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Breaking Down WR Jalen Nailor

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the 191st pick in the NFL Draft, the Vikings selected Jalen Nailor, WR, Michigan State. The Vikings entered the draft with the 191st pick and did not trade it.

Nailor was ranked #203 on the consensus big board, and the 26th ranked wide receiver.

Vikings’ WR coach Keenan McCardell reportedly pounded the table for Nailor.

TRAITS

Nailor is a little undersized for a WR but has elite acceleration and good long speed.

He turned 23 in March.

COLLEGE GRADES AND STATS

Nailor was a 3-star recruit out of high school, and originally committed to Arizona State, but changed his mind after the head coach was fired, going with Michigan State over offers from Nebraska and Utah. He was also a high school track star, winning four state titles including the 100 meters, 200 meters, and as a member of the 400- and 800-meter relay teams.

College Football Reference

Nailor had a few injuries that caused him to miss many games during his college career. He missed five games as a freshman due to injury, then suffered a foot injury his sophomore year that limited him to just four games (missing nine), and a hand injury last season that resulted in four missed games. That’s a total of 18 games missed due to injury over four seasons.

PFF did not produce a full analysis of Nailor, but did assign the following grades:

2021: 77.0 overall, 75.2 receiving, 2.7 yards per route run (@ top 10%), 71.2 vs. man coverage, 9.5% drop rate (4 drops). PFF also said that Nailor’s 449 receiving yards vs. single coverage last season led all B1G receivers, which is notable given two OSU receivers went #10 and #11 overall in the draft.

2020: 62.8 overall

2019: 61.8 overall

SCOUTING REPORTS

Dane Brugler, The Athletic:

STRENGTHS: Owns smooth acceleration to be a home run threat every time he touches the ball (high school state champion in the 100 meters, 200 meters) ... seamlessly transfers speed in his cuts ... blessed with the natural balance to alter momentum without losing his bearings, which raises his potential as a route runner ... makes grabs without breaking stride ... tracks the ball well, and his coordination helps him adjust to erratic throws ... 78.1 percent of receptions the past two seasons resulted in a touchdown or first down ... offers experience as a punt returner (6.0 average) and kick returner (19.9) ... takes blocking responsibilities seriously, shielding his man and mixing things up.

WEAKNESSES: Still searching for game film where he wins in closely contested windows ... focus is too easily disrupted (combined for nine drops the past two seasons) ... routes are flat and don’t accurately represent his athletic tools ... has a tough time matching the physicality of cornerbacks ... has struggled to stay healthy and never played double-digit games in a season in college because of injuries, missing most of the 2019 season with a broken foot (September 2019) and four games as a junior with a right hand injury (October 2021).

SUMMARY: A three-year starter at Michigan State, Nailor was an outside receiver in offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s scheme. Injuries robbed him of consistent playing time in college, but he was a big-play threat when healthy (three receptions of 60-plus yards in the first half vs. Rutgers in 2021). As an athlete, Nailor is explosive with the natural balance and acceleration to create after the catch or make an impact as a returner. However, he lacks tempo and instincts as a route runner, and NFL quarterbacks will quickly lose trust in him unless he becomes more dependable. Overall, Nailor has the fluid athleticism that creates conflict for defenses, but he is more gadget weapon than polished receiver right now, and you have to be creative in the ways you get him touches. His lack of durability complicates his draft projection.

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Lance Zierlein, nfl.com:

Speedy outside target with field-stretching talent who has been beset by injuries in three separate seasons. Nailor is sudden but smooth with his route release and his gliding gait tends to mask his acceleration, allowing him to climb quickly past the coverage. While he can work deep, he has the agility and body control to become a more effective route specialist on all three levels. Nailor is a competitor but has some trouble winning battles against stronger, physical corners. Teams will need to weigh the playmaking speed against the injury background, but Nailor has the talent to become an NFL backup.

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Ian Cummings, Pro Football Network:

With a nickname like “Speedy Nailor,” you’d expect speed to be a vital part of Nailor’s game. Predictably, it is. Nailor led the Big Ten in yards per catch in 2020, and he was second in the conference in that same category this past year. For his career, Nailor averaged almost 17 yards per catch, and he also took 17 carries out of the backfield for 163 yards and a score.

The Michigan State WR doesn’t have a ton of buzz on the draft circuit. But in an incredibly deep 2022 wide receiver class, he’s another player who demands attention. Teams are constantly seeking out value in the mid-to-late rounds, and Nailor might be the guy who provides that this cycle.

Nailor’s athletic profile

Listed at 6’0″, 190 pounds, Nailor has decent size — enough to hold up in the NFL. The Michigan State WR is an explosive athlete with field-stretching speed. He can stack defensive backs and get into space, and he can also take short passes and blast through congestion.

With his speed, Nailor can stretch space and warp tackling angles. But that’s not the only athletic tool he has in his tool chest. Nailor’s acceleration is also a big part of his game. The Michigan State WR gears up deceptively quickly and can blow by unsuspecting defensive backs. His long, energetic strides cover a lot of ground, and he can swiftly get upfield on screens.

Nailor also has some shiftiness to his game, and his combination of acceleration and agility translates to good run-after-catch potential. He’s a sudden, twitchy mover with great stop-and-start ability. Moreover, Nailor has flashed good throttle control. He can decelerate quickly at breaks and get up to speed again without much delay. Nailor’s explosiveness also shows up downfield, where he’s shown he can spring off the ground and elevate for passes.

Execution beyond the physical traits

Nailor’s speed makes him unique in the 2022 NFL Draft class. But there’s more to his game than that. Particularly downfield, Nailor has a knack for tracking the ball, especially over his shoulder. With his ball-tracking ability, he can make smooth adjustments to get into positioning, and he naturally flows to the ball. He also has good blind-spot awareness and can sneak into open zones downfield with his speed.

At the catch point, Nailor flashes as well. The Michigan State WR flashes great body control and coordination at the catch point. While he needs more consistency as a catcher, he has shown he can extend and snare the ball at the catch point.

What’s great about Nailor’s style, however, is that he has immense route-running potential, and that lends him space to avoid contested situations. Nailor flashes fast feet at the line and can gain displacement early with his releases. Especially on hitch routes, he’s able to chop his feet quickly and sink his hips to gain quick separation. Nailor can turn on a dime on routes, but he can also be used on motions, drags, and jet sweeps to create more looks.

Nailor will win even more scouts over with his blocking ability. While he lacks imposing size, the Michigan State WR is a willing blocker who can latch under his opponents’ pads. He’s assignment-sound and isn’t afraid to square up and be physical.

Areas for improvement

Nailor’s upside will be enough to sell him on teams, but he’s not a finished product. The most pressing issue on his tape is his catching ability. Nailor can be susceptible to focus drops. The Michigan State WR sometimes cups the ball instead of clasping it. He also resorts to body catches at times and can better pluck the ball with his hands. Additionally, he doesn’t quite have the consistent hand strength or coordination to corral off-target throws.

Going further, Nailor’s catching inconsistency is exacerbated by contact. The ball can easily be jarred loose through the catch process, and in tight spaces, Nailor loses track of the ball and struggles to secure. On quick passes, he doesn’t always get his head around in time. As of now, he needs more comfort and space to be consistent. And after the catch, he doesn’t consistently break tackles with his lighter frame.

Expanding on Nailor’s profile, the Michigan State WR can still expand his route tree and employ more sharpness and deception with his routes. He can also expand his release package. He has all the traits and flashed against press but can be vanilla off the line at times. There’s room for Nailor to sink his hips better and quicken his releases.

Among other things, while Nailor has high-level speed, he might not be quite at the level of Jameson Williams. He has good burst, but he gears up better in space, where he can open his strides. Furthermore, Nailor sometimes loses his balance when trying to work past defenders downfield.

Nailor’s 2022 NFL Draft scouting report overview

Nailor brings a definite speed element coveted at the next level. He has a 4.39 40-yard dash on record and could go on to eclipse that at the NFL 2022 NFL Combine. His speed allows him to stack defensive backs and get separation downfield, as well as extend short passes and explode into space.

With his speed and explosiveness, Nailor has two-pronged appeal as a deep and a run-after-catch threat. While his linear speed is his greatest asset, he has some shiftiness and agility with the ball in his hands. And down the field, he can seep into blind spots, and he tracks the ball in the air exceptionally well.

Of course, Nailor is far from a finished product. While he has stellar route-running upside with his burst, twitch, and hip sink, he can still expand his release package and route tree. The Michigan State WR also struggles to work through contact at the catch point and can struggle with drops. If he can’t use his traits to separate effectively at the next level, his inconsistency in contested situations will only be magnified.

Nevertheless, there’s a great deal of upside with Nailor. If he can further refine his route running and improve his hands, he can be a dynamic, versatile receiver for an NFL offense. He also offers solid run-blocking ability and some return experience. He’s likely an early-to-mid Day 3 pick, but with a strong Combine performance, Day 2 isn’t out of the question.

Nailor’s Player Profile

Nailor played high school football at the vaunted Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. Bishop Gorman is a known factory for college football talent, and Nailor was one of the players on the conveyor belt in the 2018 class. After catching 93 passes for 1,736 yards and 26 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Bishop Gorman, the Nevada product earned a three-star recruit billing and fielded Power Five offers.

With a 4.39 40-yard dash, a 37.5-inch vertical, and a strong 4.21 short-shuttle time, Nailor tantalized teams with his athletic upside. He received scholarship offers from plenty of schools in the west, including Colorado, Arizona State, and Nevada. He also drew interest from Big Ten competitors like Purdue and Wisconsin.

Nailor originally committed to Arizona State. But the Sun Devils soon fired head coach Todd Graham, leaving Nailor to reevaluate his options. When several Spartans receivers transferred out of East Lansing, Nailor saw a budding opportunity at Michigan State, and he took advantage of it.

Nailor’s career at Michigan State

Nailor got his feet wet as a true freshman in 2018. The Michigan State WR caught 8 passes for 138 yards and 2 scores and picked up 9 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown. He showed enough promise to earn an increased role early on in 2019. But after just four games, he’d be knocked out for the rest of the season with a broken foot.

Luckily for Nailor, he was able to preserve his redshirt in 2019, and so he returned as a redshirt sophomore in 2020. In a truncated seven-game season, Nailor kept flashing his potential. Across that stretch, he caught 26 passes for 515 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the Big Ten in yards per catch. Nailor accounted for over 30% of his team’s passing output that year and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors as a result.

In 2021, the Spartans’ passing attack took a drastic step forward, and much of the credit goes to Nailor and his teammate Jayden Reed. Nailor missed four games due to a hand injury, but in the nine games he played, he registered 37 catches for 695 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Averaging around 4 catches and 77 yards per game, Nailor took home honorable mention recognition in the conference and helped the Spartans beat Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl. After the bowl victory, Nailor soon announced his intentions to declare for the 2022 NFL Draft.

Nailor’s NFL Draft ascension

One could argue that Nailor left school before a complete breakout season. But now 23 years old, Nailor didn’t have much more time to wait. The Michigan State WR has been hampered by injuries in multiple seasons, but when he’s on the field, he shows plenty of promise.

With his age, injury history, and room for further development, Nailor might not command early-round capital. But on Day 3, for a team that knows how to use him and can develop receiver talent, Nailor could be a diamond in the rough, who at the very least can catalyze an offense as a rotational spark plug and deep threat.

Nailor has great speed and explosiveness to go along with ball-tracking ability, run-after-catch potential, and existing route-running upside. Some cosmetic factors work against the Michigan State WR, but there are tools to mold.

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Tony Pauline, Pro Football Network:

Positives: Reliable receiver who runs good routes and separates from defenders. Quickly releases off the line of scrimmage, immediately gets to top speed, and tracks the pass in the air. Nicely times receptions, possesses terrific eye/hand coordination, and makes the difficult over-the-shoulder reception downfield.

Consistently catches the ball with his hands. Quick-footed in and out of breaks, sells routes, and stays low on exit. Nicely makes the reception at full speed and adjusts to errant throws to catch the ball in stride. Uses his frame to shield away opponents.

Negatives: Possesses a thin frame and struggles in battles. Lacks a second gear. Has not been very durable in college. Turned in average production at Michigan State.

Analysis: Nailor is a consistent pass catcher with outstanding short speed and route-running ability. He easily gets separation in the short and intermediate fields and possesses enough pass-catching skills to make a roster as a fifth receiver.

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Kyle Crabbs, The Draft Network:

Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor has served as the Spartans’ big-play extraordinaire in the passing game over the past two seasons and leaves East Lansing with nearly a 17.0 yards per catch average throughout the course of his four seasons as a contributor on game days. Nailor is a speedy athlete who offers gracefully acceleration skills in the open field—he won frequently with double moves and vertical routes downfield. Those opportunities were supplemented with some manufactured touches, such as end-arounds and opportunities in the kicking game to return kicks. You can see Nailor’s high school track background on the gridiron; he won four state titles during his senior year at Bishop Gorman in Nevada. Projecting Nailor to the NFL, I think he stands a firm chance to be a depth receiver in the passing game and serve as a primary kick returner for his next team.

Ideal role: Depth receiver

Scheme tendencies: Spread offense

Route Running: Nailor is at his best on vertical routes. He does well versus off coverage to press with urgency and use his acceleration to stress defenders. His ability to sink his hips and suddenly redirect off that vertical stem, however, needs to improve for him to run a more diverse set of routes and be a more complete receiver.

Hands: I didn’t see any issues with misplayed targets and he actually did well to reach out and haul in a few throws that tested his catch radius. His cleanest targets come on over-the-shoulder bucket throws.

Separation: His ability to run past soft coverage in the open field is enough to offer appeal as a route-runner. Whether he becomes more nuanced to break off route stems with dynamic burst and explosive COD is yet to be seen, but I’d like to think his foundation here is quite strong and offers developmental upside. He’s currently best when called upon for shallow breaks and deeper targets.

Release Package: I did not get an opportunity to see too many reps against press, but his acceleration will cause strain against press corners who miss at the line. He’s got the juice needed to stack you quickly, but his foot-fire in short spaces is more smooth than sudden and I expect he’s going to need to build here to ensure clean releases at the NFL level.

Run After Catch: I saw some really creative challenges of tacklers with the ball in his hands, particularly against Rutgers. His vision of pursuit and understanding of angles has allowed him to create a lot of yards after catch, but I wouldn’t bank on him running through any firm challenges—he’s not built for that.

Ball Skills: Watching him adjust his tracks when eyeing the football down the field is notable and an area that should pay immediate dividends if he can get on the field in a niche role. Effort at the catch point when challenged with a defender on his frame suggests he’s not going to offer appeal as a contested-catch receiver or high-point pass-catcher over the rim.

Football IQ: Nailor’s play tells two stories here. He’s natural with the ball in his hands and smooth to create chunk gains if you give him a crease. But his development as an all-around receiver appears to have been hindered by the limitations of the Michigan State offense (through 2020, anyway). As a result, he has a lot of growth potential to be a more well-developed player.

Versatility: Routes and targets that worked the more shallow areas of the field didn’t offer the same production or appeal unless they came on manufactured touches—his ability to break suddenly on sharp angles at the top of stems is only modest and won’t challenge high-level defenders without improvement. Special teams value is an important piece of his individual puzzle as a player.

Competitive Toughness: Nailor isn’t a big receiver and he doesn’t project as someone who is going to dictate reps with power or strength. I don’t see him as a receiver with the mass to run through press coverage with consistency. His blocking to step down and seal on defenders should be considered sufficient but not a true asset to his game.

Big-Play Ability: Nailor’s expertise is vertical receiving. He does well on posts, nines, double moves, and schemed shot plays to time up his acceleration and then create vertical separation. He appears to have good nuance in attacking deep defenders with his eyes, stem, and burst.

FIT WITH THE VIKINGS

At first glance you might think Nailor is another speedy gadget receiver the Vikings took a late round flyer on- as many teams do in the late rounds. But Nailor is more than that. He also has ability as a route runner, YAC ability, good at the catchpoint, can track the ball well, and is a willing and effective blocker. His injury history is a concern, but his injuries are not those where there is an increased likelihood of recurrence. He’s a little on the small side, but at 5’11” 186 pounds not to the point that he looks overly susceptible to injuries.

Nailer will likely begin around fifth on the Vikings WR depth chart, but I expect he’ll compete early on with Ihmir Smith-Marsette for the fourth spot on the depth chart, and perhaps with KJ Osborn for the third spot as well. He’ll probably be in the mix as punt returner as well. I don’t see Kene Nwangwu losing the kick returner job. He’ll need to improve several aspects of his game to ascend the depth chart, but he starts with a solid foundation to build on, and not many glaring faults. If he’s able to progress in his technique, his traits and skill set give him WR2 upside down the road. You can see why Keenan McCardell, a former NFL receiver, pounded the table for him.

COLLEGE FILM

Nailor is #8 and usually lined up as an outside wide receiver.

Nailor missed the last part of the Michigan game with a hand injury.

2020 Season

Poll

What level will Jalen Nailor reach in the NFL?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    All-Pro/Pro Bowl
    (26 votes)
  • 4%
    Top 20% of starting receivers
    (21 votes)
  • 19%
    Above average starting receiver
    (98 votes)
  • 26%
    Average starting receiver
    (133 votes)
  • 12%
    Below average starting receiver
    (64 votes)
  • 31%
    He won’t be a starter
    (156 votes)
498 votes total Vote Now