Buck Reising, Tennessee Titans reporter and the host of Tackling Music City, discusses why second-year cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is the next player to “make the leap.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the Tennessee Titans, the 2017 NFL season was revelatory in a variety of ways. Chief among these discoveries: a surplus of young talent on the team’s roster that has only begun to show its potential.
The case study for this argument is, of course, safety Kevin Byard, who finished his sophomore campaign tied for the most interceptions (8, 10 total takeaways) in the league and an All-Pro nod. With so many of last year’s draft picks already thrown in as immediate contributors, who from Tennessee’s 2017 class looks most likely to make a Byard-esque leap?
Look no further than cornerback Adoree’ Jackson.
Process of Elimination
When looking at the rest of the Titans selections in Philadelphia, Jackson’s position as the team’s next breakout star seems to be strengthened by the circumstances of those surrounding him.
Receiver Corey Davis (No. 5 overall) went 13 spots ahead of the USC product but could not stay on the field long enough to make an impact for Tennessee. Additionally, Davis’s workload in mandatory mini-camp was reduced due to an undisclosed injury that saw his participation limited. Titans fans salivate at what Davis could do in a new offense under coordinator Matt LaFleur. Until the wide out improves his availability, though, Jackson holds the upper hand.
Third-round receiver Taywan Taylor is the dark horse candidate to surpass Jackson for this nomination, given that a fully healthy quarterback Marcus Mariota, the presence of LaFleur and a friendlier scheme all bode well for a favorable outcome. A new offensive installation , however, gives Taylor a steeper learning curve than Jackson; Taylor started offseason practices acclimating slowly (as did the rest of the offense) but looked to be more comfortable as mini-camp progressed. The same challenges face tight end Jonnu Smith, whose ability to show out will be hindered simply by playing time behind entrenched starter Delanie Walker.
One would imagine that inside linebacker Jayon Brown’s (No. 155 overall) chances for a star turn take a hit with 2018 first-rounder Rashaan Evans’s selection this April. Sixth-round center Corey Levin’s position almost immediately disqualifies him, linebacker Josh Carraway might not make the 53-man roster and tackle Brad Seaton and running back Khalfani Muhammad are not longer with the team.
Jackson’s slighter frame as a rookie (5-foot-10, 186 lbs.) and the perception that his initial contributions would come on special teams allowed for those playing devil’s advocate to intimate that Tennessee’s selection of Jackson at No. 18 overall may have been a reach.
Any doubts were put to rest, though, after Jackson’s baptism by fire under former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
The rookie was on the field for 94.1% of the Titans defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. His 71.4 overall PFF grade through Weeks 1-9 improved by 10.9 grade points over his final 10 games (8 regular season, 2 playoff). Jackson’s 82.3 PFF mark for the season ranked him fifth among rookie defensive backs; a testament to the strength of the players at his position drafted in 2017.
The growth Jackson showed through his first year in Nashville comes as no surprise based on how he developed from a track star into a a legitimate cover corner in his three-year career at Southern Cal.
It’s All About The Fit
One of the top areas of concern Robinson was tasked with addressing when he took over Tennessee’s front office in 2016 was the rebuilding of a much-maligned secondary. Heading into 2018 and through offseason practices, that unit appears to be the Titans greatest strength.
In addition to drafting Jackson, Robinson retooled the defensive backfield with principals Logan Ryan, the aforementioned All-Pro Byard, Johnathan Cyprien, sneaky great depth corners LeShaun Sims, Tye Smith and Kalan Reed, versatile 2018 rookie fifth-round pick Dane Cruikshank and a big-ticket acquisition in free agent Malcolm Butler. New coordinator Dean Pees has plenty of weapons to deploy in a scheme that has historically been one of the hardest to game-plan for in professional football and sufficient talent to create more coverage sacks for a pass rush that finished with the fifth-most in the NFL but was largely inconsistent on a game-by-game basis.
What makes Pees’s defenses so deadly is the ability to disguise coverages pre-snap and confuse opposing signal-callers. With Pees at the helm in 2017, the Baltimore Ravens finished with the most takeaways in the league (33) despite fielding a pedestrian pass rush. Tennessee’s defense under LeBeau played the third-most snaps in man coverage last season (44.4%), according to PFF, because of how often they sent additional rushers. While this strategy did help to increase the number of times the Titans got to the quarterback, the amount of man being played inherently led to a dearth of turnovers (21 TO, tied for 23rd) by everyone in the secondary not named Byard.
If there was one knock on Jackson’s rookie year (excluding special teams foul-ups), it is that one would hope a first-round defensive back would notch more than zero interceptions in a season. Assuming Butler and Jackson play outside with Ryan in the slot, Pees leaving corners on less of a man-coverage island in 2018 should help produce more takeaways for Jackson and the entire Titans secondary.
Tennessee fans yearn for Davis to be the sophomore who takes the next step but one can only work with the evidence that is available to them. And to compare Jackson to Byard would be foolhardy, but the position the young corner has been put in makes the trajectory almost identical. Like Byard, anyone who has been around Jackson cannot help notice the supreme air of confidence that surrounds him; no task appears too insurmountable for the 22-year-old but his play speaks far louder than he does.
All this makes Jackson the Titans best candidate for a star turn in 2018.