This post continues a series on the USC prospects who will or may have their names called at next week's NFL Draft. Last time, we looked at Stephon Gilmore. Tonight, we're looking at Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery has become one of the most talked-about players in this year's draft. Coming into last season, he was widely regarded as the top receiving prospect in the nation after his epic 2010 performance. However, concerns about his weight and conditioning and a subpar statistical season caused his stock to plummet. Then, he showed up for the combine having trimmed down his weight, and he further impressed scouts with his workout at USC's Pro Day, in particular running a solid 40 time. Many scouts now again believe he will go in the first round due to these recent developments, although there is certainly no consensus. Let's take a closer look at what he brings to the table.
Jeffery's biggest pros are his hands and his uncanny ability to anticipate once the ball is in the air. I've never quite seen a player who is quite so good at using whatever he can--body, hands, leaps, etc.--to gain that last bit of separation once the pass is coming. This ability makes him a formidable target even when he fails to create separation. He's the best jump-ball receiver around for this reason, and if nothing else, that will make him an excellent red-zone target. He's also a solid route-runner, and he does well using his jab step and his physicality to shake off contact at the line of scrimmage. Jeffery can prove to be a bit of a nightmare for smaller defensive backs who can't handle his strength, which he can also use to shake off tacklers and gain yards after the catch. Although not a blazer, he's proven several times that he's fast enough to go the distance if he gains any separation. The ostensible concerns about his speed were further assuaged by his strong 40 time at USC's Pro Day.
Jeffery's cons have been well-documented over the past several months: his on-field production took a huge step back in 2011, he lacks breakaway speed, his route-running didn't develop significantly between 2010 and 2011, and he played overweight in 2011 (not really true, but widely reported). The upshot of most of this has been that Jeffery is some combination of lazy and entitled. Moreover, although Jeffery has smoothed away some of those concerns by showing up to his workouts in the best shape of his career, the perception is that he's simply making an effort now that the money is on the line, and that once that money is in his pocket, he'll go back to his old ways.
Keep reading after the jump.
I think a lot of the hand-wringing over Jeffery is completely misplaced. I'm not going to say I'm 100% confident in Jeffery. Do I wish he had shown up to fall practice in better shape? Sure. Do I wish that he could have shown the same kind of dedication to improving his game between 2010 and 2011 that he showed between 2009 and 2010? Yeah.
But there are a few things to keep in mind here. First of all, the lack of production in 2011 wasn't Jeffery's fault. Jeffery played the first part of the season with a QB who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn most of the timer. I can remember several Garcia throws that would have gone for big gains to Jeffery had they been anywhere near catchable. Then, after Kyle Nunn went down until the Florida and Clemson games, we had trouble protecting Connor Shaw against the better pass-rushing teams that we played, which negated Jeffery's ability to make plays down field. Notably, in the games where Shaw had some time, such as Kentucky, Jeffery caught several balls, and his production similarly increased against Clemson and Nebraska, after the line gelled. I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that Jeffery has another 1200-1500-yard season if these problems aren't present in 2011. Heck, I'd be willing to bet he catches for at least 1000 yards this past year if Shaw had started all year. I've seen some people say that you can't blame his dropoff on quarterbacking because we've always suffered in that regard at USC, but, in all seriousness, 2010 Garcia was like Joe Namath in contrast to 2011 Garcia. Case closed.
Moreover, while I do wish Jeffery could have been a bit more dedicated to his S&C training while at USC, I also think that he was more than dedicated enough to be a successful player. Jeffery may not have played at his trimmest weight, but the perception of the guy as slow is a myth. It's a product of internet rumors and the fact that he doesn't appear to run that fast because he's a lanky, awkward runner. The guy can move well enough. No, he's not DeSean Jackson or someone like that. However, he's had multiple breakaway catches against SEC defensive backs. That should tell you what you need to know about his ability to create separation and go long after the catch. He's fast enough for a player of his size.
All this being the case, I think Jeffery is still an elite prospect--and I'm willing to bet that many NFL scouts agree. I wouldn't take him over Justin Blackmon, but I do think he's a legitimate first-round prospect. I'm actually extremely curious to see where he's taken. To some degree, I think a lot of the skepticism towards Jeffery is a product of arm-chair GM'ing, and I have a feeling that we're going to see that many prospects have been able to see through the noise on Jeffery. And wherever he ends up, I expect him to have a solid career. I'm not completely sold on him being an elite NFL receiver, but that was true before this past season, too. I do think he'll be very good.