Looking back at the 2017 NFL Draft, four cornerbacks went in the first round. The Saints scooped up Marshon Lattimore with the 11th pick overall, former Tide corner Marlon Humphrey went 16th to the Ravens, the Raiders, in desperate need of corner help, took Gareon Conley with the 24th pick, and finally, the Buffalo Bills traded back and took Tre’Davious White from LSU with the 27th pick.
If that many cornerbacks were to go in the first round in this year’s draft, Iowa corner Joshua Jackson will assuredly be one of the top names called. The 6’1″, 192 lb red shirt junior declared for the draft after one of the most productive seasons from the position you will ever see.
He burst onto the scene after only getting playing time as a reserve player the prior two seasons. One of those seasons, his freshman campaign, had him on the offensive side of the ball as a wide receiver, a position that he primarily played in high school. Typically, when receivers end up on the defensive side of the ball it is because they struggle to catch the ball. But after his 2017 campaign, scouts understand that he is an outlier in that area.
Not even mad. This one-handed interception by Iowa’s Josh Jackson was amazing. pic.twitter.com/zhn9fGxu8Q
— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 4, 2017
Jackson’s eight interceptions led the FBS, and he was able to pitch in another 18 passes defended. According to SportsInfo Solutions, the Texas native was targeted 91 times last season, which was the fourth most. Those attempts yielded very little success, as opposing quarterbacks registered a paltry 31.18 QB rating when throwing at Jackson.
Jackson is a good athlete, but he may not have the linear speed or change of directions skills to be a blue chip lockdown corner. Reports are that he may run in the 4.5s. But he is able to make up for the lack of top end speed with very good football intelligence, explosiveness and length.
On this play, Iowa State is targeting WR Allen Lazard to the bottom of the screen on a ‘Hoss’ concept (Seam/curl combination). Seeing as how the Hawkeyes are primarily a zone team, teams like to steal yardage in the short area along the boundary. Jackson opens to the field, reading the quarterback’s body posture and drop, explodes out of his plant, and uses that arm length to jar the bar out for the incompletion.
Even when the WR catches it, Jackson attacks the ball and can jar it loose. pic.twitter.com/otzMXm4Plt— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 8, 2018
Jackson got some of the best coaching while at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are always some of the best-coached units in the country, especially on defense. They understand the recruits they get and build their scheme around the personnel. Typically, that is a lot of quarters and cover three, coverages that may sound simple but often give talented players the ability to pattern match. According to SIS, six of Jackson’s eight interceptions came in zone coverage, much like this next play. Against the Ohio State Buckeyes Jackson hauled in three interceptions, and they weren’t just three ordinary picks, either. All three of them put his talent front and center.
On this interception, the Hawkeyes send the linebacker from the field and drop into a cover 3 look.
Jackson is aligned at his typical left cornerback spot to the top of the screen. The Buckeyes attack with a ‘Flood’ concept. They run the #1 receiver deep hoping to pull Jackson deep so that QB J.T. Barrett can hit the intermediate out route to the tight end. Post-snap, Barrett peeks at the three routes into the boundary, then does his best to hold the deep safety before throwing it to the tight end. But Jackson was never fooled. His eyes are on the QB the entire drop, so he sees Barrett turning his shoulders to the out route. He peels off the #1 receiver and hauls in the interception. Jackson is a natural when it comes to pattern matching.
His spatial awareness or zone spacing is spectacular and probably top two in this class.
You really can't space this smash concept any better. Deters the deep route forcing Allen to throw it short. Oh yeah and he makes the tackle. pic.twitter.com/7JUf6OQAgs— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 13, 2018
When offenses try to high/low him he puts his body in the perfect position vertically and horizontally between the routes.
On the snap, Jackson opens his hips, gets his back to the sideline and gains depth. This shuffle (instead of backpedaling) allows him to keep his eyes on the quarterback and keep both receivers in his peripheral.
The scheme is always willing to give up the short route to the flats in order to prevent the big play. As soon as the QB starts his delivery, Jackson breaks deep and fully extends to cause the pass deflection.
This play goes to show that he understands his abilities and where he needs to be in order to make a play on the ball.
Jackson’s ability to pattern match from off coverage, to defend and process route combinations from stacked sets, and to learn from prior reps makes him an asset at the next level. He is almost impossible to throw against if the first or second receiver in the progression aren’t thrown the ball. That’s because he plays with calm feet and disciplined zone eyes. QB Barrett scans left to right and Jackson has the signal caller timed up from the jump. Jackson jumps the route and, once that ball is in the air, it’s his. Tremendous quickness, hands and body control displayed by Jackson.
There’s highlight after highlight of Jackson flashing his athleticism.
Allen should have thrown his WR flatter here, but look at the timing and body control displayed by Jackson. pic.twitter.com/FXbhrZtNDG— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 8, 2018
The former triple jumper in high school has ‘hops’ and matches up very well versus jump ball receivers.
Another play on the ball by Jackson. Finished with 3 PDs this game. pic.twitter.com/M4pAPIPSE0— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 8, 2018
The Hawkeyes have produced some very good defensive backs over the years, but they aren’t normally mirror cover corners. Jackson falls right in line with that paradigm. While he has some very good athletic traits, his linear speed and lateral agility are not where they need to be to be a man cover corner.
This portion of his game was exposed a couple times this past season. Many times during the season on critical downs and moments the Hawkeyes counted on their best defensive back to match up versus the opponent’s best receiver. The game versus Penn State was one of those moments. Jackson often bumped into the slot corner position in an attempt to slow down a sudden, nuanced route runner in DaeSean Hamilton. He attempted to use leverage to his advantage from this position but was unable to and was exposed.
Jackson in the slot versus Hamilton again. Plays with inside leverage and Hamilton takes it quite easily without any attempt to disrupt or use his hands to stick with the WR. pic.twitter.com/B7kpKqYQY0— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 7, 2018
In soft press, Jackson’s skill set worries me. While this scenario does take place frequently at the next level, it occurs even more in the slot. Jackson is again overmatched by Hamilton on this play. While Hamilton never received the passes on these plays, this is a good measuring stick because DaeSean will assuredly be drafted, likely on day two. Jackson aligns with inside leverage on Hamilton, but it doesn’t matter. The suddenness Hamilton displays gives him the two way go immediately, a couple of times.
JJ in press/soft press is worrisome. Inside leverage against @SkeeterMills__. Hamilton manipulates the stem during his drive phase. Turns Jackson around & gets inside leverage. JJ recovers, has outside leverage so DH attacks that. Route running with suddenness & pace. A+ pic.twitter.com/8ALJtqdAeJ— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 7, 2018
Hamilton put on a route running clinic in this game, and Jackson rarely ever won a rep. He was put out of phase during all three phases of a route.
Hamilton put Jackson in a blender this game. Puts him out of phase quickly and makes him look average. pic.twitter.com/2Sc2jYPIRO— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 7, 2018
Part of the reason that he is such a good zone corner is because he is in off coverage a lot, has the cushion to work with, and is able to use leverage and intelligence to stay on top of routes. Well, in press or soft press man that leverage needs to be established more quickly. The quarters are tighter, things happen quicker, and a defensive back’s hands need to be utilized. I came away wanting more from that portion of his game.
4th and 1-Jackson was bumped into the slot at times, typically on critical DnDs. I thought he struggled from this position. Doesn't have elite feet, fluidity, disruption skills to flourish, but was their best. Has trouble marrying lower body feet/balance w disruption skills. pic.twitter.com/7XwsmnfJaJ— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 8, 2018
For a guy with his size and length, I expected a more physical corner. He was overpowered at times.
In close quarters he was unable consistently match the athleticism of wide receivers, but most of all, he didn’t use his hands to disrupt. As a defensive back you are going to lose a couple releases at the line of scrimmage, but the really good corners use their hands to strike or disrupt to allow their lower body to catch back up. I simply didn’t see that enough from Jackson. Here, he fails to land any type of strike. He bites hard on the stab and quick slant.
Right in line with the lack of physicality is his tackling. As you may have noticed two clips back, his tackling technique is bad. He tends to dip his head, lunge and/or not wrap up opponents.
He often stays blocked just trying to maintain leverage of the ball, rather than attempting to leverage and disengage, and sometimes fails to properly line up a runner and bring him down with a sound tackle.
Joshua Jackson’s 2017 film was a treat. He made some amazing plays on the ball and did it in big games versus quality opponents. But was this level of play an outlier?
“He’s just a tremendous young man (and it’s) just fun to watch things come together for him.” – Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
His tape shows that he has the ball skills that teams covet. Anytime you have a player with the ability to diagnose what is occurring in front of him and pair it with the ability to take the ball away, you have a special player.
Jackson’s skills lead me to believe that his best chance to be successful early is in a zone-based defense, teams that play a lot of cover 3 and quarters. His zone spacing and zone eyes will keep his play consistent. His ability to elevate, his body control and length will make it very difficult for quarterbacks pass over the top of him. This will give Jackson the confidence to utilize skills and techniques that he refined while at Iowa.
There should be no reason for him to be in the slot on Sundays. He simply doesn’t have the mirror or disruption skills to win rep after rep versus NFL slot receivers. He is rather raw near the line of scrimmage in soft press or press man. He rarely uses his hands to disrupt and has shown a tendency to open too soon for fear of getting out of phase and not being able to recover. His linear speed is something that appears to be lacking, and it is sometimes reflected in his play.
All in all, Jackson is still considered a 1st round talent, likely on the back end of the round, as he graded out as a 5.042.