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Whither Josh Jackson: Is he the secret future at CB or showing signs of regression?

With Kevin King going into the last year of his contract and Josh Jackson still unable to carve out a role, 2020 will bring critical answers about the future of the former 2018 second-round pick.

Josh Jackson showed promise at the end of his rookie season but couldn’t carry it through to Year 2.
| Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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Josh Jackson saw it all the way, a ball outside the numbers without enough zip on it. He drove hard, pushing off his back leg, and by the time was in his hands the scoreboard might as well have lit up because he was making a house call the other way. When the former Green Bay Packers second-round pick landed on the scene two seasons ago, he became a preseason sensation, outplaying Jaire Alexander and looking like the kind of player the NFL overthinks. He was big, instinctive, and an outstanding playmaker, but he was just a touch slow, running 4.5+ at a position that demands stopwatch speed.

Now, with Kevin King entering the last year of his contract coming off an uneven season, Jackson has the chance to prove he’s the future at the position or else risk busting, despite a situation now set up for him to thrive.

As a rookie, excuses were easy. Jackson played mostly zone at Iowa and would be asked to press in man coverage far more often for Mike Pettine. He had the length and demeanor for it, but did he have the polish or the athleticism? He ended up playing far more slot reps than expected, and more than his skillset would warrant. Playing on the boundary as a zone corner would allow him to best succeed, but that’s not where his opportunities had come.

We should be dubious about those claims, however.

The Packers play more zone than you think

According to The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia, the Packers’ defense played even better than even the most effusive headlines, finishing fourth in EPA/dropback out of base and fifth out of nickel. This contributed to their success against the base offensive formation in the NFL (11 personnel with three receivers), where they were sixth.

But we knew they were a quality defensive team last season against opposing passers. A top-10 passing defense by DVOA and a top-5 pressure rate pointed to a team capable of getting stops when they needed it thanks to their secondary and pass rush.

More surprising though, Kapadia found the Packers were actually better in zone coverage last season than man, and significantly so. In fact, they were the fifth-best team in the league last season in zone coverage in EPA/dropback, and used their single-high Cover 3 look the most of any scheme under Pettine’s stewardship.

That leads to a pivotal question: then where is zone ballhawk Jackson? Coming out of Iowa, the theory went that if he went to a zone team, where he could read quarterbacks and make plays on the ball, Jackson could thrive. As a rookie, asked to play more man coverage and even some in the slot, Jackson struggled until late in the year, failing to accomplish even simple tasks like playing the ball in the air. That was supposed to be his wheelhouse.

OK. Rookie struggles.

But between Tramon Williams discovering the fountain of youth and Kevin King finding a way to stay on the field, Jackson became less than an afterthought in 2019. Chandon Sullivan got the reps in dime, proving to be a versatile cornerback but a player without Jackson’s size, playmaking talent, or draft pedigree. Jackson’s injury in the summer opened the door for Sullivan, who kicked it down and lit the door’s archway on fire so no one else could pass. He’s now in line to be the starting slot come Week 1.

Even when King missed time with injury or Jackson got reps late in games, the second-year pro from Iowa struggled. The summer where he outshined first-round pick Jaire Alexander, became a preseason star, and picked off a pass seemingly once an exhibition game evaporated. Where was that Josh Jackson? This version looked more like the one from Dawson’s Creek. If we’re being charitable, maybe Mighty Ducks, but the third one.

Putting Jackson’s talents to use

Jackson’s absence on defense—he did play 51.6% of special teams snaps—may be as simple as Tramon Williams playing great and Kevin King playing well enough. For whatever Pettine and Matt LaFleur say about Jackson’s ability to play the slot, it’s not his best position and particularly if they’re going to play more zone coverage, the boundary screams for Jackson. If the ageless Williams really won’t be back—the Packers could still sign him—it’s possible the solution isn’t as simple as saying “play Chandon Sullivan as the nickel.”

Pettine could slide Jaire Alexander inside where his twitchy, playmaking instincts can shine. Jackson could audition for King’s role in 2021, particularly with King’s free agency looming next offseason, providing the Packers an opportunity to audition King’s replacement. And they’d be getting someone who graduated from Yale drama, not just any random cattle call audition bit player. Jackson’s talent can’t be discounted. He’s still the same guy who outplayed Alexander in rookie camp and training camp of their first season, still the guy who led college football in interceptions and has the kind of ball-hawking ability few players can truly claim in the modern NFL.

If the Packers are going to be a Cover 3 team, playing King opposite Jackson with Alexander in the slot (perhaps even playing the Charles Woodson role where he could be manned up, in zone, lurk, or any number of coverages) presents the most purely talented group of cornerbacks Green Bay could possibly put on the field. Jackson on one side with Alexander on the other and Sullivan in the slot may very well be the most economical, even if King plays well this season.

Can the Packers afford to pay King with the all the risks, even provided his estimable talent? Playing 30 games in three years hardly screams “reliability” but leading the team in interceptions in 2019, including several crucial plays, could be enough to earn him a second contract.

For Jackson, there’s always the option of a move to safety where he can use his rangy, instinctive preternatural ability to read quarterbacks and make plays on the football. A three-safety look with Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, and Jackson puts a hell of a playmaking trio on the field. That’s the backstop for Jackson but not the preference. He’s more valuable as a starting cornerback and, on a rookie deal, offers the Packers a cheaper solution in the short run than King without the same injury baggage.

On the other hand, Jackson’s absence looms conspicuously and ominously over the Packers future plans. If Jackson fails to prove he’s worthy of faith as the starting cornerback, Russ Ball and Brian Gutkunst face a tricky decision over how to handle King’s contract and by extension the position as a whole, threatening to upend the continuity they’ve built, however tenuously.

Alexander, Savage, and Amos look like foundational pieces in this secondary and Sullivan is building a case through assiduous growth. Does Jackson use 2020 as a springboard into that conversation, or will he remain in stasis, landing the Packers back in the market for a starting cornerback in 2021? With so much talent around him and upfront, the answer to that question could very well dictate the degree to which this defense remains good enough to help Aaron Rodgers compete in the final years of his Packers career and whether or not they are in a position to do so once Jordan Love takes over.

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