Will the Bengals pick Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell fifth overall?

Lee Schlosser grew up in a Steelers family in Western PA. When he was eleven years old, he became enchanted by tiger striped unis, a quarterback named Boomer and a running back named Ickey, and having no basic sense of history or geography fell in love with the Bengals. Thanksgivings are awkward to this day. Following a team typically out of the playoff race by November led him to a love for the NFL draft, which he has been following meticulously for over 25 years.

Bengals Twitter has devolved into quite the war zone in 2021. Those who want the team to pick Penei Sewell (“Team Sewell”) and those who want Ja’Marr Chase (“Team Chase”) have at this point fully staked their claims, while a minority of fans stake out “Team Pitts” or “Team Trade” territory. A trade seems increasingly unlikely, as Bengals’ Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin downplayed the idea in a recent podcast. Indeed, barring anything shocking, it seems that either Penei Sewell or Ja’Marr Chase will go to the Bengals with the fifth overall pick. In this post I’d like to lay out the best case for both players, and explain why I believe that the Bengals will ultimately draft Chase.

Why the Bengals might pick Sewell

First, the need. Everybody knows Burrow was one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL last year, culminating in the devastating knee injury that ended his rookie season. The Bengals’ offensive line has been in shambles, but not because they haven’t prioritized the position. Rather, it’s because they picked the wrong players – most notably Cedric Ogbuehi in 2015 and Billy Price in 2018 – and because of the 2018 Cordy Glenn trade that went, well, poorly. Tobin also indicated that they wanted to prioritize the offensive line in free agency, but the players they pursued took deals elsewhere. They did eventually sign Riley Reiff to take Bobby Hart’s spot at right tackle, opposite 2019 first rounder Jonah Williams. But Reiff is 32 years old and on a one year deal. These tea leaves seem to indicate the Bengals are nowhere near satisfied with their line, and might look to Sewell as a massive upgrade.

Second, the player. Arguably the biggest reason for Zac Taylor’s poor first two seasons is that the old core players from the Marvin Lewis era either haven’t bought in to the new staff (Carlos Dunlap), have aged (A.J. Green), or have been regularly injured (Geno Atkins). Taylor has been on a mission to create a new core of leaders who buy into what he’s doing. Aside from his stellar play, Sewell is well known as a vocal leader with an alpha personality – exactly the kind of guy the Bengals know they need. Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal once referred to Sewell as the best overall football player he’s ever coached. And this should get the Bengals’ attention, because as recently pointed out by Bengals radio announcer Dan Hoard, Cristobal actually recruited Jonah Williams, who the Bengals absolutely adore, when he was an assistant at Alabama.

And third, the cupboard at wide receiver. Last years 33rd overall pick, Tee Higgins, had an outstanding rookie season, and there’s some thinking that the Bengals may see him as having #1 wide receiver upside as he continues to develop. Tyler Boyd remains one of the better slot receivers in the league. The cupboard is fairly bare after that, but still, in an offense predicated on spreading the ball around, and one of the highest paid running backs in the league in Joe Mixon, how many mouths can the offense feed anyway?

Why the Bengals will probably pick Chase

First, the analytics. Team Chase’s argument is largely based on analytics, which is something the Bengals have embraced since Zac Taylor was hired in 2019. Pro Football Focus’s analytics demonstrate that an elite wide receiver brings more Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than an elite offensive tackle. This means that all other things being equal, wide receiver is just more important than any individual offensive lineman. The line as a whole is obviously extremely important, as football fans witnessed in Super Bowl LV. But the Chiefs didn’t lose because they lacked elite linemen, they lost because their line had several weak links due to injury. The data-informed analytics argument is basically that you need a line without exploitable weak links. Spending the fifth overall pick on an elite tackle actually provides modest marginal value compared to an elite wide receiver. The marginal value would be better if they spent some day two picks on linemen to shore up the interior, while Williams and Reiff hold down the edges for another year.

Second, the player. NFL.com’s Ian Rapaport recently floated on Twitter that a “top evaluator” in the NFL called Chase the “best WR prospect since Julio.” In 2019, when he was just 19 years old, Chase dominated virtually every SEC cornerback he faced, many of whom would later become high NFL draft choices. By all accounts Chase is an accountable, hard-working guy. That hard work paid off during LSU’s pro day, when he posted a sub-4.4 forty, sub-7 second three-cone drill, and a vertical jump over 40 inches. What this suggests is a player who will have a truly transformative impact for whichever team selects him, compared to relatively marginal value in terms of WAR at a singular offensive line spot. A transformative receiver like Chase can also help protect Burrow by presenting an open target early in his progression, something the Cincinnati receiving corps did little of in 2020.

Third, the situation. This is a great draft for both receivers and linemen, but it sets up better for the Bengals to take a lineman after round one than it does at receiver. In fact, Tobin himself indicated this so unequivocally that one would have to believe he was deliberately blowing smoke (which is possible) to believe the Bengals were taking Sewell. Many of the receivers likely available at pick 38 are smaller, slot types such as Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore, or Kadarius Toney. The Bengals already have one of the better slots in the league in Boyd; what they need is a true outside threat opposite Higgins. As for the offensive line, they figure to be looking at prospects like Alex Leatherwood, Brady Christensen, Dillon Radunz, Wyatt Davis, or Creed Humphrey in the second round. Any of these players can help a Bengals offensive line that was, believe it or not, ranked in the middle of the NFL in terms of pressure per pass play. Sacks-given-up is a volume statistic: the Bengals gave up the most sacks because they pass the most, because Burrow held the ball too long at times, and because of poor guard play, but not because their tackles were getting torched on the edge. The Team Chase argument is essentially that Chase plus, say, Dillon Radunz is a better combination than Sewell plus, say, Elijah Moore.

I’m sure the Bengals love Penei Sewell. He’s exactly the type of player they claim to covet. And their pursuit of Kenny Golladay in free agency indicates that at one point they felt comfortable picking him. However, that was before Miami traded out of the third pick, making it clear Chase would be an option. Having failed in their pursuit of Golladay, I believe they’ll pivot to Chase based primarily on the analytics. Wide receiver also wasn’t their biggest need when they picked Higgins last year, but he was an analytics darling they couldn’t pass up. This is what I ultimately feel will carry the day in the Bengals’ war room, and lead Ja’Marr Chase to a reunion with Joe Burrow.

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