Are NFL Footballs Harder to Catch Than Their NCAA Counterparts?

Bengals rookie WR Ja'Marr Chase blamed a case of the drops on the size and striping of his new equipment

Ja'Marr Chase #1 of the Cincinnati Bengals participates in a drill during Mandatory Minicamp on June 15, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bengals receiver has had issues with drops during the preseason.
Ja'Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, is having problems catching the ball.
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

For all their advance scouting, NFL teams really only get to know the players they draft after camps start and real football action begins. And that’s when some beleaguered franchises — like the Cincinnati Bengals — begin to realize they have put a lot of money and a high draft pick into a receiver who maybe can’t catch a ball.

Ja’Marr Chase was the fifth pick of the 2021 NFL draft, and a former college teammate of Bengals QB Joe Burrow, who probably would have preferred his team draft an offensive lineman to keep him from getting catastrophically pummeled. At LSU in 2019, the two had an undeniable chemistry when Chase nabbed 1,780 yards on 84 catches (a 21.2 average) and 20 receiving touchdowns on his way to winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award, given to the best college receiver. He was a stud, so it’s no surprise he went high in the draft and was reunited with Burrow.

But his early returns in the NFL have been rough. During his most recent preseason game, Chase dropped four passes in a row. While offering up some valid excuses, from learning a new offense to developing a “rhythm” with Burrow — along with sort of suggesting but not suggesting that “sitting on his butt all year” after his decision to not play in 2020 was a factor — Chase also offered up a couple of very concerning quotes.

On dropping a bubble screen, Chase told his team’s website (as noted by Pro Football Talk), “I would just say it’s a lack of concentration. That’s all it was.” Grade for honesty? A+. But isn’t concentrating on catching the ball a very major part of his job?

The real concern? Chase finds the ball different from college. “The ball is different because it is bigger,” he said. “It doesn’t have the white stripes on the side so you can’t see the ball coming from the tip point so you actually have to look for the strings on the ball at the top, which is hard to see because whole ball is brown and you have the six strings that are white. But for the most part, just have to get used to it and find out what I am comfortable with catching.”

[Update: Chase also claims the ball being different doesn’t make it more difficult to catch, in a tweet responding to the Pro Football Talk article.]

Which is all true — the ball is a bit different in college — but we’ve never heard a wide receiver express confusion about the size and makeup of a football in the pros. Still, Chase is apparently putting in a lot of work at camp and at least one very good Bengals receiver from years past is confident the LSU star will overcome his catching woes.

“Just relax and play and don’t think about it. He says he’s not. But he is. Human nature,” said T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who trains college receivers for the pros. “Just work on getting open and creating separation. The rest will come. You know you’re going to catch the ball.”

The Bengals better hope so.

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