Examining The Dual Breakout of Ja’marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle

In the 2021 NFL Draft, there were three wide receivers many expected to go early: Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Ja’marr Chase. Smith had a Heisman campaign in 2020 with Alabama, but the other two were both off the field for their own reasons, with Waddle recovering from a leg injury and Chase opting out of the season. And just like expected, all three went very high in the draft. Chase was selected 5th overall by the Bengals, Waddle right after to the Dolphins at 6, and Devonta Smith was taken at 10 by the Eagles who traded up for him. Fast-forward to the season now, and all three have played well, but Waddle and Chase have separated themselves from the rest of the rookie wide receivers. To start, here’s a breakdown of some quick stats for all the wide receivers selected in the first round this year.

Toney and Bateman have both dealt with injuries, but it’s hard not to come away with the conclusion that Chase and Waddle have been all but outstanding this year. Waddle and Chase rank 1st and 3rd respectively among rookie wide receivers in PFF WAR, coming in at 0.29 and 0.23, respectively. It’s worth noting that PFF WAR is based on simulations, so some of Chase’s deep ball success might be viewed as unsustainable over the long run, but we certainly shouldn’t discount it.

Nonetheless, Waddle has become Tua Tagovailoa’s safety blanket and Chase has become Joe Burrow’s connection, especially when targeted deep. Coincidentally, both receivers played with their respective QBs in college, likely giving them an edge over others due to their established relationships and trust.

On a quick aside, I would not be surprised in the slightest if that becomes a basis teams begin to use for future draft picks. Drafting skill players that are already familiar with their QBs certainly can’t hurt, and it’s been proven to work. A fun one in the future could be if the Bears could draft Chris Olave this year to pair him with Justin Fields, but the lack of a first-round pick for the Bears makes that a bit hard.

Unparalleled Trust

As mentioned above, Chase and Waddle both have great chemistry with their QBs. It’s truly impressive to see the connections play out. Let’s look at a quick film example to see some of the trust these QBs have been putting in their rookie receivers. Starting with Waddle and Tua, take a look at this throw:

Waddle has 3! defenders in his area when Tua releases this ball, shown below, but Tua still takes that leap of faith and anticipates Waddle’s destination, putting it in a spot where only his guy can make a play on the ball. Call it a hunch, but I can’t see this level of trust developing with any other of Tua’s receivers.

And for Ja’marr Chase, the following off-script play does such a good job of demonstrating how both he and Burrow are on the same page (shoutout Sans).

When Burrow releases that ball, Chase is still cutting towards the left end of the end-zone. Yet, he knows his guy is going to recognize to come back to the ball, and Chase does just that, cutting back towards the right end and securing one of his many touchdowns this year. You can’t teach that type of connection. Even here, Burrow makes the throw when Chase is still in line with his defender:

It’s another example of a QB having faith in his guy to beat his defender, and once again Chase does a job. That acceleration gives him an extra step, which also gives him a major advantage when it comes to yards after the catch. He ranks 6th amongst qualified receivers this year in yards after the catch per reception, coming in at 6.7 yac/rec. For someone who wasn’t really hyped up to be great after the catch (PFF had him as the 5th best YAC receiver in the 2021 draft), he’s showing to be very skilled in that department.

Waddle hasn’t been as impressive here, as he ranks tied for 50th at 4.3 yac/rec, but he flashed the ability in college more than enough. He averaged 8.0 yac/rec in 2018, 12.2 yac/rec in 2019, and 10.1 yac/rec in 2020. Don’t close the door on him here just yet.

Distinguishing Traits

Although both receivers have been playing fantastic this year, they’ve got there in different ways and I think that’s worth looking into. Not every receiver is cut from the same cloth which we know. Knowing what a receiver’s strengths and weaknesses are really gives us a deeper understanding of the production we see in yards/route run or one’s PFF grade. Let’s start with Chase.

Having already covered his after-the-catch ability, I think our time here is better spent talking about two things that play hand in hand: his body control and success through the deep ball. Chase has 27 targets of 20+ air yards, third highest in the league, and has a 97.2 receiving grade on deep balls to go with it. And for every deep route he runs, he’s averaging 15.7 yards per route, which is also top ten in the league when we focus on guys who have the necessary volume (>17 targets). He’s certainly been helped out by Burrow, who has a PFF grade of 94 when throwing deep, but we can’t discount Chase one bit. His knack for the deep ball is in large part made possible by his outstanding body control.

Once again turning to our boy Sans, take a look at his poise here:

Falling out of bounds, Chase is able to maintain his two feet within the white, going against the grain to come back and catch a great ball from Burrow. Not many receivers are doing that on an everyday basis. Part of what allows for his freakish control is just how good of an athlete he is, especially when paired with his play strength you’d expect from someone 6'5", not 6'0". A great way to demonstrate this is through Relative Athletic Score, or RAS, which

combines size, speed, agility, and other traits into one composite score. Chase graded out at an elite score, seen on your left. He’s scored higher than many notable receivers, including DK Metcalf and Justin Jefferson.

Put all of these traits together and you get one of the best receivers in the league already. Cincinnati clearly relies on him, as he garners 38.5% of his team’s air yards, sixth highest in the league and an insane number for a rookie. He’s got one “weakness” if you wanted to get nitpicky, which is his inability to create great separation. He only gets about 2.2 yards of separation per route, fifth-worst in the league, but this hasn’t stopped him by any means. It’s just not his playstyle to rely on separation when he has such a physical frame for an undersized receiver that he can play off of.

On the other hand, a lot of what we’ve seen from Waddle hasn’t exactly been what we expected. Coming out of college, Waddle was made out to be a guy who could generate quality yards after the catch, as we covered above, yet he only averages about 4 yards after the catch per reception. What gives?

A lot of it comes down to the scheme he’s in and how he’s being targeted. His numbers this year just scream Jarvis Landry, and not in a good way. In his rookie year, Landry had 84 catches for only 755 yards, and a 1.75 yards/route run. Waddle? 86 catches for 849 yards, but also a 1.75 yards/route run. Not fully similar, but not distinctive enough to make me satisfied. Landry didn’t pass an aDOT of 7.5 in his first four years in Miami, and Waddle is currently at 7.1. You just can’t limit a guy like Waddle to short and intermediate routes, you just can’t. If Miami turns Jaylen Waddle into Jarvis Landry, oh so help me God.

Miami as a team only has 1,364 yards after the catch this year, good for sixth worst in the league and they were fifth-worst in yac/rec in 2020. When that trend holds up year to year, it’s a team problem as opposed to plugging in one receiver, in this case, Waddle, and expecting him to produce. Going from playing for Alabama in college to Miami in the NFL is a massive difference. I also don’t think Miami as a team knows what their offensive identity is. They have two offensive coordinators in George Godsey and Eric Studesville and have changed OCs each year since 2017. Not a recipe for success.

However, even with all that, I still think Waddle’s natural talent speed is going to benefit him so, so much in the long run and outwork the restriction of Miami’s offense. He was reported to have run a 4.28 40-yard dash and has reached mind-blowing speeds this year, as seen above. Thinking of him in an Andy Reid offense, let alone a competent scheme, is just mmmmm.

He also separates much better than Chase, averaging 3.3 yards of separation per route. What comes next is pretty shocking to me, but Waddle has a 75% contested catch rate this year. This trait was almost never brought up as a strength of his during the draft process, or even throughout the year. That number’s good for 8th best in the league this year!! Of course, this comes with the caveat that CTC% isn’t consistent year over year, but he’s still converted 12 of his 16 opportunities. Fascinating.

My last thing to nitpick with how Waddle is being used goes back to his aDOT and involvement in the deep passing game. A lot of the issue here is a function of his quarterback, as Tua only has 19 deep ball attempts this year, second-lowest in the league amongst qualified quarterbacks. And as a result, Waddle has only seen 9 targets deep this year, which is shockingly low when compared to Chase and his 27 targets. I’m not arguing that Waddle deserves to be used the same as Chase: they’re different receivers and Chase is certainly the better one when it comes to the deep ball. However, to only throw 9 targets deep to a guy with blazing speed and an apparent knack for contested catches doesn’t really make sense to me. Maybe Miami doesn’t trust Tua. Maybe it’s something else. Either way, limiting a guy with a 91.6 PFF grade on deep balls, albeit sample size, to nine anemic targets doesn’t add up. Not at all.

Fantasy Outlook

Bear with me here, as I think some people will appreciate the fantasy sports aspect I’m about to cover. Waddle and Chase are both rookies receivers. Yet, they both rank top-15 in PPR scoring, Chase at 8 and Waddle at 14. Chase commands a massive target share from Burrow, and that is certainly a trait that will stick to his future seasons. Even if a lot of his scoring has come on the deep ball this year, there’s no real reason to expect that to falter in the future. His aforementioned body control and physical nature give him a massive leg up. I’d easily slot him in as a top-5 dynasty wide receiver, and he has a legit argument for the number 1 spot.

Waddle, on the other hand, has been somewhat limited due to his low aDOT, but has still produced for his fantasy owners. He’s had 8 or more catches in 4 out of his last 5 games. It blows that he landed on the COVID-list, as he certainly would have been a huge factor in the fantasy playoffs. Nonetheless, he should be penciled in as top-15 receiver in dynasty, due to the relatively low risk of a guy like him in PPR, and a great redraft option in the mid-rounds next year. If we see him regain some of his yards after the catch ability from college, he could easily move his way up the ranks to top-10 and higher for dynasty.

To see the dominance we have from a 21-year-old receiver in Chase and a 22-year-old receiver in Waddle has been astonishing. So many rookies come into the league and take time to adjust, which is the norm. Yet these two have gone against that norm and defied all expectations we had for them. Remember when people had real concerns about Ja’marr Chase’s hands because of pre-season? That happened this year. Now, it’s an afterthought for a guy who has been one of the best receivers in the league. They’re both here to stay, and man we better enjoy them.

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Ajay Patel

Ajay Patel

Undergraduate student at University of Rochester. Writes about sports.