Plenty of NFL fans and analysts were a bit stunned by the Cincinnati Bengals passing on top offensive line prospect Penei Sewell for top wide receiver prospect Ja’Marr Chase. Reports leading up to the draft hinted at Cincinnati favoring the wideout over the blocker, but many still didn’t believe it to be true.
One of the non-believers was former NFL receiver and current Good Morning Football analyst Nate Burleson.
When the Bengals made Chase the first receiver to be taken in the 2021 NFL Draft, Burleson could’ve chosen the easy route and drag the Bengals for passing on the extremely talented Sewell. ESPN’s Booger McFarland did it right after it happened. Former GM Mike Tannenbaum went as far as claiming the Bengals should be revoked from the NFL if they pass on Sewell.
Burleson made no such attempt. Instead, he chose to see the forest for the trees, and perfectly describe why it was in the Bengals’ best interest to take Chase.
“I feel like they weren’t thinking about the AFC North,” Burleson said on GMFB. “I believe that they were thinking about the AFC. They went for Chase because they were thinking about going up against Patrick Mahomes. And why not? If you’re gonna swing, swing big.”
For the full video on the Bengals’ YouTube page, click here.
This was the idea that Team Chase was built on.
The AFC North is a competitive division. Bengals fans may be biased when it comes to this, but even outsiders very much know the perception of how the division operates. In the past, the only way to get through the other three teams was by running the football and stopping the run. The best way to determine the top team was to count how many players weren’t injured by the hands of the other teams. The roster with the most bodies left standing was then invited to the playoffs, and making the playoffs is pretty much all the division can say it’s done in recent years.
The Baltimore Ravens completed an improbable Super Bowl run with elite Joe Flacco in the 2013 postseason. Since then, AFC North teams have won just six of 19 total playoff games. If it needs to be said, the Bengals are 0-3 during this timeframe. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the only team out of the four to make an AFC Championship game; they lost to the eventual Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots in the 2017 playoffs.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Twitter user Joff Callaghan, there have been three playoff games featuring two AFC North teams, so the AFC North is actually 3-10 against non-AFC North teams in the playoffs since Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory.
While the North stayed in their comfortable past, the rest of the AFC began evolving.
Teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills got ahead of the curve. Patrick Mahomes is in the middle of establishing the next great dynasty with the Chiefs, and Josh Allen is starting to hit his stride with the Bills. Even the Los Angeles Chargers—led by Justin Herbert—are primed to become a force in the near future... that is, if the devil is done meddling with the Chargers altogether.
These franchises, as well as the NFC powerhouses, have one thing in common: They pass the ball really well. They have talented quarterbacks that can throw accurately all over the field, and they deploy dangerous receivers to catch those accurate passes.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh don’t have the firepower to compete with these squads. Cleveland is definitely closer, but they need to figure out if Baker Mayfield is going to take that next step. The Ravens need to see the same from Lamar Jackson, and wouldn’t you know it, they drafted two receivers in the first four rounds to help him out. The Steelers are just going to throw the corpse of Ben Roethlisberger out on the field until they can’t perform Weekend at Bernie’s with him anymore. Mason Rudolph’s got next, I guess.
Then there’s the Bengals, who, despite all the manufactured controversy, just added a true No. 1 receiver to an offense that already had Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Burrow.
Like Burleson said, that group can now compete with the best of them.
Of course, the pushback against this fast-track approach is understandable. Former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis always preached the importance of matching up with the rest of the division. That was the priority, and he built his teams to best accomplish that. This fan base may still have indifferent sentiments towards Lewis, but they can agree he was better at competing within the division compared to Zac Taylor—thus far, at least.
But is it not interesting that the two best teams in the Lewis era—the 2005 and 2015 Bengals—featured top of the line passing games, each featuring three very good receivers? Yes, those teams had offensive lines comprised of talented players, but more importantly, those units didn’t have any glaring holes. The Bengals’ projected offensive line for 2021 also doesn’t have a glaring hole; not after the recent selection of Jackson Carman in the second round.
Getting to the playoffs by outlasting your division is cool. Getting to the Super Bowl by beating the best teams in your conference is not only cooler, it’s closer to the ultimate goal: Winning the whole damn thing.
Ja’Marr Chase alone—much like Penei Sewell alone—does not make the Bengals Super Bowl contenders. So much of who the Bengals are right now is projection. They can be competitive, but actually being competitive requires tangible proof. They do need to get through their division and make the playoffs before they can actually attempt to take down the Chiefs and Bills.
But, if they have assembled an offensive attack that can legitimately compete with those teams, imagine what they’d be able to do against their divisional foes.
It’s a dream worth chasing.