for Chase to create that late window of separation.
Here is Chase doing the same thing to Terrell, a first-round pick in 2020. Terrell does an even better job than the Auburn cornerback to get in phase with Chase and turn his head around to look for the ball, but it was all for naught. Just before the ball arrives, Chase rips down at Terrell's arm and again lightly pushes himself off the cornerback. Chase is able to seamlessly flow right under the ball while Terrell is stuck on the same vertical track until it is too late.
Chase's also shows his vertical prowess by how instantly he can bring himself to a halt. Whether it is to play a back-shoulder ball or adjust to an underthrown deep pass that becomes a 50-50 ball, Chase can decelerate at a moment's notice and work himself right back into an advantageous position. Sprinkle that on top of Chase's ability to comfortably find the ball from any position and you get a wide receiver who can be open when he really is not open.
Chase (bottom) loses a good 90% of this rep. He does not win at the line of scrimmage, nor does he ever stack on top of the cornerback to beat him vertically. Quarterback Joe Burrow put his faith in Chase anyway and let the 50-50 ball fly. On vertical routes like this, the cornerback is mostly waiting on a cue from the wide receiver to fully turn to look for the ball and come back to it if need be. Chase gives the cornerback very little chance to play off such a cue. Just before the pass arrives, Chase goes from full speed to a dead stop. He swims back to inside leverage, leaps before the cornerback can adjust, and extends his arms out in front of the ball with ease. Seeing as no wide receiver is going to get open every play, it is valuable to have workarounds like Chase shows on this play.
What has propelled Chase beyond his peers for many analysts is not just how strong his positive traits are, but how unconcerning his negative traits are. For one, Chase does not have the same size and frame concerns that both Alabama wide receivers, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, are facing. Chase is not lacking in any particular athletic area either. Though it is fair to say he has no athletic trump card, Chase is plenty fast, explosive, strong, and smooth for 6-foot, 201 pounds.
If anything on the film stood out as an issue for Chase, it would be the aforementioned raw route-running skills. Chase can get lazy and roll out of the top of his routes or favor simply bullying his way through the route break, all of which could be a function of having a limited route tree as well as only being 19 years old. It is clear that Chase has the athletic traits to be a good route-runner, though. Chase also shows flashes of impressive nuance in other areas of the game, such as his work in creating separation late down the field, so it may be fair to assume Chase is plenty capable of picking up cleaner route mechanics as time goes on. Even still, Chase's college route-running was not bad, per se, it just was not an elite trait of his.
Chase is worthy of being the first wide receiver off the board. Though not a transcendent Julio Jones-level prospect, Chase is just a tier below that and has as well-rounded a profile as anyone could realistically ask for. It would be nice if Chase had a truly game-changing athletic trait, but he more than clears the bar in every area and plays with a level of physicality that is rare to find in a wide receiver of his caliber. Chase can step in right away and produce as an iso-ball stud while working to refine a fuller route tree.