The 2015 NFL Draft prospects are finishing up their Pro Days and private workouts. The wide receiver crop is deep, with Amari Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker jostling for position at the top of the class. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong is also a first round talent, though a late injury and some technique questions may see him slip.
Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong is a product of West Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where his father was a standout basketball player. While John Rankin went to Drexel University and became the school’s second career leading scorer, Strong opted for the gridiron. The receiver initially failed to qualify academically for Division I athletics, and enrolled in junior college at Pierce College in Los Angeles, spending two years at the school and sitting out the 2011 season because of low grades. He returned to the field in 2012 and caught 67 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games.
Strong then transferred to Arizona State University in the fall of 2013, and was an immediate asset to the Sun Devils’ football program. He saw action in all 14 games and caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns, on the way to being named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team. Strong recorded season-highs of 12 receptions and 168 yards in a September loss to Stanford.
Returning for his junior year, Strong improved on those numbers, catching 82 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014. In Arizona State’s thrilling four-point victory over USC in October, Strong caught 10 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns, his final score coming on a 46-yard Hail Mary as time expired. For his efforts this season, he was selected to the All-Pac-12 First-Team and named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
Tale of the Tape
An explosive athlete, Strong stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 217 pounds. He was a full participant at the NFL Combine, running a 4.44 40-yard dash with a 10-yard split of 1.57 seconds and demonstrated his explosiveness with a 42-inch vertical leap, second among wide receivers at the Combine and tied for fifth-best among all players at the event.
In October of 2013 he suffered an ankle injury that limited his production for a few weeks, although he did not miss any games. He suffered a concussion in Arizona State’s loss to Oregon State in 2014, and was held out of the Sun Devils’ next game for precautionary reasons. It was reported on April 15, 2015 that Strong has a fractured bone in his wrist that likely requires surgery. He is headed to Indianapolis for further examinations by NFL teams ahead of the draft.
What He Does Well
The first thing that stands out on film is Strong’s ability in the vertical game. He is very quick at the line of scrimmage, able to beat press-man coverage on most plays. While he could gain more separation, he creates enough distance from defensive backs on most plays down the field.
On this first play against Duke from the Sun Bowl he lines up in the slot and runs a post route against the Blue Devils’ Cover 1. The free safety bites on the play-action fake, which opens up the middle of the field. Even with the defender affording Strong a big cushion using catch-man technique, the receiver quickly erases the space and blows by the CB on his route, resulting in a big play:
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Strong eliminates the eight-yard gap with his long stride and is wide open.
Another post route, this time from the outside. Arizona runs Cover 3 on this play, and the free safety does not rotate quickly enough. Strong gets behind the defense, and tracks this throw over his inside shoulder, securing the football as he crashes back to the earth:
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Finally, Strong has developed a nasty inside release against press coverage. Because he is such a threat in the vertical passing game, defensive backs have to respect any outside release. This gives Strong the ability to gain inside leverage at the line of scrimmage, beneficial on routes such as slants, or in this case, seams:
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The quick stutter-step at the snap forces the CB to commit to the outside, opening a lane for Strong to exploit inside the defender. Steps later the receiver has separated from the coverage and is open for a very nice gain.
Ball Winner – Sidelines and in Tight Spaces
Strong excels against physical contact when working in tight spaces in the red zone or along the sidelines. Here the Sun Devils are inside Arizona’s 5-yard line, and with the field compressed and bodies flying about, Strong runs a quick slant route:
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He shows great hands here, securing the high throw with one hand before getting his feet inbounds for the score. However his route is not as sharp and crisp as it could be. He shuffles his feet at the snap and rounds off his break, and while it works on this play it does not compare with the fluid example set by Alabama’s Amari Cooper, a similar player.
Teams fond of the back-shoulder throw might consider trading up for Strong in the first round, as he is a master on these plays:
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On the first play against the Wildcats, Strong manages to contort his body back to the throw and stop the flight of the football with his left hand. As he twists back to the sideline he brings his right hand to the ball and secures the pass. He then maintains his balance, stays inbounds, gains additional yardage, dives and extends the football inside the pylon.
The second two plays are consecutive snaps from ASU’s game against UCLA. The WR runs a back-shoulder fade route along the left sideline on both plays. On the first play, Strong manages to secure the pass with the defender draped on his back and clutching at his neck. Strong notches a reception on the next play running the same route, this time reaching over his shoulders to snare the football while the defender climbs his body.
Strong is a fearless blocker, which is one of his best traits. Take these three plays:
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On the first play, ASU runs a sweep to his side of the field. At first Strong simply runs a decoy vertical route to drag his defender away from the play, but when the running back breaks through to the second level Strong recognizes the opportunity – and blocks his cornerback deep into the Arizona bench.
On the second play, the receiver demonstrates the ability to crack down inside on linebackers or safeties, a trait shared by fellow prospect Tre McBride from William & Mary. Strong crashes down on the strong safety on this play, a stretch run to his side of the field.
Strong shows some spontaneous blocking on the third play, as well as his ability to lay some wood. He runs a short crossing route from the right slot and when the ball is thrown to a receiver on the other side of the field, Strong identifies a DB and delivers a crushing block that de-cleats the defender.
Strong needs improvement on the finer points of route running technique, particularly on short out routes and slants. Take this first play, an out pattern against UCLA:
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At the apex of his route Strong uses shuffle steps to try and execute a sharp cut. However, sloppy footwork cause him to round off the route, drifting upfield a bit and negating any separation he had created. Compare this route to the out route run by Cooper, who also uses shuffle steps but creates a much sharper break. Returning to Strong, he then lets the throw get into his body/pads, and while he secures the reception, he needs to display a better catch point.
Now consider this slant route:
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Strong breaks diagonally off the snap, failing to show the defensive back anything other than a slant route, and then allows an underneath defender to push him off the route, leaving him out of position and unable to fight back toward the throw.
There is an art to being where your quarterback expects you to be, and Strong needs to refine his routes as he develops in an NFL system.
At times Strong looks to gain yards after the catch before securing the football and/or lets the football into his body, leading to drops. On this first play against Washington he is in the left slot and runs a bubble screen off of read-option:
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If Strong makes the catch on this play he can likely run for a first down and more. But he lets the football get into his body, and the pass bounces off him and falls to the turf.
On this next play, ASU faces a 3rd down and 4 and implements the high-low opposite. Strong is in the right slot and runs a shallow crossing route, likely the low part of this pattern but he rounds off his route and runs it short of the first-down marker. Since both of those elements might be by design I cannot knock him for those decisions. However, his quarterback hits him out of the break and Strong fails to secure the football:
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In addition, Strong is slow getting into the route and seems to be looking for underneath coverage. Again, these are things he needs to fine-tune in the NFL
Even in this talented wide receiver class and his current injury concerns, Strong is a likely first-round selection. Because he is a bit rough around the edges I have a late-first/early-second round grade on him, but I believe he is the fourth-best receiver in this class, behind Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.