With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the NFL draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 prospects who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery made one of the signature plays of the 2011 college football season: a leaping Hail Mary reception just before halftime of the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska. Unfortunately, that catch came at the end of an otherwise miserable season for a player who looked like a can't-miss first round pick after catching 88 passes for 1517 yards in 2010. Jeffery caught just 49 passes in 2011, and appeared to be out-of-shape for most of the season. There were rumors that he ballooned to 250 pounds, though broadcasters politely referred to him as "230+ pounds." Whatever his exact weight, he was clearly carrying the kind of baggage that would spark pregnancy rumors if he were a Hollywood starlet.
Jeffery showed up at the scouting combine in great shape, and he arrived at his Pro Day at a tight 213 pounds, allowing him to run a sub 4.5 forty. Jeffery proved that he can get in shape when he has to, but questions linger after 2011: with his ping-ponging production and waistline, are we looking at a top prospect who overcame a rough patch, or the male Oprah Winfrey?
Pros: Jeffery's best attributes are his height and his hands. Jeffery is thickly-built at 6-foot-3, and he knows how to use his size to shield defenders from the football. (Note: this still applies now that he is 213 pounds. At 230+ pounds, Jeffery's bulk is more of a liability than an asset). On comeback routes or quick slants, Jeffery can use his body as a barrier between the defender and the ball. That's where his hands take over. Jeffery is outstanding at making leaping catches and one-handed catches. The Hail Mary was just one of many examples of Jeffery out-jumping defenders and snatching a big play from the air. Jeffery also has quick hands and the ability to reach out and snatch the ball.
Jeffery ran a pro-style route tree at South Carolina. He runs with long strides, which allow him to quickly eat up the cushion many cornerbacks give when covering him. He was most effective on posts, slants, and corner routes, which allow him to glide past defenders without having to make sudden cuts.
Jeffery has the potential to be an outstanding blocker, and could be seen harassing defenders all the way down the field during some of Marcus Lattimore's breakaway runs. Minutes after his Hail Mary reception, Jeffery got into a dustup with feisty Nebraska cornerback Alphonzo Dennard, and both players were ejected. The fight demonstrated questionable judgment, but also a willingness to get physical.
Cons: Jeffery lacks quick-cutting ability, and he spent much of 2011 failing to get separation from defensive backs because he couldn't make tight cuts on his short routes. Weight issues were probably a factor, but even in 2010 route sharpness was not his strong suit.
South Carolina ran a lot of tunnel screens to get the ball to Jeffery, but Jeffery lacks open-field niftiness, so those plays were usually little more than long handoffs for three or four yards. Jeffery and the Gamecocks suffered through an ugly five-game run late in the season when he essentially disappeared from the offense: he had 10 catches for 84 yards in one four-game stretch, interrupted by a five-catch effort against the mighty Citadel. This was a time of transition for South Carolina, as the team was breaking Conner Shaw in at quarterback after the Stephen Garcia meltdown, but the team really needed its top receiver to be part of the solution, not a pudgy problem.
Scouting reports on Jeffery's blocking vary widely. He may be an example of a "camera's on" blocker, ratcheting up his effort level when he knows he will appear in a highlight. (See: Moss, Randy).
Conclusion: Jeffery has been the subject of some off-the-mark criticism. He is often compared to Mike Williams, the conditioning-averse USC receiver the Lions drafted tenth overall in 2005. Jeffery has better hands, ball skills, and overall athleticism than Williams, who made his reputation by catching eight-yard passes on stop routes for the most talent-laden offense in the nation. Jeffery also gets some outdated "Steve Spurrier receiver" criticism, because 15 years ago, Spurrier's fun-'n'-gun receivers often flopped in the pros. It has been a long time since Reidel Anthony, folks, and Spurrier's offense no longer ranks among the Top 50 when it comes to pass-wacky college attacks. If anything, Jeffery was in a more conventional offense than many top picks: with Shaw under center, Spurrier spent much of the late season asking two tight ends to block for Lattimore, with Jeffery facing double coverage as the lone deep threat.
The fact remains that Jeffery's production tailed off badly in 2011, and that conditioning played a part in his problems. His career path could be decided by a Jets-Giants dichotomy. If he lands in a rumpus room program like the Jets, he could become a Mike Williams type. If he is drafted by a no-nonsense team like the Giants, he should develop into an excellent possession receiver and goal line receiving threat.
NFL Comparison: Roy Williams, Chicago Bears
More Shutdown 50:
#45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State | #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia | #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami | #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy