CINCINNATI — One aspect of the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense never seemed right last season — and it involved one of the best players in franchise history.
A.J. Green has been one of the best wide receivers in the NFL during his 10-year career, and he’s built a case to be considered for the Hall of Fame.
But with a new starting quarterback and a new coach for the first time in his career, things never fully clicked. Green, who will be 33 in July, wasn’t re-signed in the offseason, and in April, the Bengals drafted LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick.
Chase is replacing a player with 65 touchdowns and almost 10,000 receiving yards, but the rookie receiver will give the Bengals something they lacked at that position — versatility.
Green was almost exclusively lined up outside the numbers for the bulk of his career. Chase has the flexibility to be used across the formation, which produces a new sense of freedom on offense that could allow the Bengals to flourish.
“I think we got a lot more balance and can just call anything now,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said on Tuesday. “We don’t gotta worry about guys being in certain spots.”
Boyd emphasized that’s not necessarily a knock on Green, who signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. It’s just different for a variety of reasons.
For starters, Green is listed three inches taller than the 6-foot-1 Chase and is much more slender despite being just 10 pounds heavier. But perhaps more importantly, Chase and Green are products of two completely different eras of football.
When Green left Georgia in 2011, the SEC was years away from the high-powered passing attacks that allowed teams such as Chase’s 2019 LSU squad to win the national championship.
During that run with the Tigers that featured Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Chase could be lined up as the traditional X receiver on the outside or moved inside to the slot. Chase was in the slot on almost 40% of his snaps in 2019 in his Biletnikoff Award-winning season.
That gives the Bengals a dynamic they lacked with Green. In his 10 years with the Bengals, Green lined up outside on 84.7% of his snaps, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Of his 9,430 career receiving yards, 81% of them came when he was positioned near the boundary.
Just like the Bengals will benefit from Chase’s usage, the rookie is looking forward to the extra space in the NFL. In college, inside and outside receivers were aligned closer to each other because the hash marks are closer to the sideline. Having the hash marks closer to the middle of the field will give Chase more operating space.
“It’s going to take time to get used to, but I actually like it,” Chase said after rookie minicamp on May 14. “It feels like the field is way wider, bigger, and I think that’s actually better.”
The Bengals’ hire of Zac Taylor as coach in 2019 signaled the arrival of a more modern offense. Cincinnati uses several concepts from spread offenses and has employed three-receiver sets more than any other team in the league during that span, per NFL Next Gen.
Chase’s versatility and background playing in a similar system at LSU make him a natural fit for Taylor’s scheme.
“What I really like about Ja’Marr is he has the size and the speed to play outside and the physicality,” Taylor said. “He also has the quickness and the body control to play inside as well.”
The Bengals use the same empty formations that Burrow operated from at LSU. In some of those instances, that means Chase could be bounced closer to the line of scrimmage moments before the snap.
Boyd said receivers are taught concepts and how in the current offense, a receiver can line up anywhere based on the formation. Having someone with Chase’s versatility increases the processing speed and, according to Boyd, will allow Burrow to just go on the field and call plays without informing receivers of their specific assignment on each snap.
“[It] makes guys more comfortable knowing that they can just line up and they’re in position the whole time,” Boyd said. “They can just line up and just go.”
Between Boyd, Chase and Tee Higgins (last year’s second-round pick, who modeled his game after Green and led the team in receiving), Cincinnati has a strong trio of receivers. Throw in Auden Tate and even Mike Thomas, and the Bengals are positioned to have one of the most potent receiving corps in the league.
“We have some great receivers, great weapons at our disposal,” Burrow said last week. “Just have to utilize them properly.”