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Evaluating Adoree’ Jackson as a potential breakout star for the Titans 2019 defense

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Taking a deeper look at where the former USC star has been and where he might be going.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 NFL season is setting up to be a critical season for many Titans players for one reason or another. Some are fighting for a roster spot, some are fighting for a contract extension, and others are fighting to finally breakthrough as stars at their respective positions.

Most of those players — Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, Corey Davis, and Jack Conklin among others — have been talked about ad nauseam over the past five months, but there is one Titan who is seemingly flying under the radar when it comes to fan and media hand wringing: Adoree’ Jackson.

After two years in Tennessee, what Jackson is or isn’t is still largely a mystery. He’s played some offense, some special teams, and lots of defense for the Titans while logging an absurd 2,317 snaps in his first two seasons, but it’s somehow still tough to really know what the team has in the former USC corner.

As an infrequently used offensive weapon in his rookie season, Jackson showed some flashes of the ability with the ball in his hands that made him one of the most electric two-way players in college football, but that elusiveness has somehow failed to translate to his punt return duties where he’s averaged just 8.8 yards per return over his first two seasons (though there have been a few long returns called back due to penalties over the past couple years that would have made these numbers look much better).

As a corner, he’s run hot and cold, putting the clamps on Josh Gordon one game and then getting torched by T.Y. Hilton the next.

His stats show a solid, but not spectacular cover man:

  • 2017: 68 catches allowed on 120 targets (56.7%) for 701 yards, 5 touchdowns allowed, 0 interceptions, 17 passes broken up, and 8 penalties against
  • 2018: 66 catches allowed on 105 targets (62.9%) for 823 yards, 5 touchdowns allowed, 2 interceptions, and 7 passes broken up, and 2 penalties against

On one hand, seeing targets and penalties drop while interceptions go up is promising (and it’s not as if Jackson’s interceptions were cheap ones either as we will take a look at below). On the other hand, seeing completion percentage allowed and yards allowed go up while passes broken up drops is unsettling.

Judging a corner simply by the statistics credited to “their coverage” can be misleading. There are situations where a corner is executing his job perfectly, but the offense has the right play call dialed up. There are other times when a corner gets roasted, but the ball is overthrown or thrown to another player.

It’s also true that a corner that is truly excelling at their job is targeted less often than his colleagues. If you look at PFF’s Yards Per Coverage Snap — a simple metric taking yards allowed and dividing by the total number of snaps that player was in coverage — Jackson ranked 74th out of 81 qualifying cornerbacks in 2018, showing that teams were not afraid to challenge the Titans corner frequently throughout the season.

One aspect of his game that Jackson has clearly excelled at over his first two seasons as a pro is tackling. He ranked seventh among corners in tackling efficiency as measured by PFF, missing just 4 tackles in 2018 on 68 attempts while chipping in 19 stops (a tackle resulting in a failure for the offense). His tackling and ability to provide support in the run game has been a nice surprise, even if his coverage skills are ultimately what will make or break his career.

Tennessee Titans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The tape largely confirms what the numbers suggest — that Jackson is extremely talented, but inconsistent at this point in his career. There are certainly no questions about the physical skills that he possesses. Jackson’s elite top end speed is the first thing that jumps off the screen as demonstrated here in a play the Titans defense would likely prefer to forget.

Jackson (spotlighted) is stumbling off a block at the start of the clip below, but still manages to close a seven yard gap on Lamar Miller — whose best asset is his combine tested 4.40 speed — nearly catching him at the goal line. Adoree’ was timed at 4.42 seconds in the forty at the combine before the 2017 NFL Draft, but as the clip below suggests, that time likely sells his true speed short. Jackson isn’t just football fast, he’s track fast, as evidenced by his second place finish in the 100 Meter Dash at the 2016 Pac-12 Track & Field Championships.

NFL Game Pass

Sprinting wasn’t Jackson’s best track event though. He just missed qualifying for the 2016 United States Olympic Team in the Long Jump and that leaping ability allows Jackson to make plays like this interception against Houston in Week 2. Despite his relatively average height for an NFL corner at 5’-10”, Jackson is able to compete against taller receivers thanks to his ability to get vertical.

Jackson’s athleticism allows him the ability to matchup with nearly any NFL receiver. Jakeem Grant might be the NFL’s fastest player — he has been clocked “officially” at 4.34, but there are some that claim to have timed him at a mind-boggling 4.12 at Texas Tech’s pro day in 2016 — Jackson has no issue staying in Grant’s hip pocket on this 9-route. Even better than the speed on display from the Titans corner is the detail work towards the end of the play as Jackson leans into Grant and squeezes him towards the sideline, making it impossible for the receiver to get to the pass and allowing Kevin Byard the space to nearly come away with a diving interception.

Jackson’s ability to mirror the movements of his opponent are elite. He never fears a receiver running by him because he trusts his speed and that allows him to be a little more aggressive in his positioning, closing windows for quarterbacks as he shows on this back shoulder attempt to Josh Gordon here.

Obviously, this is just a camp rep, but you can see Jackson’s elite match and mirror ability really well here as he puts the clamps on one of the league’s quickest receivers in DeSean Jackson.

Jackson’s game against the Patriots was the best of his pro career. Say what you want about Gordon’s ability in 2018 after multiple suspensions and issues with controlled substances kept him out of football for a chunk of his prime, but he was coming off a 5-catch, 130-yard performance that included a 55-yard touchdown catch against Green Bay in the week before facing Jackson and the Titans. In Tennessee, he was held to just 4 catches and 81 yards on a whopping 12 targets, yielding a very poor 6.75 yards per target.

Jackson was the player that deserved the most credit for shutting down Gordon and the New England passing attack. On throws into his coverage, the Patriots were 4 of 11 for just 48 yards on the afternoon.

Unfortunately, he followed up that sterling performance with a disastrous one the very next week in Indianapolis, getting roasted for 10 catches on 11 targets for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns while also giving up a big defensive pass interference penalty. Those numbers were so gaudy that removing that game from Jackson’s 2018 stats drops his season long passer rating against from 95.1 to 82.4.

It was a very bad day at the office, but when you look at the tape there are a few things that worked against Jackson that were outside of his control. For one, the big bomb to T.Y. Hilton that really highlighted Jackson’s rough outing appears to be — at least partially — a rare mistake from Byard.

Based on the fact that both Jackson (the corner on the near side of the field) and Logan Ryan (the corner on the far side) invite inside releases from the receivers, I think we can safely assume this is a Cover 3 call on defense. That would mean that Jackson would expect help from Byard in the middle on any in-breaking route or a deep post like the one Hilton runs here. Byard gets caught biting on the play fake and that leaves Jackson out-leveraged against the post. His speed nearly allows him to get back in the play, but Andrew Luck’s pass hits his receiver in stride and Jackson is left to chase Hilton into the end zone.

The second touchdown he allowed wasn’t exactly terrible coverage either. This time he reads the slant route and quickly cuts it off, but Andrew Luck is able to buy time by stepping up in the pocket and then hit an improvising Hilton on a perfectly placed back shoulder throw. Hilton isn’t really open at any point during this route, but a good throw from Luck and a good adjustment by Hilton wins the rep despite a good effort from Jackson. Sometimes a corner does everything right and still loses. It’s the nature of the position.

However, it’s not fair to absolve Jackson of all blame in that Colts game. After all, even if you erase that 68-yard strike from his record, Adoree’ still allowed over 100 yards and a touchdown in the contest.

Jackson has all the tools to be an elite level NFL cornerback and he’s still just 23 years old, just a few months older than the Colts 2019 second round draft pick Rock Ya-Sin. The one aspect of his game that seems to be holding him back from becoming a Pro Bowl level player is the mental side of things. At times, Jackson can be just a beat late recognizing a pattern combination or route and that slight delay can get him beat.

Here’s an example of that from Week 1 last season. Jackson is late to recognize the slant-flat combination, following Jakeem Grant inside for just a step which is all Kenny Stills needs to get the angle on him.

The good news is that it sounds like Jackson recognizes that weakness in his game and is taking steps to improve during this offseason as he told ESPN’s Turron Davenport recently.

“Physically, I will take my tangibles over anybody. I mean every athlete will say that,” Jackson said Tuesday after practice. “I am trying to better myself mentally. It’s something that has always been in my mind. I want to be better. I have to figure out what I don’t do well and how I can do it better to help myself, this secondary, the defense, and it will trickle down.”

Davenport mentions that Jackson has made a habit of getting to the facility earlier and taking advantage of sharing a position room with one of the smartest corners in the NFL in Logan Ryan. Ryan’s study habits are legendary dating back to his time in New England.

“He has it all the time,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said of Ryan and his tablet. “Everywhere he goes. Everywhere he goes. Carrying the baby with this hand, iPad in the other. When he’s in the tub, he’s always got the iPad. Getting worked on in the training room, he’s got the iPad. We’re in the meal room, he’s got the iPad. I swear he doesn’t leave that iPad. I think he probably thinks of his iPad like it’s his wallet or something. But he’s a real student of the game, and he challenges me each and every day to get better.”

Those habits are the reason you will see him making plays like the one below. Ryan sees a familiar look late in the Bills game on 3rd and 5. The Titans are in man coverage here, but Ryan recognizes the play pre-snap, communicates a switch with his teammates, and then jumps the flat route, blowing up the read and forcing Josh Allen to run into a sack by Jayon Brown. Ryan gets zero credit statistically for this play, but he’s the reason the defense gets off the field here.

Jackson’s offseason emphasis on sharpening his mental game combined with a Titans starting secondary and defensive coaching staff that returns 100% intact from the 2018 season should bode well for a jump in play this fall.

If Adoree’ Jackson is able to combine his elite quick twitch athleticism with the heady play that Logan Ryan brings every Sunday that would make him one of the league’s premier cover men. When you’re looking for break out candidates on the Titans defense, don’t sleep on Jackson.