One of the most important questions when evaluating a new NFL draft class is… ‘Who is the best?” This question comes in many forms: Who’s the best in the entire draft class? Who’s the best in a specific position group? It’s also smart to consider who is the best fit based on team needs? It’s the question NFL teams, media outlets and fans debate about religiously.
Sometimes, the answer is obvious. The majority of the time, there are many varying opinions. It’s one of the most fun and fascinating questions discussed throughout the draft process.
Today, we will focus on two wide receivers who are eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft. They should be ranked among the best at the position based on what we’ve seen so far, “they” being LSU’s Ja’marr Chase and Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman. This is potentially a historic class of wideouts which means if Chase and Bateman are viewed as the best of the bunch, they should become cornerstones for the teams that select them.
I chose to highlight Rashod Bateman’s performance from the 2019 matchup between, at the time, the 17th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers and the 4th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Both teams came into this game undefeated and it turned out to be a great game with Bateman putting on a show for the hometown crowd. Bateman finished the game with seven receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown to lead the Golden Gophers to the victory in Minnesota.
Bateman has an excellent understanding of the receiver position. He creates a ton of opportunities for himself to make plays thanks to his well-rounded skill set. He always has a plan, knows how to get into defender’s blind spots, creates space with smooth, under control movements to get to open areas, tracks the ball with ease, and uses his natural catching ability to make plays at all three levels. Here’s some examples of Bateman attacking the middle of the field from outside position.
Every one of Bateman’s receptions against Penn State went for either a first down or a touchdown. He has a knack for disguising his routes by setting up his stems to look the same, and he makes clean, precise cuts. The breaks are sudden but fluid without a hint of which way he’s going. Defenders have to respect Bateman’s deep threat ability as well, so it’s tough for them to stay in good position when he cuts any direction.
I mentioned earlier that Bateman knows how to get into a defensive back’s blind spot. Watch the double move here on Tariq Castro-Fields. Bateman starts to go inside and as soon as Castro-Fields turns his head, Bateman breaks back out, creating a wide open opportunity.
His excellent hands-catch while staying in bounds is a great example of why he’s considered a top-tier talent. He always appears under control, in great position and focused on making a play.
Here, Bateman burns the Penn State secondary deep towards the pylon. He gets to the open spot between the corner and safety, setting up first-and-goal.
As soon as Bateman sees the corner’s hips aren’t flipped, he races past, giving his quarterback a wide open target. He tracks the ball quickly and makes the catch before the safety can get there.
Finally we get to Bateman’s touchdown reception in this game. The defense attempted a slot corner blitz that was sniffed out quickly by the quarterback. He hits a wide open Bateman in stride for a 66-yard touchdown.
The safety had no chance as he was left to try to cover Bateman alone. The corner in coverage chose to cover the slot receiver. Bateman made them pay. As a result, his 66-yard touchdown turned out to be his longest of the season.
Dane Brugler from the Athletic recently came out with his 2020 NFL Draft Summer Scouting article for wide receivers (you can view Dane’s entire article HERE). Here’s part of what Dane had to say about Bateman:
“For a 20-year old coming off his true sophomore season, Bateman competes with a veteran savvy well beyond his years. He understands how cornerbacks are trying to cover him and uses that knowledge to leverage the coverage and manipulate passing windows. For Bateman, every step and body movement have purpose, which allows him to release, sell the pattern and maintain his speed out of his breaks.”
Bateman will be the unquestioned top target for Minnesota’s quarterback Tanner Morgan this year now that wide receiver Tyler Johnson has moved on to the NFL. This will be a great opportunity for Bateman to show that he can dominate again even though defenses will prioritize trying to limit his production. His current draft stock puts him in first round territory and another excellent season from him could earn him the opportunity to hear his name called very early during the 2021 NFL Draft. Bateman’s performance last season proved how he can fit into any offense and be effective in a variety of ways. He is the type of consistent player that any team would want and would benefit from having on their roster. He will be a day-one starter in the NFL.
Now we transition to who most draft experts consider to be the top wide receiver in the class. That would be LSU’s Ja’marr Chase. Saying Chase was dominant last season would be selling it short. His last name is fitting considering defenders chased him up and down the field all season. He was practically unguardable. It didn’t matter if it was against ranked opponents or weaker competition, Chase brought his A-game to work and left no doubt about his status as a future star in the NFL. We are going to take a look at what he did in the 2019 National Championship game against Clemson. I chose this game because it’s important for the best players to perform on the biggest stages. Chase did not disappoint.
The first video shows a few plays where he lined up on the outside as well as in the slot. Chase is more than comfortable lining up anywhere and beating any defensive alignment.
Chase can explode off the line, hit the accelerator and stay fast during his break to put defenders on their heels. He’s an easy mover and has an excellent mix of strength, speed and agility.
Next we see how Chase attacks the defense as a downfield threat. He uses a go route from the slot against Clemson cornerback AJ Terrell. Chase fires off the line and wins the race to the outside.
Chase’s concentration as he tracks the ball into his hands and the strength to make the catch while Terrell has a hand on his arm as the ball arrives is so impressive. He makes this catch look much easier than it was. Chase proved time and time again throughout the season that he can out-muscle defensive backs on a regular basis.
Now we look at Chase’s first touchdown reception of the game. You can see AJ Terrell try to bully him throughout the route. Chase again shows off his strength, speed and great balance as he runs over the top and moves into position to make the grab.
The outside release is instant and explosive which immediately forces Terrell into recovery mode. The last-second separation puts Terrell out of range and Chase seals the deal with a sure-handed catch.
Chase’s second touchdown was very similar to his first touchdown, only this time LSU was in the red zone. The outside release after selling the block creates quick separation, and he hauls in the pass for six.
Say what you want about AJ Terrell, at the end of the day this is a first-round selection who got absolutely worked in the National Championship game by Chase. Chase’s final numbers in the game were truly eye-popping: he tallied nine receptions for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
It would be a big mistake on my part if I didn’t get an opinion regarding Ja’marr Chase from our very own Robert Greenlaw, who pens the daily Titans News links for Broadway Sports and also happens to be one of the biggest LSU fans around. Here are his thoughts:
“What’s not to like about Ja’Marr Chase? He’s big (at 6’1) and he’s fast, reportedly clocking in as fast as 4.40 in the 40-yard dash. In just his sophomore year, he won the Biletnikoff Award, and should be the leader for the WR1 spot in the 2021 draft at this point. It did not matter who Chase played against in 2019, he burned them. Just ask Jaguars’ 1st-round pick C.J. Henderson.
“What is most special about the Tigers’ wideout is that he can beat you in any number of ways. He’s as devastating in the slot as he is on the outside. He can go over the top of the defense or take a slant to the house. I would be very surprised if he’s not one of the top two WRs off the board in 2021, even if his stock takes a hit due to going from Joe Burrow at QB to Myles Brennan. Still, expect huge things from Ja’Marr this coming season.”
Greenlaw touched on the big question coming into this season: How will Chase perform now that quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Justin Jefferson have moved on to the NFL? There are concerns that Joe Burrow was the reason Chase had so much production last year. On the other hand, it’s fair to wonder if it wasn’t Chase who elevated Burrow’s game. More likely they complimented each other.
From an NFL front office perspective, it can be viewed as a positive considering Chase has shown he produces extremely well with an NFL-caliber quarterback. Regardless, Chase will have all eyes on him this season to see if he can replicate the production with a new QB. One thing is for certain, the new QB will be thankful he has a wide receiver like Chase. At this point he is WR1 for me in the 2021 wide receiver class.
Time to get your opinion. Who is your favorite between these two top talents? I look forward to your comments!