If it hadn't been Joe Burrow and his rehab all the time every day and how sharply he has thrown the ball, the top story of the Bengals Spring would have been the polished professionalism and eye-catching versatility of first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase.
(That and how Tee Higgins left last season with the body type of A.J. Green and came back looking like Andre Johnson.)
The coaches have been quite pleased with how quickly Chase, the fifth pick in the draft, has absorbed the scheme of the wide receiver role in the offense. Which didn't surprise his partner in prime time from LSU's dream season of 2019. Burrow maybe hinted this week what exactly he told these guys about Chase before the draft.
"Everybody's been surprised by how smart he was and I told everyone coming in, 'He's not going to bust, he's going to know exactly what to do, he's going to be a pro,' and that's exactly what's happened," Burrow said. "He's super smooth on the field. It doesn't look like he's going super hard and guys are coming to me and saying is he going hard? Then we go up against the defense and he looks exactly the same and he's doing the same, but he's just at a different speed than everybody else. He's going to be great for us and he's a great friend as well."
Chase practices with the gritty air of a seasoned vet. He doesn't say much, goes hard and gets in the right spot. And all with a smile. Another thing that has impressed the staff is even though he didn't play last year, he came in here in top physical shape.
"I've just been impressed with his professionalism," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "He was in great shape. He was everything you would expect from a guy that you took where we took him in the draft. And then mentally, he works at it. He doesn't say a lot and he just goes. He does all the things that are required of a receiver at this level to have success. I think that will keep his learning curve, ultimately, not very steep. I think he'll fit right in and play like any NFL receiver's expected to play. I think that he's really been impressive in that regard, as far his ability to pick it up quickly mentally and then physically being able to translate those things on the field."
And you have to keep track of him on said field. In one of the few seven-on-seven sessions of the spring on Tuesday, Chase caught four of Burrow's nine passes from all sorts of spots. In the slot. Outside. In motion.
And that body type is intriguing. You just don't see a lot of receivers built like that nowadays. He's 6-0, 205 pounds and is shaped and runs like a running back, but has the vertical leap and vise-like hands that make him a towering down-field threat. It's significant that the NFL scouts have to go all the way back to the 2003 draft and Anquan Boldin for a comp.
And as great as Boldin was, he ran the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 4.71 seconds while leaping vertically at barely 33 inches. At his pro day, Chase went 4.38 and 41 inches, respectively. Obviously testing numbers don't translate to the field and they didn't prevent Boldin from having a borderline Hall of Fame career (nearly 14,000 yards in 14 seasons with more than 1,000 catches and 82 touchdowns), but imagine if Chase is a faster Anquan Boldin?
"He has a unique skillset as a player. His physical dimensions are unique," Callahan said. "I know he's not a big and tall guy. He's only 6-foot, 6-1, but he has got real strength and real play strength and real explosiveness. He's a detailed route-runner. He's got a great way to get in and out of his cuts. He can navigate a lot of different things. His play strength is the one that stands out the most. But he has the ability to play inside because of it. He's got quickness and that play strength allows him to kind of go mix it up and be a game-changing part of the formation. So, he can be used in a lot of different ways."
If anyone knows that, it's the guy that has already thrown him 20 touchdowns. Burrow says they're still in that kind of sync.
"Right back to where it was. I'm excited about where he's at," Burrow said. "He's a really smart player that understands what we're trying to do in the offense. I'm not going to have to tell him what to do every single play. He knows exactly what's expected of him."
BODY TYPES: Speaking of body types, Tee Higgins, Chase's partner on the outside, is still 6-3.5, 220 pounds, but it is a much different 6-3.5, 220 pounds from last year's rookie season. It is rather a bit monsterish. Higgins is built a little thicker than Green, his physical twin in almost every way but that, and you can see it this spring. The image of the powerful Andre Johnson comes to mind. He's retired, but current active rugged comps would be guys like the Bears' Allen Robinson. The Broncos' Courtland Sutton and the Chargers' Mike Williams.
"He came back strong. He looks great physically. He put a lot of work in the offseason between the time we ended the season to the time we came back to change his body," Callahan said. "He's more explosive. I went back and watched some stuff the other day and looked at his routes on air right now and he's markedly more explosive. It's not necessarily that he's gotten faster or that he's a different type of player, he's just now understanding how to bring those skills into practice every single day and the consistency that it requires to improve the speed you have to play with all the time.
"When you're a young player you kind of find your way through. I think he's found that. Now he knows what it takes to get to the next level of his game. He put all the work in to do it. I'm very, very excited about where he is at and where he is headed. He's going to be a problem for defenses."
Burrow took one look at Higgins and he saw something big.
"He looks like a different guy out there," Burrow said. "We were throwing the deep balls and the first couple I under threw him a little bit and I was like, 'Gee Tee, where did that come from?' I didn't really expect that from him. He's getting out of there this year. We have some horses on offense that I'm really excited about. Tee's going to have a big year."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: It sounds like special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is going to give undrafted rookie punter Drue Chrisman a long look. Not just because he thinks he's got a big leg and has talent, but he also felt a big reason Kevin Huber had a career year in his 12th season last year is because he didn't have spring practices or preseason games to get his leg tired. So Simmons is going to dial him back again.
And only half of it is punting, Simmons says. The other half is holding on kicks and Huber has been as reliable as they come. Pro Football Reference has him for just two fumbles in 190 games.
"We have to score points," Simmons said. "That's how you win games. You have to score more points than the opponent and if holding factors into it, that could factor into it." …
Interesting vignette during Tuesday's practice. After the Bengals took him in the sixth round, Michigan running back Chris Evans talked about how the Wolverines running backs had a drill for patience that they called "The Mixon."
On Tuesday when Evans ran a jump cut drill led by running backs coach Justin Hill, Mixon called Evans back and told him his shoulders weren't square before he made the move and showed him what he meant.
Call it "The Joe."