Prospect Profile: Ja'Marr Chase is a Davante Adams/Michael Crabtree Hybrid
Ja'Marr Chase produced one of the greatest college football seasons from a wide receiver in recent memory. Eighty four receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns is a staggering line. But Chase doesn't stand out on tape the way many other star wide receivers do, and it's harder to determine exactly what makes him great. In fact, I find that it's easiest to begin by stating what he is not (shout out apophatic mystics).
He is not a 220-plus pound monster like D.K. Metcalf or Julio Jones.
He is not a massive downfield target like Mike Evans, or a spectacular catch artist like OBJ.
His routes are not filled with ankle-breaking jukes like Keenan Allen's.
He is not an explosive burner like Tyreek Hill, or a YAC monster like A.J. Brown.
Chase's game is more subtle. His 4.38 speed and 41" vert don't always show up on tape, but the strength that underlies those numbers does. In fact, that's the trait that allowed Chase to dominate college football in 2019: elite physicality.
Takeaways from the Tape
There are lots of ways to win a go route. Guys like Tyreek Hill can simply out-sprint DBs. Others employ trickery or a bizarre release cadence to put the DB on his heels. Still others don't even worry about separating and are content to high-point the ball over shorter defenders.
Chase's approach is different, and exemplifies his hallmark physicality. As you watch this first clip, look for how Chase wins each phase of the route:
Win #1—A Clean Release: The CB tries to press him at the line of scrimmage, but Chase clears the defender's hands and releases clean through the contact.
Win #2—Stacking the CB: Winning position on a go route requires stacking the CB—essentially, establishing downfield position to wall the CB off and create a deep window for the pass. Chase achieves this by initiating, and ultimately winning the hand-fighting battle. It begins between the 45 and 40 yard line, and by the time they reach the 35 Chase has successfully stacked the CB.
Win #3—Separation at the Catch Point: Right before the ball arrives Chase gives the CB a straight-arm. It's just this side of offensive pass-interference, and creates enough separation for Chase to make an easy, unmolested, over-the-shoulder catch.
(Bottom of the screen:)
None of what Chase does on this play requires explosive athleticism; he's not burning the CB with track speed, out-leaping him at the catch point, or juking him to the turf. Instead, he's building incremental advantages at each stage of the route through smart, physical play.
Chase's tape is brimming with this stuff. Here's an example where he releases through a violent press attempt. The CB (now Cowboys starter Trevon Diggs) tries to jam him at the line but Chase shoves him to the ground, creating massive separation and a big play (top of the screen).
In this next example a different CB tries to bully Chase and knock him off his route. But Chase fights through the contact and emerges in position to make an easy catch (slot, top of the screen).
Here's yet another play in which the CB tries to interrupt his route, but is simply unable to do so. More often than not, sparring with Chase is a losing proposition (top of the screen).
Finally, here's an example of Chase creating leverage at the catch point with a quick and subtle shove to the CB's back (bottom of the screen).
This aptitude for winning contact defines Ja'Marr Chase as a player. And combining that trump card with a multitude of high quality athletic traits (speed, quickness, strength, agility, footwork, body control) is what makes Chase a unique and dangerous player.
Suitable comps for Chase will be well-rounded athletes with a knack for winning contact.
I've seen Michael Crabtree and Davante Adams mentioned as NFL comps.* Crabtree makes sense as an extremely physical player that produced at a high level despite lacking top-end explosiveness. Adams brings out a slightly different side of Chase's game; he came into the League with a college resume built around contested catches, and proceeded to blossom as a route runner in Green Bay. That sort of trajectory is certainly plausible for Chase.
Another player that fits the mold is Eric Decker. While he was never the most explosive, Decker's game featured a potent blend of strength, speed, quickness, body control, and footwork. And, of course, he was more than willing to mix it up with DBs. Here's a clip of Decker (in college) creating a bit of contact to separate on a deep route.
Chase makes excellent use of that same shoulder-check move on his vertical patterns. This next play shows Decker throwing a CB off him as he releases on a slant—another move that Chase is familiar with (bottom of the screen).
And one last clip to illustrate the comfort playing through contact that both players possess. Notice how Decker controls the route by keeping the CB off balance, and works himself into position to make the reception without separating.
There are absolutely differences between Crabtree, Adams, and Decker, but together they outline the broad genre of player that Chase fits into: a receiver that relies more on footwork, body control, and strength than on explosive athleticism, and that shines his brightest when fighting through tough, physical coverage.
Encouragingly, Chase might be the best athlete of the bunch. With the important caveat that pro-day numbers are often inflated compared to combine numbers, Chase's testing suggests that he may be able to take this style of play to even greater heights.
Probable Career Outcomes
Humans can't predict the future, but with some good scouting (or statistical modeling) it's possible to sketch a fuzzy outline of probable outcomes.
The probability curve below is a freehand approximation, and is not algorithm-generated. Think of it as a prospect grade, much like other analysts assign scores such as "83 out of 100", "6.2 out of 10", "blue-chip player", or "B+".
Ja'Marr Chase Career Outcome Probability Distribution
Open Questions That Will Shape Chase's Career
The answers to the following questions will determine where Chase ultimately lands on the spectrum of possible career outcomes:
Will Chase be able to develop as a route runner in a similar way to Davante Adams? Right now, he relies on athleticism and physicality to get open. Adding an element of deception would take his game to the next level.
In college, Chase occasionally fell back on his superior strength to dig himself out of disadvantageous positions. Will he be able to use physicality as a trump card in the same way as a pro?
For Chase to hit his ceiling, the answer to this first question must be, "Yes, he will develop as a route runner." On the other hand, if Chase does not excel at the next level it will likely be because the answer to the second question is, "No, his physicality failed to translate against better, stronger athletes."
Let's also not forget that Chase was a one year wonder in college, with a fantastic season that was no doubt bolstered by historically great QB play and a historically great offense. This doesn't ruin his outlook, but only producing one elite season adds a bit of uncertainty to his projection.
Count me in as a believer, but it's important to acknowledge how the incomplete aspects of Chase's profile create opportunities for his career to go in either direction: all the way to the top of the WR ranks a la Davante Adams, or down to the bottom with the likes of other strength-based WRs that failed to develop as route-runners.
*Crabtree comp from @Nate_Tice, via @BerkKitchen. Adams comp from Danny Kelly via The Ringer's NFL Draft Guide.