It's rare when college football standouts immediately replicate their success at the NFL level. It's even rarer when that happens with multiple teammates from the same team.
What, then, does that make the Joe Burrow-Ja'Marr Chase connection? The former LSU teammates and standouts haven't missed a beat in their sophomore and rookie seasons with the Bengals, recreating a deadly connection that haunted SEC defenses during the Tigers' 2019 College Football Playoff championship season.
Put simply, Burrow and Chase are both stars — whether at the college or professional level is irrelevant. The fact they have been able to continue their incredible chemistry is a testament not only to their individual talent, but also the rapport they built in Baton Rouge as part of a record-breaking offense.
Burrow has already broken the Bengals franchise record with 4,611 passing yards in 2021, a record originally set by former Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton in 2013 (4,293 yards). Burrow's favorite target in breaking that record has been Chase, who leads the 2021 Bengals in targets (128), receptions (82), receiving yards (1,455) and touchdown receptions (13).
Chase's single-season mark of 1,455 yards, by the way, also breaks some notable records: the NFL single-season rookie receiving record (formerly 1,400 yards, set by Vikings receiver and former LSU standout Justin Jefferson in 2020) and the Bengals single-season record (formerly 1,440 yards, set by Chad Johnson in 2007).
Burrow and Chase look like the next great quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL. But you can't fully appreciate what they're doing now until you see how — and where — they got their start. With that, Sporting News heads back to college to look at the duo's time at LSU:
Joe Burrow-Ja'Marr Chase LSU stats
Burrow combined to complete 621 of 906 passes (68.5 percent) for 8,565 yards and 76 yards to 11 interceptions in two seasons at LSU. The majority of those stats came from his record-breaking 2019 season, in which he completed 402 passes for 5,761 yards and 60 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Chase, a freshman when Burrow transferred from Ohio State to LSU in 2018, combined for 107 receptions for 2,093 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns, also in the 2018 and '19 seasons (he opted out of the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic). Like his quarterback, Chase enjoyed an explosive 2019 campaign in which he had 84 receptions for a team-leading 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Curiously, Chase only ever caught passes from Burrow in his collegiate career. Backup quarterback Myles Brennan combined to complete 28 of 46 passes for 418 yards and one touchdown to one interception in 2018 and '19, but none went to Chase. The only other player to complete a pass during those seasons — apart from Burrow — was running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who completed an 11-yard pass against Texas A&M in 2018.
All told, Chase accounted for 17.2 percent of Burrow's career completions at LSU; 24.4 percent of his career yardage; and 30.2 percent of his career touchdowns. Those percentages become even more impressive when focused on just the 2019 season: 20.8 percent of his receptions; 31.3 percent of his yardage; and 33.3 percent of touchdowns.
Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase college football records
Naturally, the Burrow-Chase connection at LSU produced several school, SEC and national records. Below are the records both players helped the other to set during their two seasons together:
Ja'Marr Chase single-season records
- 2019: 20 receiving touchdowns (SEC record)
- 2019: 1,780 receiving yards (SEC record)
Chase's single-season SEC records were broken a season later, when Alabama's DeVonta Smith had 1,856 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns in 2020.
Joe Burrow single-season records
- 2019: 60 passing touchdowns (NCAA record)
- 2019: 65 total touchdowns (NCAA record)
- 2019: 402 completions (SEC record)
- 2019: 527 attempts (SEC record)
- 2019: 5,671 passing yards (SEC record)
- 2019: 76.3 completion percentage (SEC record)
- 2019: 6,039 total yards (SEC record)
- 2019: 402.6 total yards per game (SEC record)
- 2019: 642 total plays (SEC record)
Joe Burrow single-game records
- Eight touchdowns responsible for (SEC single-game record, vs. Oklahoma)
- Seven touchdown passes (SEC single-game record, vs. Oklahoma)
Burrow still enjoys many of the records he set at LSU in 2019, with only two being usurped since he left for the NFL. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones set the SEC single-season record for completion percentage (77.3 percent) in 2020. The following season, Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe in 2021 broke Burrow's NCAA single-season record for passing touchdowns, with 62. He also tied his NCAA record for total touchdowns in a season (65).
Why did Bengals draft Ja'Marr Chase over Penei Sewell?
Many expected the Bengals to draft a position of need in the 2021 NFL Draft: offensive tackle. The move made sense for several reasons, not least of which is Burrow, then a rookie, suffered a season-ending torn ACL and MCL after getting hit in the backfield of the Bengals' game vs. the Washington Football Team. The injury occurred during Week 11 of the 2020 NFL season — at the time he was injured, he had been sacked 32 times. Only the Seahawks' Russell Wilson (33) and Eagles' Carson Wentz (40) had taken more through that point of the season.
Moreover, the Bengals were in prime position to land Oregon's Penei Sewell, the top offensive tackle of the draft, with the No. 5 overall pick. Following the selection of quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance with the first three picks of the draft, respectively, only Atlanta stood in the way of the Bengals getting their man. The Falcons ultimately picked Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.
The Bengals then had a choice to make: Go with offensive tackle or reunite Burrow with one of his favorite targets from LSU? Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan admitted the Bengals considered Sewell, Pitts and Chase as clearly the best prospects available at the time they were able to pick. Per the Bengals:
"After the quarterbacks, we felt like we ended up looking at the top three players in the draft," Callahan said. "Those guys were a notch above what's coming after and they're going to be good players. But those guys are elite. The best at their position. … Not an easy decision. We've been back and forth on these guys."
Burrow's relationship with Chase helped inform the Bengals' decision to draft him, especially during a season where the receiver produced no tape and had interviews with teams limited to Zoom calls. Callahan also considered Chase — who had shown remarkable success against future NFL corners, including Alabama's Trevon Diggs — one of the best receiving talents in recent memory.
"It ended up he's a guy that can make a difference in our offense. He's so explosive," Callahan says. "To me, he's the best receiver that's come out in the last three years. He's worthy of that spot where guys like A.J. (Green) and Julio (Jones) were drafted. It's hard to pass up that kind of talent."