Two days before the 2022 NFL Draft, Minnesota Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah held a press conference detailing the coaching staff’s selflessness and collaborative efforts. He mentioned how wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell gave a passionate speech imploring the team not to draft a receiver in the early rounds. The Vikings heeded McCardell’s advice and waited until the sixth round before picking a wide receiver, selecting Jalen Nailor out of Michigan State.
Some may argue that the Vikings should have taken a player who was once viewed as a first-round talent in Clemson WR Justyn Ross instead of Nailor. Doctors diagnosed Ross with a congenital spine condition in the summer of 2020, but he has been fully cleared to return to practice for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Most pundits’ draft boards had Ross ranked higher than Nailor, so what gives?
If Nailor stays healthy and reaches his full potential, he could be the Vikings’ next late-round gem at WR, a lá Stefon Diggs. I know that may sound crazy, but their RAS scores are surprisingly similar.
Standing at 5’11” and weighing 186 lbs., Nailor is by no means the most physically imposing player in his class. Similar to Ross, injuries marred much of Nailor’s collegiate career. Despite that, McCardell reportedly pounded the table for Nailor, and it isn’t hard to see why.
His ability to accelerate quickly stands out on tape. You’ll see Nailor at the bottom of your screen, going against off-man coverage. At the :03-second mark on the video above, Nailor slows down and acts like he will cut inside. As soon as the cornerback bites, he turns on the jets and creates separation downfield, allowing him to score a 63-yard touchdown. He may have run a 4.5 at the combine, but there is a reason his nickname is “Speedy,” and it showed on that play.
One thing I absolutely love about Nailor’s game is that he knows opposing defenders see him as a deep threat, and he uses that to his advantage on shorter routes. Watch his first couple of steps on the video above. Look at how he acts like he’s gonna run upfield towards the sideline before breaking inside on the slant route. Notice how he waited until the defender was on his outside shoulder before making his break. It’s a catch-22 for the corner tasked with covering him: either get beat deep or give up an easy completion underneath. All Nailor has to do is take what the defense gives him.
Outside of his agility and route running, Nailor’s biggest strength is his feel for the game. If he sees a way to get himself open post-snap, even if it wasn’t planned, he’ll take what is given to him. The Spartans are running play-action on the play above, with Nailor and another receiver both in motion, heading in opposite directions.
Nailor initially runs into a defender, while Michigan State QB Payton Thorne scrambles out of the pocket with a defensive lineman chasing after him. Nailor can detect that Thorne is under pressure, rolls with him, then sits in the vacated zone before catching the ball and taking off for a big gain.
On this play above, Nailor is able to find a soft spot in the middle of the field for an easy completion. The camera angle doesn’t quite do it justice, but you can put the pieces together if you look closely.
Michigan State didn’t ask him to do much as a blocker because of his injury history, but I don’t think he’s necessarily lazy or bad at it. They handed it off to their RB on the play above, and Nailor came in to help push No. 12 later in the play. I don’t think the Vikings will ask too much of him as a run blocker, but he would be serviceable if they did.
The Spartans really liked to use him as a gadget/utility player. Often, they would use him in motions, jet sweeps, or run routes out of the backfield. In the play above, they used him on a swing pass, and he was able to scamper for a first down. Granted, he can be more than just a gadget guy, but the more versatile a player is, the better.
I think NFL draft analyst Kevin Brown got it right when he said that Nailor does a lot of the little things very well and that McCardell perhaps sees a bit of himself in Nailor. At worst, I think Nailor is a rich man’s Chad Beebe. He’s someone who can come in and compete for that WR3/WR4 spot immediately while offering some athletic upside.