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4 reasons the Seahawks’ Gary Jennings Jr. could be one of the draft’s best receiver picks

Let’s talk to the West Virginia Mountaineer about his college career and how he’ll fit in the NFL.

Original image: USA TODAY Sports.

Gary Jennings Jr. spent his first two years at West Virginia getting little offensive action. He had 17 catches between 2015 and ‘16, while he mostly sat behind more experienced receivers who were catching balls from a good but not great quarterback.

In 2017, Florida transfer Will Grier became eligible at QB. Jennings moved up the depth chart, and working with one of the best QBs in college football, Jennings became a star. He had 97 catches for 1,096 yards and (weirdly) just one touchdown as a junior, then followed it up with 54 catches for 917 yards and 13 TDs as a senior — a much different profile, but a productive one in its own way.

Now he’s a fun NFL Draft pick for the Seahawks, who took him 120th overall, in the fourth round.

Jennings few somewhat under the draft radar. pegs him as a potential backup or special teams player. I think it’s way more likely he becomes a quality pass-catcher for his pro team.

1. Advanced stats say Jennings is one of the best receivers in the draft.

Jennings’ traditional numbers at WVU were great, though they flipped from his junior to senior year. First, he had tons of catches for not that many yards per catch and no TDs. Then he had fewer catches, but for more TDs and more yards per catch.

Let’s focus on his senior year, the one NFL evaluators will give the most attention.

Jennings ranked third among FBS receivers in the draft class in Marginal Efficiency.

That stat, from by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, tracks how efficient a play based is on the exact game situation. (For instance, a 12-yard catch on third-and-18 is less valuable than a 7-yard catch on third-and-5.) Jennings ranked 11th in Marginal Explosiveness, which similarly measures how successful those plays were.

He was fourth in catch rate (74 percent) and first in Success Rate, which judges how often throws to a receiver keep an offense on schedule.

(On first down, a successful play gets half the necessary yardage for a first down. On second down, 70 percent. On third and fourth down, 100 percent.)

He was fourth in yards per target.

2. He prides himself as a deep threat, and he can draw up exactly how a team might use formations to unleash him.

At the NFL Combine, I sat with Jennings for five minutes and asked him to break down his game. We were able to have a relatively long one-on-one talk, because the vast majority of the reporters in the room did not care about Jennings. He was sitting at a table off to the side of a big ballroom, a few feat from a media horde that surrounded Kyler Murray.

Jennings drew up his favorite play in Dana Holgorsen’s version of the air raid, which WVU operated for Jennings’ whole career. In this diagram, Jennings is the Y receiver:

Diagram by Gary Jennings Jr.

The play has two main components: the left side (or strong side) is designed to beat zone coverage, and the right (weak) side, where Jennings starts, is designed to beat man coverage. Everything depends on how the defense responds, but a common way the play can work involves a safety, playing zone, crashing down to cover H, the crossing receiver.

If the strong safety moves toward H, that leaves X singled up against a cornerback, where he can make a catch 10 or 15 yards downfield. If the free safety, on Jennings’ side, moves toward H or really just pauses at all in the middle of the field, that leaves Jennings, the Y receiver, one-on-one against a slot cornerback. Meanwhile, the Z receiver runs a 6-yard hitch near the sideline to keep downfield space open.

The play highlights what Jennings sees as his biggest strength.

“I’m a bigger speedster, I’d like to say,” Jennings told me. “A bigger speedster who’s able to show my vertical presence down the field.”

Here’s how it looks in action:

As spread offenses become more en vogue in the NFL, there are a ton of ways a team could try to align Jennings against either smaller or slower corners. That can be the payoff.

3. Jennings’ big-play ability hasn’t come at the expense of everything else.

Recall that, among FBS receivers in the 2019 draft class, he ranked even higher in Marginal Efficiency than Explosiveness in 2018. Also recall that he caught his targets at a higher clip than almost every receiver in the class, including many who didn’t go deep as often. Holgorsen used him as a screen option on a lot of the Mountaineers’ run/pass options, trusting Jennings to catch the ball and run if the defense dictated a perimeter throw.

“I define myself as someone who’s dependable,” he said.

4. The combine raised one question about his skill set, but his game film says not to worry.

Does he have the agility to beat NFL defensive backs regularly?

Jennings clocked in as one of the fastest 40-yard dashers and had one of the higher vertical leaps, with average height and above-average weight. But he ran poorly in the three-cone drill, coming in 26th out of the 29 receivers who ran it.

You can decide how much you care about one bad combine test, particularly when he tested in the 68th percentile for receivers in the 20-yard shuttle run, which shows off similar short-range agility. It could turn out to be a problem, and it could not.

Personally, I’m encouraged by watching back some of his game film, which shows Jennings making plenty of smooth cuts to get away from DBs on short routes. Like here:

And here:

According to MockDraftable, Jennings’ combine showing was similar to Martavis Bryant’s in 2014. Though Bryant’s had an up-and-down career, he’s one of the most physically gifted receivers the league’s seen in years.

Jennings has the college production of a really good prospect. To me, he seems to have the physical gifts of a really good prospect, too.