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Is Keelan Cole the NFL’s next big-time receiver?

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The Jaguars dug deep in the scouting mines of third division Kentucky Wesleyan to disinter the NFL’s next big-time receiver

Catch of the year?

We’ve all seen Keelan Cole’s absolute jewel of a grab at least one hundred times over the past twenty-four hours. Cole towered over New England Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe with a perfectly timed jump and enveloped the Duke like it was a tennis ball in a hypnagogic moment that put time at an absolute standstill.

When the Jacksonville Jaguars opened up their preliminary media availability at the beginning of the 2018 offseason, one of the names were not like the others. Despite finishing the 2017 season with the highest yards per catch in the entire NFL (18.4), not even the most ardent of Jaguars fans thought that Keelan Cole had arrived.

Based on Cole’s selection among franchise faces including Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, and Leonard Fournette, this coaching staff was obviously in disagreement.

You shouldn’t be surprised

Cole isn’t the biggest (6’0” 194-pounds) or the fastest (4.59 40-yard dash at his pro day) receiver, yet he somehow still managed to catch the eye of the Jaguars scouting department despite playing at second division Kentucky Wesleyan. In college, Cole plied his trade in from of a 3,000-person maximum capacity home crowd. Players that are shrouded in such obscurity need to demonstrate an elite trait (usually speed) or pure dominance at his level of competition, and based on his testing numbers, Cole obviously didn’t exhibit the former.

The latter, however, was written in plain view. Since becoming a full-time starter his sophomore year, Cole didn’t finish a single season with less than 1,300 receiving yards. He had 21 receiving touchdowns as a true sophomore and averaged close to 25 yards per catch as a senior. Over his four years as a Panther, Cole broke almost every school receiving record that was held previously by Secdrick Robinson.

As of the beginning of the 2017 season, only 90 division two players were on NFL rosters, including the practice squad.

Regardless of his domination at the division two level, the odds of him earning a tryout, let alone a final 53-man roster spot, hovered around five percent. So why is he special?

He’s married to the game

In a conversation with Dan Hellie earlier this year, Keelan Cole shared that he doesn’t watch TV or Hulu or Netflix at home. He simply can’t be bothered with those types of distractions if he wants to become the best at his position. Instead, he winds down by firing up YouTube clips of all the receiving greats. Moss. Rice.

OBJ

Always observing, always gleaning. Cole’s insatiable appetite to learn and bolster his route tree is an enormous reason for his quick and unexpected development. Going up against the NFL’s top cornerback tandem on a daily basis doesn’t hurt, either. Jaguars wide receiver coach Keenan McCardell seems to coach Cole the toughest of all his wide receivers, and the reason for that is probably because he sees so much potential in Cole. But perhaps its more than that.

Perhaps its because he sees a bit of himself in Cole

McCardell was a 12th round draft pick by the Washington Redskins out of UNLV in the 1991 draft. When you compare that to the present-day seven round draft model, that doesn’t even make McCardell a priority free agent. McCardell never even donned the Redskins uniform despite earning a Super Bowl ring on injured reserve and was cut after the 1991 season before latching on with the Cleveland Browns. When comparing his career arc with Keelan Cole’s thus far, the advantage for Cole is shocking; the potential incalculable.

And he’s becoming more complete

Not only is Cole enhancing his route running, separation, and spectacular catch making ability, he’s becoming a well-rounded receiver. While no play tops his highlight reel snag, his block on Dede Westbrook’s game-clinching touchdown catch was paramount to sealing last week’s game.

Unlike Cole’s velcro catch, this isn’t just a hand-plucked highlight of one big play. Cole has amped up his aggressiveness at the point of attack in the wake of losing veteran leader and marquee run blocker Marqise Lee, and his coaches have noticed. In an interview after the game, Cole was asked how he made that catch. The undrafted gem replied with this:

Moss. Rice. OBJ.

Better add Cole to that YouTube playlist.