Offensive Rookie of the Year Race: The hidden skill that separates Ja’Marr Chase from Trevor Lawrence

Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and his 4 TDs have him as an early front-runner over Trevor Lawrence for Offensive Rookie of the Year. PFN's Adam Beasley explains why.

When it comes to the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year race, things change fast. A month ago, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence was the NFL betting favorite at +350, according to Sports Betting Dime, while Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase was a distant seventh at 20-to-1.

Three revealing weeks later, Chase is second on the board — and rising. The emerging star is up to +440, behind only New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (+425). It’s a reflection of his great start to a career that earned him offensive player of the month honors. Lawrence, meanwhile, has slipped into a tie for fourth and +950 — falling even behind a guy (Trey Lance) who has been on the field for all of seven professional snaps.

Chase rising in Offensive Rookie of the Year race

Lawrence — who ranks in the bottom four among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage (54.2), yards per attempt (5.7), passer rating (60.3), and QBR (23.1) — will try to right the ship on national TV Thursday night when his Jaguars visit Chase and the Bengals.

But Chase doesn’t make a habit of letting others catch him from behind. And our sense is he’ll only broaden his lead over the field in the weeks to come.

After a rocky preseason, Chase has been every bit the player the Bengals thought they selected with the NFL Draft’s fifth overall pick. He has 53 more receiving yards than fellow rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle (the draft’s sixth pick) on half the catches. He has twice as many touchdown receptions as Waddle, Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, and Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith combined.

And that might not change much because he also has the best quarterback of that foursome.

Growing pains for Waddle, Pitts, Smith

Waddle has become a glorified running back in Miami, averaging just 3.8 air yards per target — third-lowest among qualifying receivers and an embarrassing figure for a guy with sub-4.4 speed. Expect more of the same with checkdown specialist Jacoby Brissett starting in place of Tua Tagovailoa for at least the next two games.

Pitts in Atlanta is suffering from Matt Ryan’s decline. Ryan is completing 70.9% of his passes, but that is predominantly a function of his depth of targets. His 3.2 completed air yards average is the worst in the league.

Jalen Hurts has been OK in his first year as Philadelphia’s starter, but empty stats inflated his numbers in a blowout loss to the Cowboys. Our guess is the Eagles are closely looking to add a first-round quarterback in 2022 to pair with their first-round wide receiver.

Chase, meanwhile, has benefitted from an ascending and familiar quarterback (Joe Burrow) and an aggressive route tree. He has 11 catches for 220 and 4 touchdowns on just 16 targets. Just think how much bigger those numbers will be when the Bengals really start throwing the ball. Burrow — also Chase’s quarterback at LSU — threw the ball just 18 times in Cincinnati’s Week 3 win over Pittsburgh.

“The relationship between quarterback and receiver has a lot to do with experience and accumulated reps and we’ve got hundreds if not thousands of accumulated reps together over three years, so I know exactly how he’s going to run routes and the speed with which he’s going to come out of his breaks and the speed with which he’s going to run by people,” Burrow said.

Will Chase outshine Lawrence on Thursday night?

Chase has managed to put up huge numbers with his size, not his speed. His average separation (2.1 yards per target) is middle of the pack. And yet he’s sixth in average depth of target (16.4 yards) — a sign Burrow is confident throwing to the rookie even when covered.

Expect to see plenty of that on Thursday Night Football against Jacksonville’s underwhelming secondary. The Jaguars have forced just a single turnover and have allowed opposing passers to complete 74.3% of their attempts.

National games carry the most weight when it comes to end-of-season awards. They provide voters a chance to see teams they otherwise wouldn’t. A big night for Chase Thursday night wouldn’t clinch OROY — there’s way too much football left to play — but it could move him atop the power rankings as the calendar turns to October.

“He’s a really strong runner, so when he gets contacted by corners at the top of his route, he really doesn’t lose any speed,” Burrow said. “When a lot of guys would get pushed to the sideline or knocked off their route, he just runs by him through the contact. That’s really what makes him special.”

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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