The Green Bay Packers have yet to receive a substantial return on investment from their second-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Cornerback Josh Jackson was a star and an All-American at Iowa during his senior year, when he played on the boundary in the Hawkeyes’ zone-coverage scheme. Jackson even impressed early in his rookie preseason, making a few big plays including an early pick-six.
But after that first preseason, it has been a tough road for Jackson. As a rookie, he played in every game and started ten, lining up on the field for just over two-thirds of the team’s defensive snaps. However, he was inconsistent, allowing three touchdowns and missing a ton of tackles. 2019 was even more unkind, as the Packers asked him to take snaps at several different positions, focusing on the slot while also working a bit at safety.
However, in a Zoom call on Friday defensive coordinator Mike Pettine revealed that the team has a different plan for Jackson in 2020. “I think maybe before, we asked a lot of him. We were training him at multiple positions because we wanted to make sure we had some depth,” Pettine said. With Chandon Sullivan largely manning the nickel corner spot in training camp, Pettine and company are putting Jackson back at the position where he dominated as a college senior: “We had trained him at nickel whereas this year we’re keeping him at outside.”
Though he does not possess blazing speed, Jackson’s size and physicality have caught Pettine’s eyes and those of defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. Perhaps the biggest challenge, according to Gray, has been for him to dial that back: “(The key is) not to overly muscle guys. You gotta have a little finesse in your game, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Pettine echoed those sentiments, alluding to Jackson’s penalty-prone career thus far: “When he does things right technique-wise, he has good length, he gets his hands on guys, he’s hard to get open against.”
In Pettine’s second season with the Packers in 2019, the team called zone coverages more frequently than they did in 2018, which could play to Jackson’s strengths. According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay used man coverage on just 32 percent of defensive snaps a year ago, good for 17th in the NFL — in other words, about average. That was well below their man coverage rate in 2018, Pettine’s and Jackson’s first year in Green Bay, when the team used man coverage 4th-most of any NFL team.
But despite the team running more zone last fall, Jackson barely cracked 100 snaps, a signal that he could not find a defined role. If he can become at least a capable third outside cornerback, that will be a significant boon to Pettine and the overall depth on defense.
Early indications out of training camp are positive. Jackson has made a number of big plays, as beat writers present at practice have been complimentary of his play so far. He will need to continue stacking up good practices moving forward, but the early returns suggest that a shift back outside full-time may indeed serve him best.
And in turn, that may be where Jackson can serve the Packers best.