The Spotlight Series
A Footballguys Spotlight is an in-depth look at a player. His plusses and minuses are examined, and we give you our bottom-line stance on his 2022 prospects. If a player listed below doesn't yet have a link, don't worry. It's coming soon.
Ja'Marr Chase’s rookie season set plenty of historical marks. His 1,455 receiving yards were the second-most by a rookie, exceeded only by Bill Groman in 1960. He joined Randy Moss as the only rookie wide receivers with more than six receiving touchdowns from 40-plus yards out.
The connection that Chase and Joe Burrow nurtured in college showed immediate results on an NFL field. Chase finished his rookie season as the No. 5 fantasy receiver (PPR) and is ranked near-unanimously as this year’s WR3 behind Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson.
2021 Year-End Wide Receiver Rankings (PPR)
|1||Cooper Kupp LAR||145||1947||13.4||16||25.7||437.5|
|2||Davante Adams GB||123||1553||12.6||11||21.5||344.3|
|3||Deebo Samuel SF||77||1405||18.2||6||21.4||343.2|
|4||Justin Jefferson MIN||108||1616||15.0||10||19.6||332.8|
|5||Ja'Marr Chase CIN||81||1455||18.0||13||18.0||306.6|
|6||Tyreek Hill KC||111||1239||11.2||9||17.6||298.5|
|7||Stefon Diggs BUF||103||1225||11.9||10||16.8||285.5|
|8||Diontae Johnson PIT||107||1161||10.9||8||17.3||276.4|
|9||Mike Evans TB||74||1035||14.0||14||16.4||262.5|
|10||Hunter Renfrow LV||103||1038||10.1||9||15.4||261.1|
But despite his splashy plays and season-end finish, there are some concerns. He ranked 38th in target rate. His 7.5 targets per game are another cause for concern. Sterling Shepard and Jakobi Meyers drew more targets per game, by comparison. In games where Tee Higgins was healthy and active, he commanded more opportunities than Chase and put up better fantasy production.
The range of outcomes for Ja'Marr Chase in 2022 seems broad. Last year, we saw DK Metcalf dip in efficiency and become a boom-or-bust WR2. The same could happen to Chase. Or, he could continue his pace from last year and put up another top-5 season. And the most intriguing possibility; what if he’s able to keep up his efficiency with increased usage? Chase could put up one of the best seasons if that happens.
So, is Chase worth his price tag as a mid-first-round pick in fantasy football? The answer comes down to your risk tolerance.
While Chase has red flags that point to regression, his ceiling is higher than anyone else’s, and he makes for a solid pick in the first round.
- His rookie year production put him in elite company
- A boost in usage is all but guaranteed for someone of his pedigree
- A volume increase will raise his floor
- His ceiling is as high as any wide receiver in the NFL
Putting Chase’s season into perspective
Disclaimer: We’ll focus on the Super Bowl era (1966-present) for the rest of this article. Elroy Hirsch, Harlon Hill, Cloyce Box, Bill Groman, and others will only muddle the data.
Justin Jefferson had one of the best rookie seasons ever two years ago: 125 targets, 88 receptions, 1,400 yards, and seven touchdowns. Chase surpassed those numbers last season with slightly less volume and an extra (17th) game. He racked up 128 targets, 81 receptions, 1,455 yards, and 13 touchdowns. As impressive as those numbers are, it’s worth noting that Jefferson, Odell Beckham Jr, and Anquan Boldin averaged more yards per game than Chase. Although Chase had a 3.5-yard per game advantage over Randy Moss’s rookie season, Moss had four more touchdowns. It’s fair to say Chase had one of the best rookie seasons, but let’s stop short of calling it THE best.
Modern Era Rookie Receivers, Sorted by Fantasy Points (1966-2021)
|3||Odell Beckham Jr||2014||12||91||1305||14.34||12||206.0|
The records set in a 17-game season should be written in the NFL annals with an asterisk. T.J. Watt tied the sack record. Tom Brady set the completions record. Jaylen Waddle set the rookie reception record. Justin Herbert set the record for most passing touchdowns in the first two seasons of a career. And, of course, Chase set the rookie receiving yard record. As fun as those are, none of the per-game numbers surpassed the previously-held marks.
Similar rookies and how they fared in Year 2
Chase’s 85.6 receiving yards per game came in as the fourth-most by a rookie. Odell Beckham Jr Jr., Justin Jefferson, Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, and Michael Thomas round out the top-six rookie seasons based on per-game yardage.
As expected, almost all of those receivers saw a per-game target boost in Year 2. Beckham averaged an absurd 10.8 targets per game as a rookie and was the only player to see a targets drop in Year 2. Overall, these five receivers saw a 9.9-percent increase in targets per game following their rookie season. Their receptions coincided with a bump of 2.1-percent.
Here’s where things get weird. These standout rookies saw their per-game yardage totals drop by four percent. And their touchdowns dropped by a whopping 29.5 percent! Justin Jefferson, who saw the fewest touchdowns as a rookie, was the only receiver who increased his touchdowns in his second year. When comparing Chase to the sample, he had the lowest number of targets per game. Only Randy Moss had a higher touchdown rate. Those two numbers make a compelling case for regression in 2022.
If Chase hits those average regressions on the nose, he will score 277 PPR fantasy points this year. That would have been good for WR8 overall last year, so still more than serviceable as your team's No. 1 option. This is probably the most likely outcome. Chase will see a boost in targets, but extra attention from the defense will make production harder to come by.
But what happens if he doesn’t regress?
As mentioned earlier, Chase was not a product of elite usage last year. His per-game target numbers were the lowest out of the six rookie receivers in the sample. He ranked 23rd in target share last year. Target share is the number of team pass attempts that when his way. He ranked 38th in targets per route run. That means he was often on the field (top-five in route participation) but wasn’t heavily targeted. His fantasy output was generated by drawing high-value targets deep downfield and racking up yards after the catch.
Terry McLaurin:— Dave Kluge (@DaveKluge) July 14, 2022
Chase's abilities after the catch are otherwordly. If he sees a target bump in 2022, he will break fantasy football.
Typically, as a player's average target depth goes up, their yards after the catch dip. But not for Chase. He averaged 8.0 yards after the catch. For players with over 120 targets, only Deebo Samuel had more. Not only was he drawing high-value targets deep downfield, but he was capitalizing on them with elite yardage after the catch.
Chase’s target depth ranked inside the Top 20, and his yards after the catch ranked fourth overall (minimum 50 targets). Drawing deep targets and ripping off yards after the catch generated 11.4 yards per target. That was second-most in the NFL last year, and the most a rookie with at least 100 targets has ever recorded.
If Chase sees just a 10-percent target bump while maintaining his efficiency, he's looking at over 1,600 yards this season, which is similar to the growth we saw by Justin Jefferson from his rookie to sophomore campaigns. Considering Chase’s draft capital and connection with Joe Burrow, the team will focus on getting him the ball. Although he’ll be drawing extra attention from defenses, he’s got the skillset and athleticism to continue ripping off chunk plays.
And what happens if everything goes right?
Last year, Chase’s efficiency was unprecedented for a rookie. As mentioned, his yards per target ranked better than any rookie in NFL history, passing the mark Justin Jefferson had set just a year prior.
Justin Jefferson saw a massive target bump between his first and second years in the league, going from 7.8 to 9.2 targets per game, a 25.7-percent increase. Let’s pro-rate that target increase to Chase’s rookie season with last year’s yards per target and touchdown rate.
- 161 targets
- 102 receptions
- 1,835 yards
- 17 touchdowns
A 25.7-percent bump in targets and rookie-year efficiency pace would generate the fourth-best fantasy season by a wide receiver ever. Only Cooper Kupp (2021), Jerry Rice (1995), and Antonio Brown (2015) logged more fantasy points in a single season. When discussing Chase’s potential, that’s what should be envisioned.
How does Tee Higgins fit into the offense?
Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase ranked in the Top 12 in route participation, meaning they were being utilized heavily when on the field. Their usage rates across the board are nearly identical. Chase’s edge comes from his ability after the catch and a nose for the end zone.
These are their season-long numbers:
|Wide Receiver||Target Share||Target Rate||Air Yards Share||Yards/Route Run||Avg Depth of Target||YAC/Reception||TDs/Target|
Joe Burrow utilizes both players at a similar rate in the same depths of the field, but Chase had over twice as many yards after the catch and a much better touchdown rate.
Coming into the league, Chase tested off the charts with a 4.34 40-yard dash and 90-percentile numbers across the board. Higgins isn’t quite as athletic. With a 4.54 40-yard dash at his pro day and less-than-desirable athletic testing, his draft stock was largely based on his size. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Higgins uses his long frame to make tough catches.
Higgins dealt with injuries throughout the 2021 season. Chase saw over 90 percent of the team’s snaps in 11 games. Higgins played that many snaps just once. With Higgins’ injury keeping him limited in plenty of matchups, we only have one five-game stretch where Chase and Higgins played a minimum of 75 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Here’s how they did in that stretch:
As expected, the usage during those games was nearly identical. Burrow kept both receivers involved in the offense at similar rates, and their production was close.
During their four-game playoff run, we saw similar trends in utilization and output between the two superstar receivers.
This should be expected with two great options for Burrow to throw to. Chase’s ceiling is undeniably higher than Higgins’ because of his athletic profile, but both will see hefty target shares in 2022.
So, where should Ja'Marr Chase be drafted in fantasy football?
As fun as it is to go against the grain and make attention-grabbing takes, Chase seems to have settled in exactly where he belongs in fantasy football drafts. With Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson being a lock for 160-plus targets, it’s tough to make a responsible argument for taking Chase ahead of them. There’s a risk that he regresses in Year Two, but his athleticism and usage should insulate him from falling anywhere outside the Top 12. If he can garner a significant bump in usage while maintaining his otherworldly efficiency, he could log one of the best fantasy football seasons of all time.
33.3% of Ja'Marr Chase's fantasy points came from six plays last year.— Dave Kluge (@DaveKluge) April 22, 2022
Obviously, the ability to rip off chunk plays is Chase's best skill. But those are also tough to rely on week in and week out.
Give me Justin Jefferson and Cooper Kupp in fantasy football over Chase.
Stats and Projections
I have Ja'Marr Chase as the final pick in the top-five tier. However, some fantasy football managers tend to absorb more risk with their earlier selections. A case can be made to take Chase first overall this year because his ceiling is that high. Even if he fails to meet those expectations, he should still finish comfortably within the Top 10 wide receiver.
The Bengals offense should remain among the league’s best. Chase’s status as the premier playmaker will reap plenty of points. He will break fantasy football records and justify any draft spot if he can maintain his rookie-year pace while seeing a target bump. Draft him with confidence in the first round.
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