Arizona State Sun Devils star wide receiver Jaelen Strong may be a redshirt junior, but the 2013 season was his first year playing against major competition after transferring from a JUCO program. Strong quickly looked at home, with a monster 12-catch, 168-yard performance against Stanford in late September being something of a coming-out party for him. He finished the 2013 college football season as Taylor Kelly’s top target- and by some distance- with 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns, showing off the type of prowess on back-shoulder throws that we normally see from the likes of Cecil Shorts III, Jordy Nelson, or Davante Adams.
Since Strong’s most famous game came against the Cardinals, it makes sense to start our brief look at his film by watching some clips from this game, courtesy of the invaluable DraftBreakdown.com. A few things stand out to me when watching his tape, with the first being the fact that Arizona State used him in a variety of ways. Versatility is critical for impact wide receivers at the next level, and Strong showed an ability to win on jump balls, get open with some smooth cuts in the intermediate game, win with long speed over-the-top, and get some yards after the catch on screen passes.
He’s also willing to get physical:
It’s difficult to actually press Strong, because he’s, well, strong enough to get by press coverage and quick enough to burn cornerbacks that don’t have the recovery speed to stop him. His only touchdown against Stanford was an example of this, as he beat the DB trying to press him, caught the quick pass, and slipped into the end zone for the score.
I like to take a look at plays that occur at critical junctures of a game, because they help give some of that “clutch” gene insight and sometimes give a sense to how important a player is for their college team. It’s easy to overrate these kinds of plays, but this specific reception is difficult not to wax poetic over due to the difficulty and importance of the play. It’s 4th-and-19 for the Sun Devils with about seven minutes left in the game, and Stanford is up 39-21. Kelly chucks a deep pass to Strong on the right sideline, and this catch shows one of his greatest assets. This is a guy who has the athleticism to win almost any jump ball, and he shows great technique and ball skills when coming down with this catch over two Stanford defenders for a critical first down that also yielded big yardage for the ASU offense. Strong is the kind of receiver whose hands and leaping ability are so good that you can trust him with these kinds of plays, and I think that’s why looking at this “clutch” fourth-down play delivers some more implied insight regarding Strong’s skills.
The final play from the Stanford game I’d like to look at is a missed opportunity for the Sun Devils offense, as Kelly was forced to make a quick decision after feeling some major heat from the pass rush far too early on the play. Instead of throwing it to an open Strong on the left sideline, Kelly nearly threw an interception over the middle of the field, though it might not have been possible for him to heave a throw to Strong, who probably would have came up with a big catch had the interior offensive line not completely fluffed on Stanford’s stunt. So how did Strong get open? He totally burned the cornerback covering him one-on-one. Usually corners playing in man coverage are supposed to cheat inside in order to prevent the receiver from beating them inside, and I guess the linebackers playing zone in the middle of the field were supposed to take care of that. They didn’t at all. The CB tried to press strong without first making sure he had the inside of the field covered, so Strong simply went inside and blew by his man. It didn’t end up in a reception, but I still thought this was a nice play from Strong worth highlighting.
I also took a look at some cut-ups from Strong’s four-catch, 35-yard performance against the Washington State Cougars that included a touchdown reception when the WSU defense had some mis-communication on a short pass after being fooled by a zone-read option play, thus sucking in the defense and allowing Strong to score.
Strong played so well last season that there were some whispers that he could even declare for the draft this year despite only playing one season of real college football, but he made the wise choice to stay in school. Not only will the WR class be less stacked next year, but Strong will have time to polish his game up. He’s already received plenty of praise from draft analysts, including a playing-style (not playing-caliber, mind you) comparison to Denver Broncos star receiver Demaryius Thomas, but Strong could improve on his hands in traffic (he had about five plays in the two games I watched when the ball hit his hands or body on an incomplete pass in tight coverage,which is still different from an outright drop) and route-running.
His upside is very easy to see, as Strong has all the tools to become an impact receiver in the pros due to his ability to win in a variety of ways, specifically his ability to beat defenses vertically and in the air. Strong is clearly a top-ten receiver in the 2015 draft class (were he to declare, of course, as that still isn’t a future guarantee), and he has a chance to be a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft if he continues to impress next year. Players with his ability to win at the catch point become a quarterback’s best friend, and he understands how to get open and how to connect with his quarterback. His size-speed combo, athleticism, body control, quickness, and upside make him a standout prospect, and he’s a joy to watch on Saturdays. Perhaps in 15 months, he’ll be a joy to watch on Sundays, too.