Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong, here making a diving catch against the University of Arizona last season, has drawn comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald.
As the NFL draft evaluation process moves along, former Arizona State wideout Jaelen Strong promises to heed the advice of Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals' star receiver went down this path more than a decade ago, when teams and analysts deconstructed every phase of his game for months. Fitzgerald navigated the treachery, emerging as the No. 3 overall pick by Arizona in the 2004 draft.
As the Sun Devil from just up the road waits for his name to be called by one of the 32 NFL teams, Fitzgerald told him not to get bogged down by the incessant chatter.
"You can't worry about what everybody else says," Strong said Fitzgerald told him in a text message leading up to the NFL Scouting combine last week. "Just go out there and work hard and dominate."
Strong is doing his best to stick to that advice, focusing his energy on putting his best foot forward. But in the age of social media, the most
popular soundbites inevitably slice through the fog. And last week, Strong found himself being compared to his texting buddy.
"He has the physical traits, height, weight, speed of Larry Fitzgerald when he came out of the University of Pittsburgh," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "That doesn't mean he's anywhere close to him from a technique perspective. He's really raw. But what he is is he's strong, very strong hands, big body."
Strong remains focused on the task at hand – "I'll stick to that advice (from Fitzgerald)," he said – but is also humbled by the comparison. He said any parallel between his game and Fitzgerald's "is an honor. He's going to finish as one of the greatest receivers ever to play this game."
Strong isn't the surefire top-5 pick like Fitzgerald was, but an impressive showing at the combine has given him a good shot to get chosen in the first round. The biggest question mark on Strong was his speed, and Mayock said a 40-yard dash time in the 4.5-second range would help his stock. On his second attempt, Strong ran a 4.44. He added a 42-inch vertical leap – second among all receivers at the combine – to quell any concerns about his athletic ability.
The collegiate production is unquestioned. In two seasons with the Sun Devils, Strong amassed 157 catches, 2,287 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He was a human highlight film, making one-handed catches look routine and coming down with a last-gasp Hail Mary pass from quarterback Michael Bercovici to cap an improbable upset of Southern California.
The first two boxes are checked, and Strong said he's excited to show off his mental acuity as well when pro teams interview him.
"I'm very, very smart when it comes to getting up on the board and recognizing coverages, recognizing hot reads and things like that," Strong said. "That's something the media doesn't know about me. You guys see what I put on film. You don't really get the chance to talk to me about the game of football and how much I do know about football. That's one thing I definitely will stress upon the GMs and coaches when I get a chance to meet with them."
The Cardinals recently inked Fitzgerald to a two-year deal through 2016, and even with the release of Ted Ginn on Monday, wide receiver is a
position of strength on the team. If Strong gets drafted in the first round, it seems unlikely to be by the Cards because of their depth at the position.
If he does move on to a new state in the next phase of his football career, it won't be anything new. Strong played high school football in Pennsylvania, where he had only 17 catches for 318 yards and four touchdowns as a senior at Philadelphia West Catholic. Despite the meager totals, Strong still believed he was destined for the NFL.
"I always had it," he said. "Even at West Catholic, I knew I had the chance to play at this level if I just put my mind to it and work hard enough."
Strong had lower-level Division I scholarship offers, but took a semester off out of high school and then ended up at Pierce, a junior college in Los Angeles. That's where his game blossomed, and Arizona State won the battle for his services as he next made the move to Tempe. Even as the Sun Devils rotated between quarterbacks this year, Strong's production never wavered, and he declared for the draft with nothing left to prove in college.
Now it's on to the next phase, where the lofty parallel to Fitzgerald awaits. When Strong was asked if he could see similarities between them, he didn't shy away.
"In ways, yes I do," he said. "He's got a huge catch radius. He's physical. He goes and gets the ball. A huge competitor."
Fitzgerald proved himself an NFL superstar many years ago, and he's putting the finishing touches on a remarkable career. Strong is just getting started, but hopes to prove the comparison to Fitzgerald won't end at the prospect stage.
"I can't wait to get to the NFL and see how we match up," Strong said.
Images of WR Larry Fitzgerald running away from the Eagles defense for an 80-yard TD