As is the case with every offseason, suggestions as to how the Baltimore Ravens can upgrade the wide receiver position are made, and rightfully so.
Typically, the Ravens do not go all-out to help the cause and take their wide receiver corps to the next level, usually relying on day-three draft picks and veterans to fill out the group. Since selecting Mark Clayton in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft, the Ravens have steered themselves away from using early-round picks at the position.
Perhaps by mere coincidence or by choice, the Ravens have only used one draft pick in the first two rounds on a wide receiver since selecting Clayton, Torrey Smith in the second round of the 2011 draft. In fact, the Ravens have only drafted four receivers in the first two rounds of the draft in franchise history, with the others being Travis Taylor and Patrick Johnson.
But every year, Ravens fans set their draft day hopes on a top-tier receiver, and are often let down when the Ravens opt to attack the position on the third day of the draft. The simple thought of finally drafting a game-changing receiver to help improve a wide receiver corps that has never been among the NFL’s elite is one to salivate over.
One other name that has popped up as a potential choice for the Ravens with the 26th overall pick is Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong. Mock drafts on Sports Illustrated and SB Nation, among others, have penned Strong as a logical draft choice for the Ravens in the first round.
Peruse the comment section of articles on this site, other sites or Twitter and it is not hard to find Ravens fans who favor Strong as an option at 26 for Baltimore.
But are the lofty projections for Strong with such a high draft pick logical?
It is easy to yearn for the days of when the Ravens had a receiver of Anquan Boldin’s caliber; a strong-handed, physical pass catcher. Heck, I yearned for those days last draft season, when LSU’s Jarvis Landry was penned the “perfect” wide receiver target for the Ravens.
Strong fits the mold of big-bodied receivers who can make contested catches. However, it is hard to buy into him as a clear-cut first round pick.
While Strong has his flashes, he often leaves much to be desired, and his struggles are concerning given his pros and cons.
Let’s start off with the pros. The former JUCO player is a redshirt junior who is listed at 6’3, 215 pounds. Upon arriving at Arizona State, he immediately became the go-to receiver for the Sun Devils:
- 2013: 75 receptions, 1,122 yards, 15.0 YPC, 7 TD
- 2014: 82 receptions, 1,165 yards, 14.2 YPC, 10 TD
Strong’s (no pun intended) strong hands are perhaps his best asset. They allow him to excel without getting separation as he can haul in passes even when a defensive back makes a solid play on the ball.
Here, the inherent trust between Strong and his QB are evident.
Out of the slot, Strong fades toward the corner of the end zone without getting separation, however his quarterback locks in and throws the ball, knowing his receiver will make a play.
The ball is slightly underthrown by the quarterback, but Strong continues in stride and extends back to effortlessly haul in the pass.
Nothing noteworthy per se. What is of note on this play is Strong’s ability to maintain possession of the ball throughout the process. Above, he is just gathering the ball as the defensive back reacts.
With the ball not fully in Strong’s possession yet, the defender has an opportunity to poke it out.
The Utah defensive back gets an initial punch, which throws Strong’s possession off. He then follows through and continues to attempt to knock the ball out of Strong’s hands.
Strong’s hand strength outweighs the pass breakup attempt of the defender, and the receiver maintains his composure throughout the play, ultimately holding on for the touchdown.
This is where Strong can excel. He does not routinely get enough separation from defenders, so he must utilize his strength at the catch point. Having the ability to make plays with defenders on him is a quality asset, and one that would suit Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s tendencies well.
The flip side, though, is that Strong’s inability to gain separation will not help his cause in the NFL. This is not a problem for receivers who consistently catch the ball even when a defender is impeding their path. That is what makes Boldin and Landry so good, among the many others who excel at this practice.
But for Strong, while he does make impressive plays such as the one above, he is an inconsistent catcher with defenders on him.
A physical receiver – as is the label Strong often receives – must display the ability to not only box out defenders on 50/50 balls, but also have the aggressive mentality to pluck the ball out of the air.
If we turn to a play that is quite similar to Seattle’s final offensive play in the Super Bowl, we can see one of Strong’s issues.
Here, Strong runs a simple slant to the end zone with the defender trailing.
As is evident above, the defensive back makes a good read on the route and closes in. But if Strong uses his obvious size advantage while maintaining an aggressive attitude toward grabbing the ball, he can counter the play of the defender.
He fails to do so and allows the defender to cut off the route, ultimately leading to a pass breakup and missed opportunity for a score.
In the Super Bowl, New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made an incredible play on the ball. However, had Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette been more proactive in his attempt to box out Butler and be more aggressive in his pursuit of the ball, perhaps the Seahawks would have won the game.
The same goes here for Strong on this play. He is a big-bodied receiver with big hands, but if he does not execute an aggressive mentality, it is all for naught. Strong does not necessarily have the “mean streak” of a physical pass catcher, despite some very impressive plays at the catch point.
Simple drops are an issue, as are inconsistencies at the catch point. If a player fails to consistently gain separation (that is a trait that is hard to present in screenshots but check out Strong’s Draft Breakdown database for self-viewing), he better catch damn near everything thrown his way; Strong simply does not do that.
The strong-handed touchdown reception above was a prime example of what Strong is capable of doing, but not something he does consistently.
Here, a one-on-one down the sideline offers a prime chance for Strong to display his ability to catch passes even when he does not gain a single yard of separation.
Strong turns his head and locates the ball in the air before the defender reacts.
Given the fact that Strong finds the ball first and outmatches the defensive back physically, this should be an easy reception.
Strong leaps to attack the ball before the defensive back even leaves his feet.
At this point, this is a play Strong should make. He perfectly times his jump and grabs the ball, however he does not high point it enough to keep it away from the defender.
This allows the defensive back to sneak a hand in despite seemingly making no play on the ball prior and breakup the pass, leaving Arizona State with an incompletion.
It is easy to be infatuated by what Strong can do at times. His sometimes strong hands and ball location make him an intriguing receiver given his impressive measurables.
However, Strong is not on par with receivers who consistently make contested catches. He is not an inherent deep threat and does not gain separation enough to make plays in space, so he must repeatedly win when covered. He has flashes of that ability, but not enough to buy into him as a sure-thing in that department.
After the catch Strong does not have the second gear needed to be a playmaker and some of his drops on easy receptions cast some doubt on how consistent he can be at the next level.
While an intriguing receiver who could be good with development, he is far from a desirable option in the first round for the Ravens. Strong is a more desirable prospect in the mid-late third round, although he is projected to be drafted in a much higher slot. The Ravens already do not favor first round receivers as is, but if they opt for that route this year, there figures to be better choices available than Strong.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for resources used for this article.