It’s crazy to think that Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase were on the same college football team and Joe Barrow was throwing the ball in their direction. Jefferson was the 22nd overall by the Minnesota Vikings in 2020, and Chase was fifth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals a year later. It is generally accepted that Chase was the best player since leaving LSU, but who is currently the best receiving player at the NFL level?
Receiver play is not a one-size-fits-all game. Jefferson and Chase are very different, and choosing one power just be a personal preference. But if we’re looking for a player who can be independent of QB, the answer might be clear.
Here we compare them with each other feature by feature and come to a conclusion.
Justin Jefferson vs. Ja’Marr Chase
In two seasons in the NFL, Jefferson gained 3,016 yards on 196 receptions. He scored 17 times in 33 games. After Jefferson broke the rookie acceptance record, it was Chase’s turn. However, this record has one caveat, as Chase played an extra game in the regular season and his 85.6 average per game was 1.9 yards per game short of Jefferson’s as a rookie.
But Chase hit 13 touchdowns last year, while Jefferson only hit seven as a rookie. Touchdowns aren’t as sticky year after year as other numbers, but Chase has the type of big game that allows him to score seasons.
In a 24-hour Twitter poll with 2,032 votes, Chase won with 56% of the vote.
Before last season, former Pewter Report analyst John Ledyard put Mike Evans and Chris Godwin through the process. This piece was the inspiration for this.
Justin Jefferson vs. Ja’Marr Chase: Route Run
The route execution covers every part of the process. Everything will be covered here, from the release to the trunk to the top of the route.
We can break this down into two subcategories: press releases and press releases. There are very few differences between them and press coverage. The truth is that they both dominate press coverage, albeit in different ways.
Matt Harmon records every rep a receiver does during the season for his Reception Perception project. Without disclosing test responses, both were in the 95th percentile or higher in his study. Who scored more points may remain a mystery to the wallet.
They approach it in different ways. Chase is pure violence. His success rate against the press is astounding given his arm length in the 18th percentile. But in these short hands there is a ton of strength and cruelty. And its lower half is almost the same. Chase explodes from the line and has so much athleticism that he can momentarily miss the red run line before returning to the track with a full-back.
Meanwhile, Jefferson has more to gain as an artist. He doesn’t have the foot speed or deceitfulness that Keenan Allen has, but his explosive power and flexibility go a long way. He is also well versed in tricking, changing pace, and bending on contact. But Jefferson is far more physically fit than he was credited with when he was at LSU, when losing press coverage was the most important question many analyst drafts had about his NFL predictions given his use at LSU.
The result is slightly different from out of coverage. Clearing the cover is not a hindrance to manipulation against a CB playing 7+ yards from the line of scrimmage. Here we discuss the ability of each receiver to win from the line against a CB three yards from the line.
Few, if any, players provide more flexibility than Jefferson in these situations. Davante Adams may be an exception. This is where Jefferson’s flexibility and intelligence come into play. For such a young receiver, he is much older than his years from a technical standpoint. Adams said Jefferson excelled at dog years and said the young receiver reminded him of a six-year veteran.
Jefferson is skilled at manipulating his speed, but his stride length manipulation and ability to use his attack lever make him very dangerous. It’s better for the team to try to pressure him and at least try to get him to slow him down because it’s useless to play on softer surfaces.
Chase certainly doesn’t struggle with non-human lighting. In fact, he thrives against it. But he’s not Jefferson’s technician; if the defender can hit him in the chest, he can break the timing of Chase’s route.
No one is better than Jefferson on the stem of the route and at the breakpoint. He is the most deceptive route runner and a natural league splitter at the intermediate levels of the field. He is a wizard against zones and match-based zone covers. His ability to find a weak point in true country zone style is outrageous, and his ability to attack the defensive levers in match zone images allows him to separate regardless of his natural quickness.
Jefferson’s rocker step could have been hung in the Louvre. That’s what made him so dangerous, playing from the slot against college quarterbacks, and he continued that by playing NFL quarterbacks the same way.
To top it off, Jefferson does have outstanding separation speed and have shown a penchant for playing in a much more physical style than in college, at the top of routes when he needs to help himself with a light push.
Chase isn’t as detailed, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad route runner or that he’s not good enough. jefferson just what good. Chase works much more vertically than Jefferson, who is more versatile in Viking offense. This should become even more evident when Kevin O’Connell comes from Sean McVeigh and the Rams.
Despite a more limited route tree, Chase excels at fighting humans at an elite level. Chase doesn’t need the technical prowess of the likes of Stephon Diggs, Adams or Allen to win. He has infinite explosive power, which he used, seemingly at will, against a human. He also uses his physicality and a bit of offensive passing interference to open up.
Jefferson vs. Chase: Hand/Ball Skills
The large sample size here from Jefferson hurts him. Jefferson had an outstanding record in contesting and a negligible dropout percentage in his first season in the league. In fact, Chase had more assists when he was a rookie, with 11 assists compared to Jefferson’s seven. In fact, according to the Pro Football Reference, Chase had twice the odds of getting hit as Jefferson.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Jefferson is great in the air, but he’s not as physical as Chase. He can get up with anyone, and his 33-inch arms and good vertical jump allow him to finish above the ring and outstretched defenders.
But Chase is a shorter, but more powerful version of the best Dez Bryant at the catch point. It is the definition of an alpha receiver. There is no wither on the back that Barrow doesn’t believe with all his heart that Chase won’t come down. Despite Chase’s ability to separate naturally, his limited route tree more often than not meant that defenders could keep the situation on their toes.
In fact, Chase caught over 75% of the dropped targets. He was a monster on the vertical plane in LSU, which continued at the NFL level. He still dominates there despite being just over 6 feet tall and with short arms.
Jefferson vs. Chase: Big Games
Considered the best PFN receiver in the NFL, Jefferson has a higher yards-per-catch average than the rest of the top 5 players, a testament to his ability to consistently gain yards.
But in this category, he is far from Chase, because, perhaps, only Debo Samuel can compare with him. Maybe Samuel could be just as good a threat in the outfield as Chase, but with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm, he could only be used in the near to midfield as a YAC weapon.
Chase doesn’t do it one way either. He doesn’t weigh 215 pounds like Samuel, but he bounces off tackles with ridiculous speed. Then, if he finds a little space, his vision, explosive power, and great speed allow him to open monster landing holds from the opposite territory.
Jefferson shows some dexterity on screen and after the catch, but lacks Chase’s creativity or physicality.
Jefferson vs. Chase: Sequence
Because of the archetype of each recipient, defining this category is not difficult. Jefferson’s game travels week after week. He is a natural divider with an outstanding understanding of how to find space against a zone. Meanwhile, Chase’s use and still-evolving ability to find space made him a bit inconsistent as a rookie.
It could also just be the difference between a beginner and someone with years of experience. Jefferson only had two games to 50 yards last season, but as a rookie he had four games to 40 yards (Chase had five).
It may also become even more common with O’Connell’s arrival in Minnesota. If he wants to use Jefferson in a role like Cooper Kupp in LA, he could see over 200 targets. Chase will always be effective when Barrow throws the ball to him, but he competes for goals with Tyler Boyd and Ty Higgins and plays the more traditional X-receiver role.
Jefferson vs. Chase: Separate them from the QB game
There is no denying that Chase was in the best possible position for his success as a rookie. While he will put up big numbers no matter what QB is under center, like Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, it takes a certain caliber of passer to get the most out of him. While much of Chase’s contested success is based on his own ability, Burrow’s precise positioning also contributes to this effectiveness.
If Chase becomes more consistent in dealing with zone cover, he could eventually become as independent of QB as Jefferson. But because Jefferson makes the quarterback’s job so easy, he’ll play better with a lower QB than Chase would in theory.
Jefferson vs. Chase: Conclusion
Jefferson won the trait battle 4-2-1, but that doesn’t automatically mean he’s the better player. The argument between them is a bit like an argument between someone like Adams and Tyreke Hill. From a technical standpoint, Hill isn’t quite as wide of a receiver as Adams, but if you ask a defensive coordinator against whom it’s more scary to plan a game, the answer is probably Hill.
The same argument can be made here. As a clean receiver, Jefferson is the better of the two. But the NFL is not a give and take league. Defenders still have to fight and defend at the capture point. And while Jefferson is pretty darn good in and out of the tackle point, Chase is on his own level.
If we were building a team and didn’t know the quarterback situation, with both players on the same contract terms, we’d pick Jefferson. His game will theoretically also last longer because he doesn’t rely on his physical superiority as much.
But if Chase can continue to develop his skills, for a sophomore there is no limit to the possibilities. And that advantage as a trail runner might be enough to make a bet. But for now, it’s important to have the quarterback throwing the ball to him, so before choosing between the two, it’s a good idea to know who throws to him.
There is no “wrong” answer to the debate over the two most talented wide receivers in the under-24 league. But consistency, trailing ability, and solid competitive ability make Jefferson the best receiver in the NFL for this writer’s money.