BEREA — More than 19 months later, Browns receiver Jaelen Strong still remembers what “rock bottom” feels like.

Houston’s third-round pick in 2015 after two productive seasons at Arizona State, Strong became the first Texans wide receiver with two touchdown receptions in his NFL debut. He went to the playoffs as a rookie. After his second season was limited to eight games by an ankle injury, he was claimed off waivers by the Jacksonville Jaguars in September 2017 and spent 12 weeks inactive or on the practice squad. When he was called up, his first catch for the Jaguars went for a TD.

But on Dec. 24, 2017, Strong tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a game in San Francisco. He announced the news in two Instagram posts, saying, “This lil setback setting me up for a greater comeback.”

Discouragement sometimes pushed aside that brave front.

“Of course, I think that’s with any battle, anything you’re going through. When you hit rock bottom those thoughts always come,” Strong said Monday. “It’s just about not really so much listening to yourself, but talking to yourself and putting the work in and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Strong, 25, a three-year veteran, said he had the support of his agent, Zeke Sandhu, who also represents Odell Beckham Jr., his mother and family, who prayed for him every day, and his childhood friend Rob Holloman, a teammate at West Philadelphia Catholic High School. Strong said Hollomon, who went on to play running back at Kent State and Central Connecticut, was with him “every day, every step of the way.”

“There were times I didn’t always have the best attitude, but they helped me get through things. Now it’s a blessing to be here,” Strong said.

With the Browns set to open the preseason Thursday night at home against the Washington Redskins, Strong is among six receivers competing for two spots on the 53-man roster.

Although Strong has gotten reps with the first team in practice, he is vying with Derrick Willies, Damion Ratley, Ishmael Hyman, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi and Dorian Baker to stick.

“He’s progressed. He’s strung together two or three good days. I’m pleased where he’s at, but he has a long way to go,” Browns receivers coach Adam Henry said of Strong on Tuesday.

Strong isn’t sure who inside the Browns organization made a push to sign him as a free agent in February. Henry, then at LSU, recruited Strong when he was coming out of Peirce College in Philadelphia after the 2012 season. Browns safety Damarious Randall played with Strong in 2013-4 at Arizona State.

“Coach Henry recruited me out of juco ... I think that was a big interest right there, I’m not really sure. I believe he had a lot to do with me coming in for a workout,” Strong said.

“I used to make plays against [Randall] at ASU. Damarious is a great guy, he was actually talking to me through my rehab process, telling me that you never know what could happen and I ended up here. Never know, Damarious could have had an impact on me coming here, too. He was definitely a very good friend to me when I wasn’t on the team.”

At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Strong had the size to get him in the door. But he’s not the only one. Willies stands 6-4 and 207, Baker is 6-3 and 213 and Ratley is 6-2 and 200.

Although Strong said he’s physically stronger than ever, he knows he must distinguish himself, even if called on to play special teams.

“After everything I’ve been through, every snap does matter. Especially now. Just me showing the coaches and showing everybody I want to be here is what’s driving me,” Strong said.

Strong does not lament the fact that knee surgery sidetracked what might have been a promising start to his career.

“I think those things happen because they have to happen,” he said. “You can’t really get through anything without going through anything. I’m here now for a reason, and I’m going to take full advantage of it and go out there and work every day.”

Asked if late December 2017 was really rock bottom, Strong said, “At the time it felt like it. But there’s no place to go but up when you are that low.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.