The Cincinnati Bengals had an important decision to make with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Joe Burrow played plenty well enough in 2020 to solidify his place as the Bengals’ franchise quarterback for as long as he is able to play football. In the draft, the Bengals needed to use that pick to give Burrow the best possible support.
The obvious choice was to select wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. He had one of the best seasons ever for a collegiate wide receiver and was Burrow’s No. 1 target during LSU’s dominant 2019 National Championship run. That seemingly slam dunk pick did, however, come with two issues.
Chase sat out the 2020 COVID shortened college football season and NFL executives are never 100 percent on players who don’t take the field in their final college season. Also, Burrow did not finish his NFL rookie season on the field. The Bengals offensive line struggled all season and in Week 10 Burrow got sandwiched in the backfield and tore his ACL and MCL. It doesn’t matter how many talented players Burrow has to throw the ball to if his offensive line can’t keep him on his feet. Offensive tackle Penei Sewell was the highest rated offensive lineman in the draft, and could most certainly help improve the Bengals’ line.
The Bengals chose Chase, and that decision was met with plenty of criticism. He then struggled in the preseason, which invited more criticism. Now, heading into Week 8, the Bengals sit atop the AFC North and Chase has the most receiving yards through seven games in the history of the NFL: 754.
The Detroit Lions took Sewell with the sixth pick and have yet to win a game this season.
Of course, Sewell isn’t the reason that Lions can’t win! He didn’t kick an NFL record-long field goal to beat them. Hell, Pro Football Focus has graded him the Lions’ best offensive player the last two weeks. Sewell most certainly would’ve helped the Bengals… but Chase has made them an instant legitimate threat. He broke the Ravens last week with a quick slant he turned into an 82-yard touchdown on his way to an eight reception, 201 yard performance.
In Chase’s one season at LSU, when he started in every single game, he averaged 21.2 yards per reception, catching 87 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. Through his first seven NFL games he picked up where he left off in 2019, averaging 21.5 yards per receptions and hauling in six touchdowns.
This should serve as a lesson to all NFL GMs: Every once in a while it’s worth the high risk, not ideal reward situation when the player is a special talent.
It’s like drafting a running back in the top 10 when a team might be able to draft Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry in the second round. Ask the Los Angeles Rams if it was worth drafting running back Todd Gurley in 2015. They moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles the next season with limited fanfare, and by 2018 they had ridden Gurley to the Super Bowl.
Drafting a wide receiver in the first round can also be a risk. It’s sometimes hard to predict how wide receivers will translate to the NFL — ask the New England Patriots about N’Keal Harry, and even if they’re outstanding, they’ll touch the football, at most, around 12 times per game.
Ask the Minnesota Vikings if it was worth using their first-round in 1998 pick to draft Randy Moss when the roster had other holes. Moss needed only 69 catches that season to lead the Vikings to a 15-1 record in what would become one of the most memorable seasons in NFL history.
There were logical reasons for the Bengals to not select Chase with the fifth-overall pick in April, but it was obvious that he was a special football player who already had a connection with the future of their franchise.
The Bengals went with that obvious choice, and now there is a real possibility that they could finish the 2021 season with the best record in the AFC.