Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase appears well on his way to NFL stardom after his first regular season, one in which the rookie has compiled 82 receptions, 1,455 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
And this, after taking a year off from full-time football to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Chase made the critical decision in August 2020 to forgo his final year of eligibility at LSU — where he was a unanimous All-America selection and the Biletnikoff Award winner the year before — in order to prioritize himself ahead of his professional career. But it was a decision marked heavily by the circumstances of the time, not just the potential money Chase stood to make if he remained healthy.
With that, Sporting News breaks down Chase’s decision to opt out of his junior season at LSU:
Why did Ja’Marr Chase opt out at LSU?
Chase did not mince words when announcing his decision to opt out at LSU. In a since-deleted Tweet, Chase said he was prioritizing himself and his family amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While he said he wanted to play for the Tigers another season, that desire was not enough for him to continue playing collegiately.
“The competitor in me badly wants to play the season and go to war with my brothers, but during this time with so much going on, this is what’s best for my family,” Chase wrote as part of his statement. “I cannot ignore what I feel in my heart, and this ultimately is the best decision for me. I’ll look forward to returning to the field in 2021.”
According to a CBS report, the decision was not entirely based on the COVID-19 pandemic, however. Rather, agents may have simply contacted him and persuaded him to leave LSU to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Chase was considered one of the top receivers in all of college football during his sophomore campaign, when he caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns from Heisman Trophy winning-quarterback Joe Burrow.
Ja’Marr Chase’s father, Jimmy Chase, told Baton Rouge TV station WAFB that the pandemic, coupled with nationwide outrage and protests in regard to social inequality and racial injustice, led the Chase family to make a decision regarding the receiver’s future.
“Ja’Marr has been wrestling with his feelings and his emotions, and it was just nonstop,” Jimmy Chase said. “It’s just such unprecedented times right now. He was wrestling with playing, but he was (also) wrestling with looking at his future, and what could and couldn’t be.”
Jimmy Chase added that if “everything was normal,” his son likely would have played in 2021.
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Did Ja’Marr Chase’s opt-out cause him to drop balls?
From a financial standpoint, Chase’s decision to opt out at LSU for his junior season paid off. He was selected fifth overall by the Bengals and was the top overall receiver taken in the 2021 NFL Draft (if you don’t count tight end Kyle Pitts, taken a spot ahead of him by the Falcons).
But that decision created uncertainty for the rookie, especially in the preseason, where he dropped four balls in three games and registered only one catch for 16 yards. Chase’s difficulty catching passes from his former college teammate raised the question of whether his time off from full-speed football had caused him to regress; he hadn’t played full speed in over a year and a half, dating back to the 2020 College Football Playoff championship game against Clemson.
Chase later offered an explanation as to why he was having a harder time adjusting to the NFL:
“The ball is different because it is bigger,” Chase said, via Bengals.com. “It doesn’t have the white stripes on the side so you can’t see the ball coming from the tip point so you actually have to look for the strings on the ball at the top, which is hard to see because (the_ whole ball is brown and you have the six strings that are white.
“But for the most part, just have to get used to it and find out what I am comfortable with catching.”
“My drops come from me not looking the ball in. By looking the ball in, I’m talking about high-pointing it and watching it and as soon as it hit you looking away,” he said. “Me running before the catch. Me doing stuff like that and dropping it. I did that a couple times.”
MORE: Ja’Marr Chase by the numbers: Rookie WR has Randy Moss-esque performance in Bengals’ win over Chiefs
Whatever issues Chase had catching the ball in the preseason seemed to disappear once the games mattered. In his NFL regular-season debut, he caught five passes on five targets for 101 yards and a score in a 27-24 win over the Vikings. Following the game, he acknowledged that he had heard criticism about his dropped balls.
“I’ve been hearing that,” Chase said at the time. “That’s just trash talk. Just block out the noise.”
Chase didn’t have quite the offensive explosion in any of his next three games, but was solid throughout: He combined to nab 12 receptions for 197 yards and three more touchdowns (including a two-touchdown outing in a 24-10 win over the Steelers).
The rookie has since gone onto four more games with at least 100 yards, putting up 159 yards and a touchdown against the Packers in Week 5; 201 yards and a score against the Ravens in Week 7; 125 yards against the Ravens in Week 16; and a rookie single-game record 266 yards and three touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 17.