Mike Potts, the Bengals director of college scouting who has always counted himself lucky during his dozen seasons in the NFL to work for teams that had A.J. Green and Julio Jones showing him what the modern wide receiver looks like, had a sense he was looking at one of the vanguards of the next wave.
When he returned to Paul Brown Stadium after watching LSU quarterback Joe Burrow light it up against Vanderbilt in September of 2019, he couldn't stop talking about his partner in rhyme.
LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the newest Bengal, had enveloped the first half with 199 of his 221 yards and three of his four touchdown catches and Potts mused to Christian Sarkisian, one of his area scouts, that the best prospect on a glittering board just may be a sophomore.
"Alabama had two top 15 picks at receiver. Last year was the best receiver class I can ever remember," Potts recalls. "I left the Vandy game impressed with Burrow and a lot of other guys. I said to some other scouts that (Chase) is the best receiver in the country and he's not even eligible for this draft. I knew of him, but I was there to watch Burrow. To see (Chase) live, it was a jaw-dropping performance."
But the Bengals' decision to draft Chase with the fifth pick wasn't nearly as shocking as all that, according to the tea leaves that were read in the past month. The Bengals weren't all that different from everybody else and seemed to have Chase, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell in a virtual dead heat on top of the PBS draft board, which, nowadays, is really virtual.
"After the quarterbacks, we felt like we ended up looking at the top three players in the draft," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "Those guys were a notch above what's coming after and they're going to be good players. But those guys are elite. The best at their position. … Not an easy decision. We've been back and forth on these guys."
What helped Chase go at No. 5?
His track record against future NFL cornerbacks in the SEC, the ability to easier project the talents of skill players after a year of opt-outs and his historical connection to Burrow in a Bengals scheme that looks familiar to both.
While the universe of draft big boards strewn across the NFL media landscape seemed to have Pitts rated as the highest non-quarterback (he went No. 4 to Atlanta), Chase and Sewell were the best players at positions of need for the Bengals. If it wasn't rock-paper-scissors, but it could have been. But what's not left to chance is that the Bengals' struggling long ball now has one of the best deep receivers to ever play in college ball.
Not only that, they already have his quarterback. Callahan says the Joe Factor wasn't the factor. It was one of them, but not the decider.
"It ended up he's a guy that can make a difference in our offense. He's so explosive," Callahan says. "To me, he's the best receiver that's come out in the last three years. He's worthy of that spot where guys like A.J. and Julio were drafted. It's hard to pass up that kind of talent."
And while the scouts were hamstrung by no 2020 tape on Chase and limited to Zoom interviews, they had the ultimate source on Chase.
Presented by Tide, the Bengals select Ja'Marr Chase with the 5th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Check out some of the top images of the Bengals first round selection from LSU.
During last season, Potts briefly asked Burrow about Chase and other prospects but he left the prodding to the coaches, particularly head coach Zac Taylor. Potts felt it unfair for a bunch of people to riddle Burrow with question after question on Chase.
"I texted him earlier on in February to ask his opinion when I was getting started on his background," Callahan says. "Joe has a great feel for players and who does things the right way. I trust his opinion. It's a good place to start. He was in the locker room with him for two years."
And what Burrow said about the man with whom he made college football history in 2019 is Chase is as reliable as game day is long.
"We tell our receivers to be in the right place at the right time and that's what he did at LSU and for Joe," Callahan says. "When he gets the ball in his hands, he's electric. He can score from anywhere on the field."
Even though Potts and Callahan couldn't watch 2020 film on Chase, they acquired intimate knowledge of his game from watching Burrow's every throw from 2019 multiple times.
"He has such a well-rounded game. I love his physicality and the strength he plays with in his hands and as a ball carrier making contested catches," Potts says. "There's the explosive element. The big play element. You saw it in the Vandy game. He took a short ball over the middle and pulled away from people. And he beat a guy over the top with his explosiveness on the perimeter. It's hard to poke many negatives in his game."
What Callahan loves is that he figures Chase has played against about 10 cornerbacks that are now playing in the NFL. Potts saw it about six weeks after that Vandy game in the biggest matchup of the year against Alabama. On the first series Chase went long on cornerback Trevon Diggs.
"Now starting for the Dallas Cowboys," Potts says. "He took it off of Diggs' helmet for a touchdown and LSU never looked back."
The one thing the 6-0 Chase doesn't have that Green and Jones leveraged into top seven of the 2011 draft is the basketball height. Potts has no problem, with that. Not when the man had a 41-inch vertical leap at his pro day.
"Six feet and three-eighths. That hasn't been a deficiency," Potts says. "If he was a little bigger, it may hurt some elements of his game. He may not be able to sink his weight quite as well at the top of his route or give him the same level of quickness and balance that he currently possesses. He does have the ability to go up and get the ball. To high point. To be able to play 'above the rim' on deep balls."
It's that kind of skill set that Callahan says scouts and coaches have an easier time projecting into the league than what the offensive and defensive linemen are doing in the trenches. Plus, Callahan has a pretty good idea of how Chase already fits because the Bengals offense already has stuff that Burrow and Chase used at LSU.
"There'll be plenty of familiarity. He'll have to adjust to learn a new language," Callahan says. "But ultimately what we're asking him to do is not going to be that different from the things they asked him to do at LSU."