The confluence of three factors -- the rule changes on kickoffs, Julio Jones' postseason ascension and the surreal circumstances of A.J. Green's pro day -- directed me to a receiver who is regarded higher than most know and whose value as a kick returner makes him one of the more intriguing draft prospects: Troy's Jerrel Jernigan.
Jernigan, in the eyes of some NFL personnel evaluators, has quietly moved ahead of Boise State's Titus Young as the top smaller wide receiver/return man available in the draft. In fact, Jerrigan actually might not have ever been behind Young, and could very well be among the top five wide receivers off the board in April.
At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Jernigan doesn't have ideal size. Teams tend to shy away from shorter receivers because of the limited throwing window they provide quarterbacks. However, Jernigan is a speedster -- he hit the 4.3-second range in the 40-yard dash at his pro day after clocking in at 4.46 at the NFL Scouting Combine -- who is a major yards-after-catch threat. He can take a short or intermediate pass and make things happen.
The talk about Jernigan also centers on his toughness and fearlessness going across the middle. Wes Welker created a market for threats like Jernigan, who with his speed and championed toughness could take things to another level.
He's a perfect fit for a team that likes to use the passing game as a quasi running game -- New Orleans, Indianapolis and Green Bay. Jernigan also could provide a different type of receiving option for teams like Atlanta, which has already shown serious interest, San Diego and Tampa Bay.
Concern over new rule
From folks I've spoken to, he's got a second-round draft grade, in large part because of his potential immediate impact as a slot receiver. Jernigan was also a high school quarterback who occasionally took direct snaps at Troy when explosive plays were needed. One person likened his skill set and physical makeup -- although they did not draw a direct comparison -- to the Vikings' Percy Harvin.
Jernigan's value as a return man -- he's handled kickoff and punting duties - would, on the surface, be diminished by the new kickoff rules that are expected to increase touchbacks. But think about it, explosive returners could be in greater demand because there likely will be fewer opportunities. To have a guy who can make more big plays out of less opportunities will be coveted.
That should enhance the roles of dangerous return men, especially those who aren't one-trick ponies and can add to an offense. Just like Jernigan.