In 1994, the New Orleans Saints signed an undrafted rookie defensive back named J.J. McCleskey from the University of Tennessee. McCleskey, a 5-8 and 180-pound defender, made the team and appeared in 32 games between 1994 and 1996 for New Orleans.
Playing mostly on special teams, McCleskey had an interception and 2 fumble recoveries for the Saints before being released early in the 1996 season. He finished his career with the Arizona Cardinals, recording 3 interceptions and a sack between 1997 and 1999.
Twenty-five years after playing his last game with the Saints, J.J. McCleskey's son will now have the same uphill opportunity to earn a roster spot with New Orleans, but on the other side of the ball.
JALEN MCCLESKEY, WIDE RECEIVER
Like his father, Jalen was an undersized but productive collegiate player who went undrafted. He was signed by the Atlanta Falcons but was released at the end of training camp.
Jalen McCleskey, a native of New Orleans, attended Oklahoma State after a standout high school career at St. Paul's in Covington. He caught 29 passes for 253 yards and 3 touchdowns as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2015.
McCleskey led Oklahoma State with 73 receptions in 2016, third in the Big 12 conference, finishing with a team-high 812 receiving yards and 7 scores. He added 50 receptions for 645 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2017.
A knee injury ended McCleskey's 2018 season after only four games, derailing an impressive start where he caught 15 passes for 155 yards. He finished his career at Oklahoma State with 167 receptions for 1,865 yards and 9 offensive touchdowns.
McCleskey joined Tulane as a graduate transfer in 2019, where father J.J. was a defensive backs coach. He finished second on the Green Wave with 37 receptions for 581 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Critics of McCleskey point to the pass-heavy offense he played in with Oklahoma State, his slight build, and the 2018 knee injury. His production was similar to NFL draft choices James Washington and Marcell Ateman at Oklahoma State and Darnell Mooney at Tulane.
McCleskey ran a blazing 4.28 40-yard dash at his Tulane Pro Day in 2020, dispelling any lingering concerns about his knee. While he certainly has the speed to take the top off defenses as a deep receiver, McCleskey is also an excellent runner in the open field after a short reception.
At 5'10 and 178-Lbs., McCleskey's best fit is as a slot receiver. He has underrated route running ability, with the quickness to get immediate separation and make tacklers miss after the catch. His 40-inch vertical jump makes up for some of his height and weight concerns.
McCleskey's open field skills make him a potential weapon as a kick returner, something he did early in his collegiate career. He’ll have to make a fast impact as both a receiver and returner to stand out in a fiercely competitive New Orleans receiving corps.
The Saints have historically been able to develop undrafted receivers into productive players for their offense.
Over the last two seasons, undrafted wideouts like Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway, Juwan Johnson, and Lil'Jordan Humphrey have made an impact on the receiving corps.
Harris, who has a similar build to McCleskey at 5’6 and 170-Lbs., went from undrafted rookie to All-Pro kick returner and is expected to be a bigger part of the New Orleans offense in 2021.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton typically likes bigger receivers for his offense. Jalen McCleskey brings big-play potential that the unit has lacked outside of Deonte Harris.
If McCleskey can make an early impact in training camp and show that he can add a game-breaking element to the receiving corps, he could be the latest in a line of undrafted successes for the New Orleans offense.
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