Ja'Marr Chase-Penei Sewell pre-draft debate back in focus ahead of Bengals-Lions matchup

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CINCINNATI — The pre-draft debate about whether the Cincinnati Bengals should select Ja'Marr Chase or Penei Sewell back in April wasn’t really about either player.

It was about quarterback Joe Burrow and which player could help him the most: Chase, a wide receiver and former LSU teammate; or Sewell, a seemingly can’t-miss offensive tackle prospect.

The Bengals drafted Chase with the fifth overall pick, signaling the route they thought best for Burrow and the franchise. With Cincinnati taking on the Detroit Lions (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on Fox), which drafted Sewell seventh and has him starting at right tackle, that conversation will be rekindled this weekend.

Through five games, the Bengals don’t have any remorse over their decision. Chase has given the Bengals offense a big boost and has played up to the expectations that preceded his arrival.

“He’s a rare breed,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “That’s why we picked him up with the fifth pick. I can see the talent. There aren’t too many people on his level. He has his own game to him.”

During the pre-draft process, Chase’s familiarity with Burrow was one of the biggest talking points. That wasn’t all talk.

Chase has already established himself as Burrow’s big-play threat and has proven to be someone Burrow trusts in almost any situation. Last year, Burrow was 0-for-13 on pass attempts of 30 or more air yards, according to ESPN Stats and Information. This year, Burrow already has four in half as many games. All of them were caught by Chase, all for touchdowns.

Chase has also made timely plays for the Bengals (3-2). Three of his touchdowns have come in the final minute of the first half with the score tied or the Bengals trailing. Another one sparked a late rally that had the Bengals flirting with a comeback in a Week 2 loss at Chicago.

It’s easy to understand why Burrow has targeted Chase 35 times, which is tied with Boyd for the most of any Bengals wide receiver.

“Ja’Marr has been making plays for five straight weeks now,” Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins said. “He’s got the hot hand, so of course (Burrow) is going to go to him.”

The immediate impact is what the Bengals were looking for when they selected Chase over Sewell, who was billed as the best available offensive lineman in the draft. After Cincinnati selected Chase, the Lions drafted Sewell, who has started all five games -- primarily at left tackle with Taylor Decker injured. Detroit head coach Dan Campbell told reporters that if Decker returns, Sewell will shift to the right side.

Like most offensive line rookies, Sewell is trying to find his footing. He ranks 58th among 65 qualifying players in pass block win rate when lined up at tackle.

“He’s had some rookie mistakes, but comes back next snap trying to make his will on his opponent,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “He’s a good player and will be a great player for a long time.”

Both players seem to be good fits for the current state of their respective franchises. Sewell isn’t under immediate pressure as the Lions are at the beginning stages of their rebuild, while a win on Sunday could further seal Cincinnati’s status as a playoff contender.

Chase’s ascendance has plenty to do with that. Outside of his individual success, Cincinnati’s offense has struggled to find any rhythm. In nearly every metric that measures an offense’s ability to sustain drives, the Bengals are near the bottom of the 32-team league: 30th in three-and-out percentage, tied for 30th in red zone drives, 31st in plays per drive.

Amid those bleak numbers, Chase is the biggest offensive bright spot. Taylor said the traits Chase displayed at LSU on his way to the Biletnikoff Award have translated to the NFL.

“It's winning one-on-one (matchups), making plays on balls down the field even when the opportunities aren't always there,” Taylor said. “He just has a great knack for judging the ball down the field, which not everybody does.”

So far, however, the rookie has proven why the Bengals drafted him. And the Bengals feel they’re close to unlocking the full potential of the offense they envision during the offseason.

Said Higgins: “It’s going to come, for sure.”