Why Ja'Marr Chase is trying to avoid a trend associated with elite returning SEC receivers
Ja’Marr Chase deserves to be a unanimous preseason All-American. In fact, if someone doesn’t include the LSU receiver on their preseason All-America team, we should declare it void.
That’s coming off a year in which Chase rewrote the record books in that explosive LSU offense. He ripped off an SEC record for receiving yards in a season with 1,780, and even better, he set a new conference mark with 20 receiving touchdowns. The sophomore was a runaway winner for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver.
Obviously, there are somewhat tempered expectations for Chase’s production in 2020. Well, at least compared to what he did in 2019. That’s because without Joe Burrow and Joe Brady, the expectation isn’t that Chase will somehow take another step up in production. If Chase comes close to repeating what he did in 2019, that’d be a massive victory for LSU.
But his return as an unquestioned preseason All-American got me thinking about some other historically great returning SEC receivers of the past decade.
In the past 10 years, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery, Amari Cooper and Jerry Jeudy were probably the Mount Rushmore of SEC receivers who returned after a breakout season. You could make the argument that others were more productive, sure, but in terms of most talented, at the top of every scouting report receivers, those guys were in a group by themselves.
(Anyone discounting Jeffery might be forgetting just how good he was in 2010 and the fact that heading into 2011, ESPN named him the SEC’s top returning player ahead of guys like Trent Richardson and Marcus Lattimore.)
What do all of them have in common? All of them saw their production take a somewhat significant dip the following season:
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Was there a specific reason all of those guys had rather disappointing seasons the following year? Probably not. They played in different offenses with different circumstances that factored into their production. Some had new quarterbacks, others just didn’t get the separation that they did the previous season.
Much like an All-American running back who sees nothing but 8-men boxes, the numbers suggested secondaries sold out to contain those guys. You can all but guarantee that all of them saw more bracket coverage the following season after an entire offseason of everyone touting how great they were. And not surprisingly, that adjustment came with its set of challenges.
Even a team like Oklahoma, which LSU torched in historic fashion in the Peach Bowl, contained Chase. Why? The Sooners sold out to stop him with bracket coverage all day, which allowed Justin Jefferson to go off. That’s what you do to a receiver who racked up award after award. LSU had more than enough weapons to overcome Oklahoma’s decision that Chase wasn’t going to be the player who beat them.
(Chase actually had this great moment in the postgame locker room when asked about that. He basically said, “you saw what they tried to do to me, and it still didn’t slow us down.” He then said why putting bracket coverage on him means that it just allows for someone else like Jefferson, who was standing right next to Chase, to go off. Pick your poison, essentially. He wasn’t wrong.)
I tend to think that for a player on a high-profile team like LSU or Alabama, they’re always going to get everyone’s best fastball. That school of thought also applied to Jeffery who, in addition to being dubbed the SEC’s top returning player going into 2011, was also playing for the preseason No. 12 team in the country.
The following wideouts earned first-team All-SEC honors and returned for another year. Jordan Matthews was the only receiver who had a significant year-to-year improvement following the 1st-team all-conference season (A.J. Brown’s averaged out to +5.7 yards per game better after his 1st-team All-SEC season):
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So what does this all mean? Is this my way of saying that Chase is doomed to fall of the face of the earth?
Not at all. The fact that so many defensive backs at the NFL Combine said that Chase was the best receiver they faced all year says a lot. He’s by no means a system receiver who simply benefitted from Burrow’s accuracy. He’d probably still be balling out even if he stuck with his original decision to go to Kansas. Chase is that good.
But it’s worth remembering that even for the great underclassmen receivers, their career production doesn’t usually follow this linear path. I’d love to sit down with Jeffery, Cooper, Jones and Jeudy to discuss what they learned following that breakout season. Was it just running crisper routes? Was it realizing what their limitations were?
Jeffery, Cooper and Jones all bounced back and became Pro Bowl NFL receivers. Jeudy, who torched Michigan in the Citrus Bowl to prevent his year from looking like a major step back, is still expected to be the top receiver drafted.
Every way-too-early 2021 mock draft you see is going to have Chase as the top receiver coming off the board. He’s easily the SEC’s most proven returning offensive player, and you could argue that extends to all of college football. It would make headlines on sites like ours if Chase wasn’t on someone’s preseason All-America team. That’s the bar he set for himself.
Just remember that we’ve said that about some elite SEC returning receivers before, only to find ourselves wondering by midseason why they weren’t having the year we thought they would.
Chase would like to be in the same company as those Pro Bowl receivers — and if he can buck that trend in the process of getting there, all the better.