You may not remember the name Jaelen Strong, but if you watch a lot of college football you probably remember at least one of his plays from last season.
Update: Read our 2015 NFL Draft scouting reports for the top prospects.
Yes, Strong was that dude who ran in front of USC's defenders and caught a Hail Mary (the Jael Mary) with time expiring to win the game for Arizona State. Not only was it an amazing, game-winning play, it was also one of three touchdowns he caught that day, his only three-touchdown game of the season. I know this not only because I looked up his stats, but also because at one point the USC game was posted, but unfortunately it's gone now.
Strong is the third receiver for me to break down this spring. For the purposes of this breakdown, I went to Draft Breakdown and watched him play against UCLA, Utah, Oregon State, Arizona and Duke, the fourth, eighth, 10th, 12th and 13th games of Arizona State's season, respectively.
Before I can get into the meat of this breakdown, I need to give you some context. Draft Breakdown had four of Strong's games up on its site before the Combine rolled around, and I evaluated him on those games in anticipation that a fifth game would soon be posted which would allow me to finish the breakdown. Well, all of a sudden not only was a fifth game not posted, some of the games I had already evaluated disappeared.
It seems that the Pac-12 Network is being a bit of a jerk about letting people post all or parts of its games on YouTube. Personally, I think that's a huge mistake because the more people who are able to see Pac-12 players and evaluate them, whether draft analysts or random fans who read our stuff, the more people are exposed to Pac-12 football in general. Hell, the league already suffers because it has so many West Coast night games that don't air until after most of the country has gone to bed. Anything that gets more people to see what they have been missing should be welcomed by that conference, in my humble opinion.
But then again, nobody asked me.
Because of those shenanigans, I ended up having to put Strong's breakdown on the back burner while I evaluated other guys who did have five games posted. In the past week or so, the games that were taken down are back up, and finally, the fifth game of his was posted, which allowed me to finish his evaluation. (The Oregon State game is not on there anymore.)
However, so much time had passed since I first evaluated Strong that I had to go back and rewatch all of the games that had been taken down, as well as those that had remained up the whole time, just to make sure my memory hadn't failed me.
The second time around (actually more like the fourth, but who's counting?) I noticed some things that I hadn't at first and saw a few things a little bit differently. Because the Combine has already come and gone, I also had the context of his performance there to use as part of his evaluation. That actually is going to make it a little more complete of an evaluation than if I had been able to finish it earlier in the process, so the delay did at least have some upside.
Even after all that, I'm still not sure who or what Jaelen Strong will be as a pro. I am pretty sure that I like this kid a lot, probably more than most other draft evaluators do, and that's OK with me.
What stands out about Strong for me is that he is without a doubt a dynamic receiver who can get open down the field and make some fantastic contested catches. For the most part, his hands were outstanding, even on plays that didn't count.
Unfortunately, many of his best catches didn't count because of shitty play from the Arizona State quarterback position.
I know some folks will parrot the bullshit that when a receiver catches a ball out of bounds that "he didn't give his quarterback enough room to throw the ball," but I think that's a crock. A good quarterback on a sideline throw is throwing to a spot, not to a guy. Now, that spot may need to be adjusted based on the speed of the receiver, but once that's factored in, that spot pretty much doesn't move. Or it shouldn't at least. The only variable then is when to throw it, if at all, early or late.
That is especially true when you are throwing to a receiver the caliber of Strong who can and will go up and get the ball as long as it's in the general vicinity. Way too many times in those five games the quarterback just didn't give Strong a chance on some of the passes thrown his way. It's kind of amazing when you realize he caught 82 balls on the season for almost 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. This last time watching him play, I just couldn't stop asking myself what kind of damage this kid could have done if he'd had a better quarterback.
He didn't, so it's kind of a moot point, but there is no denying his big-play potential.
Was he perfect? Of course not. He had a few drops, including a ball he absolutely should have had against UCLA but let the defensive back take away from him. Every time I watched that play it pissed me off because it just didn't appear that he fought for the ball at all. I can let a lot of things slide, but if I don't think you have a passion for playing football, that's one thing that will totally turn me off on a prospect. I know from experience, this game is already too difficult, so to expect a guy whose heart isn't in it to perform at a high level for any length of time is never wise.
That was a bad play, but after watching all five games several times, I don't think I can question Strong's love of the game.
Hell, if I was as good as he is but had to play with the quarterbacks he played with last season, I think I might have lost my mind. That's not an excuse; that's the damn truth. This guy looked to be a man among boys on most plays. I'm not saying that just about his pass-catching abilities -- his blocking was damned impressive too.
I mean, when is the last time you saw a wide receiver come across and de-cleat a defender in the middle of the field?
As a matter of fact, the first time around watching his film I kept thinking to myself that this was a big dude. His listed height was 6'3 or 6'4, and I thought he was every bit of that. He just looked so imposing and explosive against most of the defensive backs he faced.
Come to find out this was another case of height fraud. At the Combine, Strong "only" measured in as being 6'2, a full 2-inch difference. Talk about being shocked and appalled!
OK, so maybe I'm being a little facetious here, but the height thing did made me look at his film a little differently. When I thought he was 6'4 and saw that he didn't always get in and out of his breaks quickly, I figured I could let it slide a little bit -- maybe he just needed to get someone to coach him on staying lower on his routes so that it would be easier for him to plant and change directions. But now that I know he is only 6'2, I have to wonder why he looked so cumbersome at times running some of the shorter routes.
Don't get me wrong, it's always great to have that guy who can take the top off of a defense and go up and get the ball in traffic. However, I always worry about "regular" sized receivers who are not good route runners. Those guys are going to see top-notch corners every week in the NFL, and guys who are a lot closer to their size as well. In general, it's going to be a lot harder for them to make plays using just their athleticism on the next level, so superb route running is what can actually help them get separation.
I wouldn't say that Strong was a bad route runner either. In fact, I might take his route running over Kevin White's. Once again, I also have to factor in the shitty quarterback play. Strong isn't close to being on Amari Cooper's level when it comes to route running, but he ran only a few hundredths of a second slower in the 40 than Cooper (4.42 vs. 4.44) and he jumped 9 inches higher on the vertical leap (33 inches versus 42 inches). Oh, and Strong is an inch taller as well.
That's where potential comes into play. From watching him play and looking at his Combine numbers, I happen to think that Strong has a much higher ceiling than Cooper. They have similar 40 times, but as far as I'm concerned, Strong was the much more explosive guy down the field. Their hands are both top-notch, with neither guy having an edge in my book. While Cooper is the better route runner, I don't see any reason why Strong can't improve tremendously in that area with good coaching.
Strong's athletic gifts are undeniable, but one only has to look at a guy like Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings' first-round pick from two years ago, to understand the risk of taking a receiver who is not a good route runner too high in the draft. While Patterson came out like gangbusters as a return man, his slow evolution into a bona fide receiver frustrated the Vikings' coaching staff last season to the point that he basically ended the year benched in favor of a former seventh-round pick on his third team (Charles Johnson). That ain't good.
Like Patterson, Strong was a JUCO transfer. Unlike Patterson, though, Strong spent two years playing at the DI level instead of just one. That should have made him better prepared to be an NFL player, but I'm not sure it actually did. If I were a betting man, I would bet on Strong's upside and let the chips fall where they may.
Unfortunately, we get reminded every year that most teams are risk-averse when it comes to the draft, or at least the first round of the draft. Even though it wasn't his fault, I could definitely see Strong being penalized because at times his quarterbacks couldn't hit a fat bear in the ass with a two-by-four. It's one thing to project what you think a guy will be able to do, but it's always reassuring when you actually see him doing it on film. At the same time, a guy with Strong's size, ability and tape should not make it out of the first round in any year.
I can now say for sure that Kevin White is my top receiver in the draft, but Strong is by far the most intriguing to me. I can't vouch for him running a curl route, but there isn't a receiver in this draft I'd want running a fade inside the red zone any more than Strong.
I can't wait to see five or so years from now which of these three receivers is shining the brightest. White should be the first one taken in this draft, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it's Strong who is the most productive by then.