Adoree Jackson or LeShaun Sims? That is the decision that Mike Mularkey seems to be weighing publicly heading in to Sunday’s season opener against the Raiders. If you have been reading much of what I’ve written here over the last several months, you know I am a big LeShaun Sims fan. So why am I writing that he should not be the primary starting corner opposite Logan Ryan for Week 1 even if he’s healthy and ready to go?
Jackson’s physical make up is a better fit for Amari Cooper
I touched on this briefly during my “Three Matchups” piece earlier this week, but I’ll go more in depth here. It will be interesting to see how the Titans use their corners. They have usually kept guys on certain sides of the field in the past, but they seem to be building a roster that fits a matchup specific deployment. If the Titans do choose to have their corners follow certain matchups, Logan Ryan clearly fits Michael Crabtree, which leaves Cooper as the guy for the opposite corner. Cooper has decent size as a wide receiver at 6’-1” tall and 211 pounds, but his real asset is his speed, agility, and route running. His combine numbers bear that out.
Jackson offers a very similar physical profile.
He ran a 6.63 second 3-cone at USC’s pro day so that number matches Cooper’s very closely as well. On the other hand, Sims profiles more as a tough, physical type similar to Logan Ryan. That’s not to say that Sims is slow — he’s not — but Cooper can fly and so can Jackson.
Cooper is more likely to be used as a deep threat than any of his Raiders counterparts as his 13.9 yards per reception average from 2016 would suggest. That compares to just 11.3 YPC and 10.4 YPC for Crabtree and Seth Roberts. Jackson has flashed excellent make up speed in practices and preseason action and would be a tougher opponent for Cooper to beat for a game changing deep ball.
The Titans will need turnovers to win this game
One of the biggest reasons for the Raiders 2016 success was their +16 turnover differential — 30 takeaways versus 14 giveaways — which tied for best in the NFL with the Chiefs. It doesn’t take a genius to point out that turnover differential is very strongly correlated to winning percentage in the NFL. Several studies have found this to be true, and it pretty clearly passes the smell test. The Raiders’ 12-4 regular season record was highly influenced by that +16 number.
Similarly, the Titans ended 2016 with a turnover differential of zero. They had 18 takeaways and 18 giveaways, and finished with a 9-7 record which means they slightly outperformed their turnover ratio. I would actually argue that the “even” turnover ratio only tells part of the story as the Titans also had the highest number of those giveaways returned for touchdowns by the opposition.
That sounds like bad news for the Titans, but it really isn’t according to a 2014 Harvard study that found that over 50% of a team’s seasonal turnover differential is just plain old luck. The rest is made up of the team’s ability to avoid turnovers on offense (i.e. teams with good QBs tend to have fewer interceptions) and create turnovers on defense.
So how does this have anything to do with Adoree Jackson? Adoree falls in to a group of players that the Titans have targeted since Jon Robinson got to Tennessee who will influence the ability portion of that equation. Jackson — along with Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan — is a guy who has a history of taking the ball away from offenses. You can easily see why this is the case with Jackson. His speed and ball skills allowed him to excel as a gadget player on offense during his time at USC, and it is those same skills that helped him finish tied for 11th in the nation in interceptions with 5 in 2016. He has continued to show a knack for getting his hands on the football in camp and preseason as well.
Lining up across from them is a quarterback that is very careful with the football. Derek Carr’s big arm gets him a reputation as a gunslinger, but I’m not sure its really all that earned. His 7.03 yards per attempt in 2016 landed him 18th in the NFL, a couple spots below “game manager” Alex Smith. He only attempted 56 passes further than 20 yards downfield in 2016 which was 21st in the NFL. However, these “careful” tendencies also generated the 4th lowest interception percentage last year behind only Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, and Sam Bradford.
Additionally, he is a very difficult quarterback to sack. That is partially due to what is an excellent offensive line in front of him, but Carr helps his line by getting the ball out quickly. His 2016 average time to throw of 2.52 seconds was 11th in the league. He was only sacked 16 times all season, good enough for 2nd least in the NFL behind Brady.
The Titans quite frankly aren’t going to be able to just come out and shut down the Raiders passing attack. They have too many talented weapons and Derek Carr is too good a quarterback. He is quite capable of sitting in a clean pocket and picking apart the defense with short-to-intermediate throws. However, as I laid out above, the Raiders are due for some turnover regression and putting guys like Jackson — who specialize in making plays on the ball — on the field against them makes a lot of sense to me.
No need to worry about Jackson’s confidence
Corners are going to lose most of the time. Xavier Rhodes of the Vikings is the only corner in 2016 who had a completion percentage against of less than 50%. The league average was around 61%. That means that corners have to be able to deal with failing on 61% of the snaps without allowing doubt or hesitation or overthinking to set in.
Adoree Jackson has swagger. It doesn’t come across as fake or arrogant. He just seems to have an unshakable self-confidence about him. Its the kind of mentality that makes for great cornerbacks like Deion Sanders, Patrick Peterson, and Richard Sherman who share that same trait. Titans safety Kevin Byard told The Tennessean as much this week.
“I know for a fact he’s going to be ready for prime time,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “Beyond all the athleticism that I’ve seen from him, I think the most important thing that you come in as a rookie, something that I feel like I had last season is confidence, and not to let your confidence waver when you’re making plays or you’re not making plays.
“That’s the most important thing that he’s shown me so far, is that he has confidence coming in, and when things are not always going his way, his confidence is still up. I think that’s the most important thing that he can have right now as a rookie because it’s going to be an up and down year, but as long as his confidence stays up, it’ll end up working out in his favor.”
Even if Jackson gets beat by Cooper a few times on Sunday (he will), he’s not going to hang his head or let it get to him. It’s not going to sabotage his long term future with the franchise. Jackson’s mentality is exactly what you want at the corner position.
This shouldn’t be taken as Jackson should be the full time starter all season. I think he is a better fit for this specific game, but that may not be true every game. Ultimately, I think Jackson and Ryan’s versatility mean that you will see all three on the field together quite a bit this year. Giving a rookie the assignment of covering Amari Cooper in his first NFL game is a tall task, but I think Jackson gives the Titans the best chance to start 1-0.