After playing in his second-ever NFL game, Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase left the field frustrated. And rightfully so.
Chase, the Bengals’ first-round pick from April’s NFL Draft, had all three of his first-quarter targets hit his hands against the Washington Football Team. All three footballs found the grass instead of staying in his gloves.
Bengals rookie WR Ja'Marr Chase (fifth overall pick) with three targets, three drops in his second preseason game. pic.twitter.com/hQw1Ak2y0U— The Comeback (@thecomeback) August 21, 2021
Preseason or not, mistakes aren’t fun to watch. They aren’t meaningless for coaches and players, especially the latter when they’re fighting for their jobs.
But Chase isn’t fighting for his job. He’s not battling for playing time. What he is battling is something usual and something unusual.
It’s not ground-breaking to see a rookie receiver take a minute to adapt to the speed of the NFL. Chase all but said that was the case for him last week after a few less-than-stellar practices.
Ever since that press conference, the switch seemed to flip for him. We watched him make highlight grabs during red zone drills instead of doing pushups after drops. He was the star of this past Monday’s practice, reeling in multiple touchdowns during 11-on-11 work.
Then Friday night happened, and the drops came back in force. The first throw was a bit behind him, but the pigskin hit him in the hands regardless. The second one came with All-Pro safety Landon Collins charging at his face over the middle. The third one arrived as he was re-adjusting his balance after breaking from the press corner.
All three plays aren’t ideal to see from a starting NFL receiver, but all three featured very ordinary errors from a first-year player. Excuses? Yes. Context? Also yes.
Context is also important in the overall equation here. Chase played college football for two years before coming to Cincinnati this spring. He’s played above the high school level for a total of 29 games now.
27 of them featured Joe Burrow as his quarterback, and that doesn’t even include the countless practices going all the way back to 2018.
Chase’s experience as a high-level receiver is entirely tied to Burrow. Two years of chemistry needed a week or so to get back on the same page this month, but it’s chemistry that Chase’s game was built on at LSU.
That chemistry doesn’t exist with backup quarterback Brandon Allen.
The progress Chase has exhibited in practice has come with Burrow under center. The 21-year old wideout has only practiced with Allen once or twice since training camp began. For a rookie receiver that just took a year off from football, adjusting to a different in-game quarterback after practicing all week with another has a bigger impact than meets the eye.
What looks like inexcusable drops are oftentimes paired with awkward timing. The level of understanding mid-route when the ball is supposed to arrive isn’t there with a quarterback Chase has very little experience playing with.
On top of everything else, drops are notoriously mental, not an indictment of a lack of talent. A receiver can deal with drops one week and snag everything that comes his way the next. The year-to-year correlation is non-existent for most as well.
It’s not normal for a rookie receiver having to practice with one quarterback and play with another. But that’s the reality the Bengals are dealing with. It’s the reality Chase has to fight through for one more week.
If the issues continue when Burrow is throwing his way, we’ll start looking for the panic button. But not a moment sooner.