Ja’Marr Chase said he never imagined when he was drafted fifth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals last April that he would be preparing for a Super Bowl less than a year later. Some were clamoring for offensive lineman Penei Sewell when the Bengals decided instead to add a deep threat to the wide receiver corps.
When a reporter asked Chase this week if he thinks he was the difference in the Bengals’ turnaround this season, the former LSU standout said he couldn’t answer that, but said he guesses “they made the right decision” drafting him.
Chase went on to say in his virtual press conference that he doesn’t know if he would be playing for a Super Bowl title Sunday if the organization hadn’t chosen him over Sewell. His connection with former college teammate Joe Burrow was a big part of his quick transition to the league, and the duo will be in the spotlight Sunday when the Bengals play the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl LVI, a little more than two years after they helped LSU to the college national championship.
“Who knows what the outcome would have been like playing with another quarterback,” Chase said. “It’s a whole different style I had to adjust to, a new offense, too, so who knows what would have happened, but it probably wouldn’t have been this outcome.”
Bengals wide receiver coach Troy Walters said Chase’s early success hasn’t changed him. He’s still the confident player that believes in himself enough to set high standards and goals to achieve but wants to do whatever he can to help the team.
That’s why he fits in so well with the Bengals’ two other talented starting receivers -- Tee Higgins and Tyler Boydw.
“He’s a rare type of guy where success really doesn’t change him,” Walters said Tuesday. “He’s been the same person, even in the preseason when he had all those drops. He hadn’t changed. So, he doesn’t change whether things are going well or things aren’t going well. … Very humble. Very even keel. Tremendous worker. ... He doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. If he messes up, he’s hard on himself. He wants to correct it. I don’t ever see him getting that big head, becoming a diva.
“I’m going to stay on him. I let those guys know, even after his 200-yard performance, I let them know the next day that was the past. It’s all about what have you done for me lately. He gets it and he puts the work in.”
Chase said he has been dreaming of a Super Bowl and working toward that goal since he was about 10 years old, playing park ball and looking up to guys like Dez Bryant. When the worst team in the AFC North drafted him last year, it was difficult to imagine achieving his ultimate goal as a rookie.
The 21-year-old Louisiana native broke the Bengals’ single-season receiving record with 1,455 yards in the regular season, and last week, he was named the Pepsi Rookie of the Year. Those were goals he didn’t doubt he could accomplish, but Chase didn’t realize the impact he and other new additions last offseason would make on the team as Burrow returned from major knee surgery.
“This is something you don’t think about coming into your rookie year, especially not knowing how good the team is going to be with you,” Chase said. “But once you see the outcome, you’re enjoying the process, you just have no choice but to have fun while you’re playing, so that’s what I try to do.”
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he added. “It’s a blessing.”
Being in the “right place at the right time” in his routes is something that happened naturally with Burrow, who has said in pressure situations he knows to look for Chase because he will somehow make a play. Chase said Burrow makes him a better receiver, and he in turn makes Burrow a better quarterback.
The Rams’ defense will put them to the test Sunday with a strong pass rush led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller and what Chase called a disciplined secondary. Chase said that means he has to be quicker in his routes, but if cornerback Jalen Ramsey matches up with him as anticipated, that could be a competitive foot race.
Ramsey’s size and speed make him a unique cornerback and probably the best one Chase and the Bengals will have faced, wide receiver Tyler Boyd said.
“I think he’s probably the best cornerback in the NFL,” Boyd said. “I think he does a great job of watching film. He’s just so rangy. He’s such a big guy,. He’s bigger than average corner so that’s what helps him a lot because he can cover a lot of range, and he could get to a lot of spots sooner than other corners.”
Improving speed is something Chase has worked on this season, and his progress showed in Week 17 when he reached a top speed of 21.74 mph on a short pass from Burrow he turned into a 72-yard touchdown. It was his fastest speed on any of his touches this season, according to NFL Next Gen stats, and tied for 10th fastest of any ball carrier at that point in the season.
Chase said he doesn’t know what Ramsey’s 40-time is, but he looks forward to finding out who’s faster Sunday. Ramsey, in a virtual press conference Monday, also said he looks forward to the challenge of defending a “star” like Chase.
“I always welcome new challenges and new opportunities to go against guys who have done really well in the league,” Ramsey said. “Even though he’s only been in the league one year, he’s done really well. He’s had record-breaking numbers for his franchise. Him and his quarterback have a great chemistry, great connection. So I’m excited for the opportunity. As we all know, you get into these games and you don’t always get to get that one-on-one matchup even 90% of the game, so it won’t always be that but man, I’m going to cherish this moment, and I don’t want to speak for nobody else but I’m sure he’s gonna cherish this moment as well. ... He got a lot of confidence. I got a lot of confidence. I’ve never played him. He’s never played me. So it’s gonna be an exciting matchup for sure when we get those opportunities. I’m gonna be ready for it.”
SUPER BOWL LVI
Sunday, Feb. 13
Bengals vs. Rams, 6:30 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7