ASU's Jaelen Strong should end school's First Round drought
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
This year's class of wide receivers goes deep, like, really deep. So deep in fact that a player like Arizona State's Jaelen Strong might not be drafted until the second round.
If that name sounds familiar, it's probably because you heard it everywhere after Strong was on the receiving end of a game-winning Hail Mary to upset the Pac-12 rival USC Trojans at The Coliseum.
Strong burst onto the scene at ASU after transferring from a junior college in California. In his inaugural season, Strong caught 75 balls for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. The next season he improved his numbers to a 82/1,165/10 statline in two less games. It's no coincidence that the quarterback that got to throw to him for both of those seasons, Taylor Kelly, ended last season as the all-time school leader in career completion percentage and total yardage.
ASU isn't exactly an NFL farm system, so when there's a player with exceptional talent like Strong they stick out. He capitalizes on his 6-foot-3 frame and routinely makes difficult, contested catches and is a bonafide master of the back-shoulder catch. At the NFL Combine, he posted a 42-inch vertical jump, the second-best mark of all the wideouts. Every time he took the field he was always the best player for ASU, but oftentimes he was just flat out the best player.
In the "Jael Mary" game against USC, Strong caught 10 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up by scoring a touchdown in four straight wins against Stanford, Washington, Utah and Notre Dame.
At 217 pounds, Strong has a great frame for a receiver even though he doesn't exactly bowl people over with his physicality. NFL.com's draft profile compares Strong to Kansas City Chief Dwayne Bowe, though Strong's 4.44 40-yard dash was markedly better than Bowe's 4.51 when he ran it in 2007. Bowe also has a penchant for dropping easy passes whereas Strong consistently makes those catches.
The distinction about the 40 times is important because the knock on Strong is that he's not a burner. He's not. Strong won't breeze by corners and safeties à la Randy Moss but he doesn't run like he's slogging through molasses either. Strong has shown the speed to get separation to make the big plays Sun Devil fans loved him for, just as he did in this play against Duke in the Sun Bowl. Remember, 40 times aren't everything: Dez Bryant ran a 4.52.
Despite his good speed, vacuum hands and fantastic jumping ability, three of the four current mock drafts on NFL.com don't have Strong going in the first round (through February 23). As someone who watched him carry the Sun Devils to spots on the national rankings we didn't know existed (we were the sixth-best team in the country after Week 12!) let me tell you that Strong would be a steal in the second round.
He shouldn't even drop that far. Every team knows how important the passing game is these days, and after last year's historically good wide receiver class, they should be anxious to grab all the best ones this class has to offer. If they recognize the star potential in Strong, they will make him the first Sun Devil drafted in the first round since Terrell Suggs in 2003.
There's no shortage of receiver-needy teams out there either. Assuming Amari Cooper going to the Oakland Raiders is already a foregone conclusion, the Jets, Rams, Browns, Vikings, 49ers, Chiefs, Ravens, Chiefs, Seahawks and the Chiefs (seriously, the Chiefs need a receiver) could all look to draft a receiver in the first round.
And if they do go in that direction, they could do a lot worse than the 2014 All-American, whose main concern is the lack of separation he gets on his routes. Route running can be taught, jumping really high in the air and making spectacular catches can't and luckily that's in his DNA.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo