Mil Kiper Jr. has Jaelen Strong projected to go 18th overall to the Kansas City Chiefs, as per the Kansas City Star. From a strictly-production standpoint, it makes sense. Strong has been fairly consistant the past two years, amassing at least 75 catches, 1,100 yards, and 7 touchdowns the past two campaigns for the Arizona State Devils. Considering he was dealing with Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici at quarterback, those stats are amazing.
However, this is a very deep class at both the receiver and pass-rushing positions. I don’t think Strong should go anywhere near that high considering the talent that can be found in later rounds. Here’s why:
NFL Draft Profile:
*Size: “Little” receivers proliferate this year’s draft but Strong isn’t one of them. He possesses an ideal-NFL body at 6’2″, 217 lbs. That’s a tight, lean frame which means, combined with his 42″ vertical jump (3rd highest at the Combine), Strong has a size advantage over most NFL cornerbacks. His size allowed him to be a good blocker as well in the run and screen game.
*Strong hands: I’ve watched a number of Strong’s games and haven’t seen many drops. If the ball enters Strong’s hands, he’s going to get it. He has big strong hands that just pluck the ball out of the air.
*Athleticism: As far as his combine numbers go, they’re pretty good. He had a forty-yard dash time of 4.42 seconds, a broad jump of 123 inches, and a three-cone drill of 7.34 seconds. His play on the field confirms the Combine results. He plays fast and strong, showcasing his speed on the field on deep and post routes (which he ran quite often).
*Toughness: Strong was fearless going over the middle at Arizona State. Even times when he knew an encroaching safety was going to lower the boom, he’d still focus on the ball and reel the catch in. His size allowed Strong to escape injury even though he took some massive hits.
*Receiving tricks: Strong is adept at using little receiving tricks to gain space. He has a slight head-weave and a good stutter step. When thrown the ball in open-space, he showed the ability to gain yards after the catch. A big strength of Strong’s is his ability to track the ball, allowing Strong to succeed on underthrown balls and Hail Marys (such as against USC).
Strong is almost a good enough receiver to be the top prospect in this year’s draft except he has one major weakness (and it’s a doozy): Strong somehow lacks the ability to create seperation, often having cornerbacks draped all over him as he progresses through the routes. Even though he is almost always a better athlete than the cornerback across from him, he just does not create enough burst or explosion to seperate from the cornerback.
Just needing a QB that can “throw him open” is a common refrain I’m hearing from draft analysts who are trying to support taking Strong highly. But it doesn’t quite work that way. That usually implies throwing the ball in a narrow spot away from the cornerback. In Strong’s case though, there really isn’t an “away” spot from the cornerback as they often have as good a position as he does. The “away” position when throwing to Strong was often over the cornerback’s head. In the NFL though, the cornerbacks are taller and can usually high-point a ball quite well.
Even with the worse cornerbacks in college, it was still a problem. Profootball.scout.com tracked every throw tossed to Strong and found that opponents had 21 breakups, helping lead to only a 56.5% rate of sucess for Arizona State QBs when throwing to Strong (by comparision, of the projected top 10 recievers in this year’s draft, only Auburn’s Sammie Coates had a worse success rate). In the NFL, those won’t be breakups; they’ll be interceptions.
Besides, if a quarterback has to gamble (which is exactly what “throwing a receiver open” means) to get a receiver the ball frequently, is that receiver a first-round talent? I’d much rather invest a third-rounder in Phillip Dorsett or Tyler Lockett, whom I believe will be the steal of the draft (more on my love affair with Lockett in a later article though).
There are other, smaller issues with Strong’s game. During his time at Arizona State, he ran short or deep routes, almost never intermediate routes. He also isn’t a great route-runner, either rounding off the tops of his routes or not running crisply into turns. However, both these issues can easily be fixed. His seperation issue cannot.
Pro-player comparison: A.J. Jenkins, the San Francisco 49er’s 2013 first-round pick who is now out of the league, is his floor while Roddy White is his ceiling. However, I only see Strong turning into Jenkins if he gets bitten by the injury bug. It is important to note though that Jenkins struggled (and struggles) with separation from cornerbacks. That was his main issue aside from injuries. Conversly, if Strong fixes all of his issues, he compares favorably to Roddy White.
Chances are though, Jenkins falls somewhere between those two extremes, similar to Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a big, athletic guy who struggles (and struggled) with seperation. He’s still had a productive career but, seeing as how the 49ers didn’t offer him a 2nd-contract and he’s out of a job now, he can be considered a bust.
Conclusion: If chosen in the first round, Strong is likely to be a bust as well. I doubt he will be chosen that high though and certainly not as high as 18th overall. There’s too many good receivers of equal or better talent that can be found at later rounds to burn a pick like that. That being said, he won’t go too low either. His blend of size and athleticism are sure to entice some General Manager who thinks they can fix him.
I think his floor in the draft is the St. Louis Ram’s third-round pick (72nd overall), and his ceiling is the Baltimore Raven’s first-round pick (26th overall). Both franchises have a need for a #2, big receiver, particularly Baltimore. New Ravens OC Marc Trestman showed an affinity for big-receivers at Chicago. There’s not really a guy who fills this role in Baltimore (even though Steve Smith Sr. tries to play big).
Ideally, Strong heads to Baltimore from a 2nd or 3rd round (meaning the Ravens trade up in the round) selection. They have the best need, supporting cast, and coaching staff for Strong to learn key skills for the long term. Plus, the reduced expectations from a later round would help Strong avoid a Jenkins-like toxic concoction of injuries, bad seperation skills, and expectations.
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