NFL Draft Preview 2015: WR Jaelen Strong
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the next 10 weeks, we will analyze the top NFL prospects at each position. This first week, the focus is on wide receivers. Today’s wideout is Jaelen Strong out of Arizona State.
Declaring for the draft as a redshirt junior, Strong only played in two seasons with the Sun Devils. The wideout made a name for himself at the junior college level at Pierce College in Los Angeles. Strong was ranked a four-star prospect at Pierce before eventually transferring to Arizona State in 2012. When he saw his first action on the field the following season (2013), Strong didn't hesitate to break out onto the scene, grabbing 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. In his first six starts, he managed to reach at least 100 yards receiving in five straight games. His accolades would earn him Second-Team All-Pac-12 Honors for the 2013 season.
Yet, there was still more to come from Strong. In this past season as a redshirt junior, the Sun Devil would build upon his impressive sophomore campaign. Strong captured the third most receptions in a season by any ASU player with 82, and his 1,165 yards were good enough for fifth place in the Arizona State history books as well. He went on to add 10 more touchdowns to his resume in 2014, garnering national recognition for being one of the nation's best receivers in such a short period of time. Strong was named an ESPN All-American, First-Team All-Pac-12, and a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in his finale season with the Sun Devils.
If you like the big guys who can go up and get the rock, Jaelen Strong is your dude. At 6'3" and 215 lbs, this guy is a physical specimen that can line up outside the numbers or in the slot. Catching the 50/50 balls are Strong's specialty; he does a phenomenal job of high-pointing the football and maintaining possession. Strong thrives in man coverage situations where he can "box out" corners with his big frame and create mismatches. He also has a basketball background to thank, and as we all know, that certainly never hurts. While he is not a tight end, Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, and Antonio Gates are all big names who had the hoops pedigree.
In terms of playmaking, Strong possesses big-play ability as a deep threat that can stretch the defense. He was consistent at beating press coverage in college, and while he is not going to wow you in terms of speed, he is deceptively fast in terms of running by secondaries and getting open for the deep ball. Strong also will give you the effort you are looking for after he catches the ball; he's not the most shifty guy in space, but he will fight for YAC and sometimes surprise you with what he can pick up afterwards. However, the most intriguing part of Strong's game is the incredible pair of strong hands he has. No pun intended. Once he gets his mitts on the ball, it becomes a task to try and pry that thing away. What to love most though is that the spectacular catch is routine for him. Turn on the tape and you see stuff like this:
While watching Strong physically abuse defenses can be mesmerizing, do not be fooled. Strong has his fair share of concerns that need to be addressed before he can be a star in the NFL. The most glaring weakness he has right now might prove to be a big one at the next level; Strong struggles with creating separation when running his routes. It seems as though every time the ball his thrown his way, completed or not, Strong has a defender right on his hip in a position to make a play on the ball. Rarely did I see Strong catch a ball with more than a few yards of space around him. This is because he wins too often with physicality, and at times solely relies on it. It makes him too one-dimensional and easier to read as a route-runner.
To be fair, Strong's route tree was very limited at ASU. Back shoulder fades (his go-to route at Arizona State), drags, and slants were just about everything he ran for the most part. So, while it may have been the offensive scheme that kept Strong from staying unpredictable and creating some separation, this still means he will have to expand his route tree at the next level and develop into a more polished route runner. Strong also tends to have the occasional easy drop, and with hands like his, there is no excuse for that. Durability could be an issue as well, Strong had to leave games hurt on many occasions.
Overall, Strong is somewhat of a mixed bag, but his ceiling is tremendously high. If he is put in the right situation where he can be coached up and develop the finesse skills of his game, the sky is the limit for this kid. Strong is a raw talent, and that means he is certainly going to need some work and time to be successful at the pro level. With that being said, Strong already has all of the physical tools in place to make it happen. If he can grasp the technique and fundamentals of playing the receiver position, watch out. While Strong belongs more in the 2nd round to me, don't be surprised if he is taken as early as the mid-first-round.
There are several teams in the latter part of the first round that make the most sense for Strong. One location would be Baltimore under a superb coaching staff. Torrey Smith might be out the door in free agency, so Strong would have the chance to make an impact from the get-go. He could replace the departing Smith's knack for making big plays while learning from the Smith on the other side, Steve Smith. Although the veteran plays a different way than Strong, this is how the young prospect would further develop his game. Smith could be a mentor to Strong in teaching him how to run routes and get open. Another spot that makes sense is New England. Brady hasn't had a true deep threat since Randy Moss, and we know how good those offenses were. Nobody is saying Strong is the next Moss, but with guidance from Belichick and Brady, he could become another down-the-field weapon in the Pats' arsenal. Brady makes everyone better, and if they could get this kid on the right track, game over.