Jaelen Strong warrants first-round selection

Redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong pulls in a three-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter a game against the University of Arizona, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 42-35. (Photo by Ben Moffat) Redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong pulls in a three-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter a game against the University of Arizona, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 42-35. (Photo by Ben Moffat)

Last year's crop of rookie wide receivers arguably had the greatest and most exciting impact of any position group that took the field in 2014, producing at a historic rate.

The 2015 class boasts talent that looks to rival its contribution from the get-go.

This year's group of wide receivers has a trio of superb prospects, comprised of Alabama's Amari Cooper, West Virginia's Kevin White and Louisville's DeVante Parker.

ASU's Jaelen Strong has yet to crack the national conversation among recognized draft pundits as possessing comparable talent to the three. In fact, last week ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay managed to completely exclude Strong from the first round of his Mock Draft 2.0.

Six other receivers were mocked to teams in McShay's most recent piece within the first 20 picks. Strong was not one of them, which comes as a surprise after he had previously hypothesized the ASU-product would be selected within the first 32 selections in his first mock draft.

Here's a comparative view of the six receivers included in McShay's mock alongside Strong:

  • Amari Cooper (Alabama): 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, 4.52 (40-yard dash time); 124 receptions, 1,727 yards, 16 touchdowns, 13.9 yards per reception; 8.86 receptions per game, 123.36 yards per game
  • Kevin White (West Virginia): 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, 4.49; 109 rec, 1,447 yd, 10 TD, 13.3 yd/rec; 8.38 rec/game, 111.31 yd/game
  • DeVante Parker (Louisville): 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, 4.48; 43 rec, 855 yd, 5 TD, 19.9 yd/rec; 7.42 rec/game, 142.5 yd/game
  • Devin Smith (Ohio State): 6-foot, 190 pounds, 4.38; 33 rec, 931 yd, 12 TD, 28.2 yd/rec; 2.2 rec/game, 62.1 yd/game
  • *Dorial Green-Beckham (Oklahoma): 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, 4.49; 59 rec, 833 yd, 12 TD, 15 yd/rec; 4.2 rec/game, 59.5 yd/game
  • Devin Funchess (Michigan): 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, 4.63; 62 rec, 733 yd, 4 TD, 11.8 yd/rec; 5.64 rec/game, 66.64 yd/game
  • Jaelen Strong (ASU): 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, 4.55; 82 rec, 1,165 yd, 10 TD, 14.2 yd/rec; 6.83 rec/game, 97.1 yd/game
*Statistics taken from 2013 season, as Green-Beckham didn't play in 2014. 40-yard dash times via CBS.

Just from looking at the stats, it's clear that all seven of these prospects bring different skills to the table. While it's important to understand that not all No. 1 receivers in the NFL are created in a uniform mold, there are specific traits that teams look for when considering wide receiver prospects.

Strong possesses the traits desired in a No. 1 target at the pro level.

The first, and arguably most important, attributes include consistent and reliable hands and contribution.

Strong demonstrated throughout his short time with the Sun Devils that he was the key factor (at times, the only factor) in the team's passing game on a regular basis. Despite missing a game in his last season with ASU, he finished averaging 6.83 receptions per game and 97.1 yards a game (fourth-best in each category among his counterparts previously listed).

His reliability was also made apparent through his assertion as a go-to receiver for the Sun Devils. Based on play-by-play statistics recorded by CBS Sports and ESPN, Strong was targeted 133 times this season, hauling in 82 of those passes to finish the year with a 61.7 catch rate. Of Strong's 82 catches, 52 resulted in first downs, equaling 63.4 percent of his receptions.

Of the remaining 30, he scored on 10 during the 2014 season, giving him an average of 8.2 catches per touchdown on the year; good for fourth among the prospects previously listed. His consistency isn't solely displayed on the stat sheet, either. Strong frequently lived up to his namesake, making contested catches with defenders draped over him, as he does here: In comparison to his six peers, Strong shows the most strength when battling defenders for the ball. Although White may be on par with him in terms of adjusting in mid-air to catch the ball, Strong's ability to win and establish a position by using his size allows him to really set himself apart from other prospects in that facet. Strong routinely made one of the most difficult timing routes to master — the back-shoulder fade — his trademark route throughout his Sun Devil career. Strong's success wasn't limited to the back-shoulder fade route, either. Versatility is another one of the traits that teams look for in receivers, and he certainly exhibited that last season. In fact, Strong's charted route tree is rather expansive, running routes in all three phases of the passing game from both sides of the formation, as well as in the slot. He's been projected as a possession receiver at the next level that dominates the intermediate phase of the passing game, but his tape demonstrates him playing in a role in which he was asked to contribute in a variety of ways, including as the team's vertical threat and playmaker in the short passing game, receiving quite a few passes near or behind the line of scrimmage. The only knock on Strong's overall skill set is his speed and quickness. He is very much aware of that.  

It really is the only legitimate question of Strong's game. While I wouldn't call him a burner, from watching his tape I'd argue that he has underrated speed, especially once the ball is in his hands. Strong scored a few times on passes over the middle where he outran pursuing defenders and when offensive coordinator Mike Norvell wasn't afraid to dial up screens for him both outside and inside the hash-marks where Strong was expected to make a play himself.

However, Strong isn't the first big-bodied receiver to draw criticism for his lack of quickness and speed. Chicago Bears receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were all once considered by scouts as too slow and lacking of any speed. Their lack of speed has yet to derail any hopes of success in the pros to this point though, and ironically enough, both receivers have been associated with Strong during the process.

When Notre Dame visited ASU, McShay was in town and compared Strong to Jeffery prior to the game. Bleacher Report's draft analyst Matt Miller recently profiled Strong and also did the same. In advance of the Super Bowl, Strong appeared as a guest on "The Jim Rome Show" and said one of the players whose game he admired was Marshall's.

It's worth noting that neither Marshall nor Jeffery hit the ground running once they entered the league, too. Marshall was lost in the mix as the third wheel to veterans Rod Smith and Javon Walker his rookie year, only totaling 20 receptions for 309 yards and two touchdowns. The following season, however, he exploded for 102 receptions, 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns. Jeffery posted similar two-season totals; his rookie year he finished with 24 receptions, 367 yards and three touchdowns. He racked up 89 catches for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns his ensuing year. Marshall has topped 1,000 yards in seven of nine seasons, while Jeffery has done so twice through three seasons.

Redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong drops a pass from redshirt junior quarterback Mike Bercovici in a game against USC on Oct. 4, 2014. ASU won against USC 38-34. (Photo by Alexis Macklin) Redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong drops a pass from redshirt junior quarterback Mike Bercovici in a game against USC on Oct. 4, 2014. ASU won against USC 38-34. (Photo by Alexis Macklin)

The purpose of bringing up those players' statistics? To remind you that how quickly a player is ready to produce isn't the only determining factor when deciding how productive they will be during their careers and where players should be ranked.

While instant impact is a highly regarded trait, those players don't always sustain that type of high-level performance throughout the entire course of their careers. They essentially burn out, some as quickly as their second year in the league.

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There are three receiver prospects previously mentioned that I'd argue might have a greater initial contribution for their teams than Strong, but he possesses the tools and foundational skill set that will eventually translate to him serving as a No. 1 target for a team during his career in the future, and potentially for a long time.

And it's not hard to imagine him really embracing the chance at working hard to get to where he wants to be as a player. During his time at ASU, Strong earned a reputation for being a hard worker and high-character guy who possesses an awareness of the opportunity that playing the game of football has presented him. This humble attitude is something that teams love to have as a presence in their locker room.

His humility, though, hasn't held him back from acknowledging his critics, letting them know that he's ready to prove them wrong.

With the NFL Combine a week away, attention for Strong and his camp begins to zero in on the event with a chance to really elevate his draft stock, should he perform well.

Regardless, it's hard to imagine Strong's name not being called during the first round of the NFL Draft, especially if six other receivers are expected to be chosen prior to him. It would be inexcusable for the teams selecting in the first round to pass on someone that could develop into a true No. 1 target and select someone whose ceiling isn't nearly as high.

Statistically, he's shown that he can produce at a high rate, on a consistent basis. Physically, he demonstrated that he understands how to use his body to regularly outmatch opposition and poses to be a mismatch against smaller defensive backs at the next level.

Lastly, Strong possesses the drive and work ethic pushing him to go on and succeed. He isn't of the prima donna variety of receivers and his focus on and off the field will be a determining factor as to how successful he is at the next level.

He deserves recognition as one of the best receivers in this draft; not the seventh-best. Time will only tell if he garners it by the time April 30 rolls around.

 

Reach the reporter at kajone31@asu.edu or follow @kaelenjones on Twitter.

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