Like most Minnesota Vikings fans, I’m a sucker for late-round wide receivers.
Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn have all proven that you can find exciting players at the position outside the first few rounds. Justin Jefferson has also proven that first-rounders can turn out to be superstars, of course, but I like rooting for the underdogs.
In college football, the wide receiver position has become increasingly oversaturated with exciting, well-developed prospects. Therefore, late-round dart throws at wide receiver have a better chance of panning out than most other positions. And if you can find a guy with strong developmental tools, maybe you sneak them onto the practice squad for a bit until they’re ready to emerge á la Thielen.
The Vikings may have envisioned that path for sixth-round rookie wide receiver Jalen Nailor. But he may have spoiled those plans in the best way. He’s been too good to hide early in training camp.
Nailor came into the league with a well-defined skillset. He’s a burner with adequate size and strength to win on the outside; the former state-champion sprinter has excellent top-end speed and acceleration. His smooth but sudden burst left defenders in the dust in college.
He’s even shown he can do that to fellow rookie Andrew Booth, one of the better corners on this team.
He catches Booth flat-footed in this one-on-one drill. Yes, that’s a drill that favors the receiver, and it’s only one rep, so we should be careful not to overreact. But considering Nailor was drafted roughly 100 picks later, and Booth might be starting this season, let’s just say smoking him like pit barbecue is exceeding expectations.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. Nailor has had several head-turning plays in training camp, and he’s a prime candidate to break out this preseason. Nailor has good hands, a knack for getting open downfield, and legit NFL speed. Don’t let the 4.5 40-time fool you. That’s an anomaly compared to his track history, and his on-field speed speaks for itself. His skill set as a deep threat should mesh well with fellow Spartan Kirk Cousins, who’s shown a pretty sweet deep ball when he lets it rip.
Nailor’s health is the biggest issue to overcome, as injuries limited him during his time with the Spartans. Foot and hand injuries derailed his production, likely leading to Minnesota snagging him for such a discount in the sixth round. They’re hoping the injury bug doesn’t follow him from East Lansing to TCO Performance Center.
But getting drafted by the Vikings gives Nailor a chance at a fresh start. He made the jump to the NFL despite his limited college production because he was finally healthy, and Nailor wanted to capitalize while he had a chance.
And capitalize he has. He’s been one of the buzzier names around TCO, leading to an interesting decision for the front office.
Behind the established Jefferson, Thielen, and Osborn, there’s a bit of a logjam for WR4. Bisi Johnson and Ihmir Smith-Marsette entered camp as early favorites for that spot, with a few others like veteran Albert Wilson and special teamer Dan Chisena on the outside looking in. Nailor has clearly shown he needs to be in the conversation with the first group rather than the latter.
Whether Nailor can show enough to beat out Bisi and ISM, it’s becoming evident that he’s simply too explosive to stay under the radar. If Nailor translates any of what he’s shown in camp to the field this preseason, he would be a prime target for opposing teams to steal before he can make it to the practice squad.
Nailor could probably start for the Chicago Bears tomorrow. I don’t see anyone on their roster making catches like this.
More importantly, he’s simply too promising an asset to keep on the bench. He’s the type of splash-play deep threat that opposing defenses may overlook early on in his career and live to regret it. Keenan McCardell showed the ability to get the most out of these types of athletes with Osborn’s development, so it makes sense he was banging the table for Nailor in the draft room.
Despite coming into camp buried on the depth chart, the speedster is forcing Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s hand. He’s exceeded expectations so far. Let’s see if he can stick the landing this preseason.
A glut of talent at a position is a fun problem to solve, but Jalen Nailor might make the answer undeniable.