He catches your attention because Big Blue was able to secure a talent like Jackson last Saturday in the sixth round with the 187th overall selection.
While a team should expect to get starting-caliber players in the first three rounds of the draft, accomplishing this feat with late-round picks is a crapshoot at best. There are certainly valid reasons why the Notre Dame product made it to the next-to-last round, but they have more to do with the converted wide receiver’s inexperience at the cornerback position than with his long-term ability to play it.
Jackson committed to Notre Dame in 2009 out of Raritan High School in New Jersey as a wideout. While he didn’t catch a pass his freshman year, he did excel on special teams—to a level worthy of team player of the year honors for the unit.
In order to help solve some depth issues in the secondary, Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly and his staff slid Jackson across the line of scrimmage to cornerback prior to his sophomore season.
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As a whole, the move proved to be a wise decision by Kelly. After a year of getting acclimated to the position, Jackson played well in 2012 and 2013. He started 26 games, amassed 129 tackles and picked off six passes in this span.
Despite these solid numbers, Jackson is still an inexperienced and unpolished cornerback who is definitely not ready to be a key member of an NFL secondary. Nolan Nawrocki provides more detail as to why in his NFL.com draft profile of Jackson.
Technique needs work. Choppy transition. Allows too much separation too often. Weak jam. Leaky tackler. Ordinary production on the ball. Still developing positional instincts. Reactive instead of anticipatory.
Check out the GIF below for a good example of Nawrocki’s point on Jackson lacking positional instincts. This running play, from the Notre Dame-Stanford game last season, shows Jackson badly failing to recognize a running play.
Despite the run coming right at him, Jackson follows the receiver he is matched up with all the way off the screen. By the time the running back is tackled after a solid eight-yard gain, Jackson is still nowhere in sight. It is clear that he never looked into the backfield to determine whether the play was a run or pass, a fundamental mistake a more experienced cornerback doesn’t make.
While Nawrocki provides a laundry list of problems, they are at least fixable with more experience and the guidance of an NFL positional coach (The Giants' secondary coach is Peter Giunta, a 23-year NFL veteran).
Luckily, what can’t be taught or corrected Jackson already has—size and athleticism. The 22-year-old stands 6’0” and weighs 195 pounds. At the combine, he was a top performer in the broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. The latter two are particularly important since they measure a player’s quick-twitch ability and fluidity changing direction, two key attributes that a solid corner must possess.
Jackson also proved during the pre-draft buildup that he has top-end speed, but it didn’t come at the combine in February. Due to a tight hamstring, he posted an unimpressive 40-yard dash time of 4.51 seconds in Indianapolis. However, at Notre Dame’s pro day in late March, Jackson ran it in 4.40 seconds with his hammy healed.
This time would have placed him fifth among all cornerbacks at the combine.
A great example of Jackson’s superb athleticism is the play he made against Purdue last year to secure the lone pick-six interception of his college career.
As you can see in the GIF below, Jackson stays right on the hip of the Boilermaker receiver even as he runs a quick drag route through the back end of the Fighting Irish front seven. Because his coverage is so tight, he is able to easily cut in front of the receiver and pick off a pass that was thrown well and would have been completed without the presence of Jackson.
Jackson’s only physical limitation is a lack of strength, which was apparent when he put up a mere 13 reps in the bench press at the combine. Better strength will allow Jackson to effectively use his size to jam in press coverage. In addition, he’ll be more adept at run support.
While it would be nice if Jackson could contribute to the Giants in 2014, the reality is that his services aren’t needed—at least not yet.
New York is stacked at cornerback this season, with at least five quality players on its depth chart. Unless Tom Coughlin and company come to the unlikely conclusion this spring and summer that Jackson will never develop into an NFL-caliber cornerback, he will almost definitely be stashed away on the practice squad for the year.
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This will allow him the opportunity to learn and get stronger in preparation for 2015, when Big Blue may need him to fill in as a third or fourth cornerback. Both Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman will be unrestricted free agents next offseason, while Trumaine McBride and Jayron Hosley can be cut with minimal cap implications. The Giants can even get out from under Prince Amukamara’s 2015 salary of nearly $7 million if they don’t figure him into their long-term plans.
I think GM Jerry Reese and Marc Ross, Vice President of Player Evaluation, took a minimal risk on Jackson that will prove worthwhile in a year or two. Along with his talent, he is widely regarded to have great character and was a team captain his senior season at Notre Dame. He has the makeup and work ethic necessary to work his way onto the Giants' 53-man roster and up the depth chart.
At worst, he should be a solid special teams player and backup for New York. If he becomes a more seasoned, complete cornerback, though, we could look back on this draft in three to four years and wonder how 186 other players were picked ahead of Jackson.