The Next Deion? Jalen Ramsey Has the Tools and Swagger to Be the NFL's Top CB

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistAugust 31, 2017


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jalen Ramsey wears sunglasses.

His favorites are a pair of Louis Vuittons, but he isn't exclusive with them. He has about a half-dozen pairs he wears frequently and others he'll mix in on occasion. 

He wears them cruising in his Camaro. He wears them in the locker room. He wears them in the team meeting room. He wears them on the trainer's table. He wears them in the cafeteria. He wears them during interviews.

"I wear them everywhere," he says. "I try to stay to myself and learn as much as I can."

Sometimes, sunglasses reveal more than they hide.

Deion Sanders wore sunglasses, too.

It's not the only point of comparison between the Jaguars' second-year cornerback and the Hall of Famer many consider the best to ever play the position.

Both went to Florida State. And both started from day one as freshmen there—Ramsey becoming the first defensive back to do so for the Seminoles since Deion did 30 years earlier. Both were the fifth picks of their respective drafts. And both draw the spotlight.

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TALLAHASSEE, FL - MARCH 29: Defensive back Jalen Ramsey talk with the media after working out for NFL Scouts and Coaches during Florida State Pro Day at the Dunlap Training Facility on the campus of FSU on March 29, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

So is Ramsey the new Deion?

"I try my best not to put that kind of pressure on these young guys," says Deion, "but I'm going to tell you something—that kid, he's bigger than me, and he's been in more big-time games at the college level than I was. I like everything about him."

"He's a character kid, as well," adds Deion, who has interviewed Ramsey for NFL Network. "He's a kind kid. And he's a workaholic."

Of course, Ramsey isn't a carbon copy. There is plenty of disparity in their playing styles.

Deion would bait quarterbacks into throwing his way, then close on their passes with a burst that was just a tick slower than the speed of light. He'd steal their throws, and then he'd steal their nerve.

Ramsey is not quite as fast but is more physical. He tests receivers wills as much as their skills, waging war with them all over the field. Just when a receiver thinks he has a step on him, Ramsey reaches out a long arm to break up another pass.

But what comparison there is, it isn't a mistake. When Ramsey was a boy in Nashville, he was a Cowboys fan. "He wanted to be like Deion," his father, Lamont Ramsey, says. As he grew, Jalen came to think he was more like Devin Hester—because of his versatility—and modeled his game after Charles Woodson's. He still reveres Deion, though, and strives to be compared to him.

"There will never be another Deion Sanders, ever," Jalen says. "But one day I hope with hard work and dedication, I would like to be looked at as Deion is looked at now—the best corner to ever play the game, a guy who made playing corner very popular his type of way. I want to be able to be looked at like one of the greatest of all time."

Ramsey's NFL beginnings were full of promise. Quarterbacks had a 76.6 passer rating against Ramsey in his rookie season. Only 16 corners in the NFL were better, according to Pro Football Focus. He finished the season with two interceptions in his last three games and was voted AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Titans in Week 16. He was runner-up to Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In six games, Ramsey was assigned to travel with his opponents' No. 1 receiver. At 6'2", he has the size to take on big, physical receivers like DeAndre Hopkins. But he also has the speed and athleticism to stick with smaller, faster receivers like T.Y. Hilton of the Colts.

"We feel Jalen can match up against most, if not all, wide receivers," Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash says.

Ramsey will tell you there is not another cornerback in the NFL like him.

"I can play every position in the secondary," says Ramsey, who also played safety in college. "And I can do everything—help run support, traveling, covering whoever is out there, small guy, big guy. I can play any type of coverage—blitz if I need to. There aren't too many people who can do all of that. Patrick Peterson could probably do it. He's athletic enough that he can pretty much do everything. I'm not sure if anyone else could.

"I think I'm one of the best."

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 24: Jalen Ramsey #20 celebrates after running an interception back for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of the game against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field on December 24, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Ro
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Like many elite cornerbacks, he's not afraid to say it. Among the many attributes Ramsey brings to the Jaguars defense is swag—mad swag. The show he puts on starts before the snap and goes beyond the whistle.

If you are a wide receiver who lined up across from Ramsey last season, you probably know what he thinks of you—and himself.

"He's always talking trash to a receiver," Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin says. "Sometimes he's joking. Sometimes he's in a zone. That dude right there is a clown. He's a big kid. So all he do is clown."

The trash talk helped set the stage for some entertaining theater last season. Ramsey got into it with numerous opponents, among them Steve Smith Sr. The two tangled verbally and physically in the Jaguars' loss to the Ravens last September, and the talking continued in interviews and on social media. After both were given unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the fourth quarter, Ramsey said he told Smith, "I know some of these other dudes might be scared of you, but I'm definitely not."

In a postgame interview, Ramsey called Smith, who is 16 years his senior, an old man. Smith responded on Twitter.

Steve Smith Sr @89SteveSmith

In 5 to 10 u will be retiring and they will be taking my measurements for something you... https://t.co/Vpkmplz3a5 https://t.co/cKdV2FMJce

About a month later, Ramsey was ejected from a game against the Raiders after scuffling with Johnny Holton following a special teams play.

"He was jogging off the field and said something," Ramsey says. "I said something back. He stopped walking, so I kind of got into him a little bit. I didn't know who he was. I still don't."

Ramsey believes the mentality is a prerequisite for greatness at the cornerback position.

"On the field, I'm very, very arrogant—cocky," he says. "I think that's how you have to be as a DB. All the great DBs I know—the best DBs ever—had that. I bet you couldn't rank the top 10 of DBs and say when he was playing he was very humble and didn't talk smack. I think it would be impossible."

His father has seen it from the time Jalen was a tyke. In fact, Dad may be responsible for it.

"He got that honest," Lamont says. "I talk trash all the time."

When Jalen transferred to a new school in the fourth grade, he and his father declared he would win the math bee. And then he did.

When Jalen was in middle school, his older brother Jamal was selected to play in the Tennessee high school All-Star Game.

"I remember him telling his brother, 'I'm so proud of you, but I'm going to be the No. 1 player in the state and I'm going to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl,'" Lamont says. And then he did.

There are those who talk it, and there are those who walk it. The guy wearing the sunglasses is both.

If you could see through the dark lenses, you would see something you might not have expected in Ramsey's eyes.

His teammates call him "20 Savage" for good reason, but there is another side to him.

"People get confused with athletes, especially ultimate competitors," Ramsey says. "They think they are the same on and off the field. Once you see me on the field, I am a different person. I have a switch I can flip on and off."

Associated Press

On Twitter, he is all bible verses and prayers. Back home in Nashville, he is all family.

Jeremy Ramsey is eight, Brielle Ramsey is six and Kahmille Ramsey is four. To them, Jalen is "Uncle Jay-Jay."

"Their relationship is amazing," says Jamal Ramsey, the kids' father and Jalen's older brother. "They love their Uncle Jay-Jay, and he loves them."

When Jalen is working, he and the kids FaceTime often. When he's around, the kids want to be wherever he is. Uncle Jay-Jay and Jeremy play NBA2K and Call of Duty—and they talk trash to one another. He and the girls watch Moana and Frozen.

On Father's Day a little more than a year ago, Lamont was on his morning jog. As he approached his house, he saw a truck drive by, a Nissan Titan XD.

"Man, that looks like the truck I was looking to buy," he thought. Then the truck pulled over. Jalen was behind the wheel, and the truck was Lamont's Father's Day present.

On his brother's wedding day, Jalen gave Jamal and his bride Briana a Toyota Highlander. For his mother, he purchased a house. The plan is to help her open her own hair salon.

"Anything they need, they can call me," Jalen says. "What's more important than gifts is the time I spend with them. They are the most important part of my life, and they helped me get to where I am now. My mom and dad, love them to death. My brother is my biggest idol in the world."

Lamont owns Ramsey Performance Training in Nashville, where Jalen trains, and he is also a firefighter. Jamal is in the fire academy. Jalen, subsequently, has a soft spot for firefighters. He has hung out with them in Jacksonville.

There, behind the sunglasses, is kindness.

Stars and sunglasses go together. Ramsey follows the lead of Diddy, Eric Church, Michael Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Bono and many others.

But the market Ramsey works in isn't exactly a hotbed of stars. And it's not like he is mobbed when he ventures out in Jacksonville.

The Jaguars, of course, have not given their fans much to be excited about. They haven't had a winning season in nine years, and they have made the playoffs only two times in the last 17 years.

Despite having the least expensive ticket prices in the NFL, the Jaguars' average game attendance was seventh-lowest in the NFL last year. Nationally, they don't get much attention unless their first-round quarterback flames out. They are not scheduled to play a regular-season game on Sunday night, Monday night or Thursday night this season.

Ramsey doesn't mind. Playing in Jacksonville is another challenge.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - APRIL 29: Cornerback Jalen Ramsey of the Jacksonville Jaguars speaking to the media for the first time as General Manager Dave Caldwell looks on at EverBank Field on April 29, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars selected Ramsey f
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

"If that's what most people think—that it's not really a football town—then that's a barrier I can break down," he says. "It's a challenge to help Jacksonville become more of a football town, or make the most out of their market here."

That will mean helping the Jaguars win. Last season, Ramsey played in 13 losses—two more than he had in his entire previous football experience, going back to when he was five years old, according to his father.

He had never learned how to lose before, and he did not handle it well. He and Wash have had many conversations about it since, and both say the coverages will be more varied this season, but last season Ramsey complained publicly about the predictability of the Jaguars' defensive scheme. On the sidelines of a loss to the Lions in November, Ramsey vented and cried.

"I was mad, man. I was mad," he says. "I think it's because I knew I was leaving it all out there. I wasn't mad at anyone on the team or a coach. I was mad I couldn't make a play to turn that game around so we could win it. I felt like I had done everything I could have done and tried to make plays, and it just didn't happen."

Deion understood. He played on a 3-13 Falcons team as a rookie.

"You come from a school where you are only losing a couple games in a two-year span, and you go to a team that's desperate to win," Deion says. "It's frustrating, and I could see the frustration welling up in him last year. But he knows how to win, and he knows how to solve problems."

Ramsey's combination of big-play potential, big personality and ambition give him a chance to transcend Jacksonville. Deion, famous enough to be known by his first name only, was a revenue stream in shoulder pads. Fans paid to see him strut, dance and smile as much as they paid to see him play, and he knew exactly how to monetize talent and charisma. Ramsey, as Deion once did, is taking it upon himself to try to promote his personal brand.

Prior to being drafted by the Jaguars, Ramsey was signed to be a Jordan Brand athlete, a statement about his marketing potential. Others in the exclusive Jordan family include Roy Jones Jr., Russell Westbrook and Derek Jeter.

In the offseason, he visited the Orange County office of Athletes First, the agency that represents him, to chart out his marketing strategy and identify target partners.

"He wants to be a part of the big turnaround in Jacksonville," says Austin Lyman, a marketing specialist at Athletes First. "He really wants to be involved in the brand building. If I'm chasing a deal, I know he can close it. He has told me he has no qualms about getting a room and doing that."

Ramsey recently made a personal, face-to-face appeal to Scott Garman, general manager of Nimnicht Chevrolet in Jacksonville. Garman agreed to give Ramsey the use of a car in return for Ramsey allowing the dealership to use his name and image on social media, website content and advertisements.

Ramsey is the type of player Nimnicht wants to partner with.

"He appears like he's going to be a very popular player and an upcoming star in the league," Garman says. "If you walk through the Jacksonville airport, they use his image there. The Jaguars use his image to promote the team."

Ramsey's celebrity is growing—mostly because of Ramsey.

"The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," was the first hit song from a group called Timbuk3.

Turns out Timbuk3's future wasn't so bright. That first hit also was its last.

Ramsey is dedicating himself so that he does not become another Timbuk3. He knows he can produce more and better in the days and years ahead.

In his rookie season, Ramsey admits he was not always technically sound. When you have arms that measure 33  inches long, can run a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash, can vertical-jump 41 ½ inches and broad-jump 135 inches, the temptation is to cut corners.

"Yeah, I got away with certain things just by my physique, my long arms, my pure athletic ability," he says. "That gave me some confidence and hope moving forward because if I had just a little success off my athletic ability, when I start applying myself further, I think I can be the best in the game."

He has paid more attention to footwork and technique since last season, and Wash has seen improvement.

The physical ability Ramsey relied on as a rookie may be enhanced in his second season. In the past, Ramsey's diet choices were driven more by flavor than fitness. Before his first training camp, he tweeted a photo of a "dinner" of Vienna sausages, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Berry Blast Mike and Ikes and Powerade.

Jalen Ramsey @jalenramsey

Dinner was hitting tonight https://t.co/wrt8MoLhOx

Early in the offseason, he hired a personal chef. Ramsey cut down on french fries and Krispy Kremes and now is eating healthy 85 percent of the time. He dropped five pounds to 208 and cut his body fat to 5 percent.

"I feel better," he says. "I'm in better shape. I want to be the best and play in this league for a long time. It's a blessing to play in this league, and I want to maximize my opportunity. God has blessed me tremendously. If I didn't put my all into it, then I'd be doing a disservice to Him, my family, my friends and myself. To be the best, that's what I have to do."

Ramsey also has become a more serious student of the game, according to Wash. In the offseason, Ramsey studied the elite receivers he expects to be following all over the field this season. He didn't want to name them, but Jacksonville's schedule offers some hints. The Jaguars will go against Hopkins, Hilton, Antonio Brown of the Steelers, A.J. Green of the Bengals and Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals.

The Jaguars could choose to match up Ramsey with the opponents' top receiver less frequently this season because they added cornerback A.J. Bouye to play across from him. Bouye was considered one of the pearls of free agency.

"We just gonna ball," Ramsey says. "We gonna make plays. We gonna be playmakers. It's no doubt in my mind at the end of the day Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are gonna be the No. 1 and No. 1 best cornerbacks in the league."

Ramsey missed some offseason work and a chunk of training camp after injuring a core muscle and having reparative surgery in June. That has not dimmed the expectations.

"I fully expect him to become that elite corner," Colvin says. "I think he'll be that Pro Bowl player, that All-Pro player."

It is a sentiment shared by many.

Why does Ramsey wear shades?

"His future," Deion says, "is so bright."


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.


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