Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said before the draft that adding speed was a priority at wide receiver and in the secondary. After drafting D.J Moore in the first round, Carolina addressed the secondary by drafting LSU defensive back Donte Jackson in the second round.
Jackson’s 4.32 40 speed immediately stands out, but he tested well in the explosive drills too. He posted a 37 inch vertical and 10.33 inch broad. His SPARQ testing was in the 68.6th percentile.
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda utilized Jackson’s versatility all over the secondary. Jackson’s best work came in the slot. According to PFF, Jackson allowed no touchdowns and a passer rating of 50.7 from this position. According to Seth Galina of SB Nation’s And The Valley Shook, Aranda played a ton of man coverage last year. LSU would have their safeties lined up two deep prior to the snap, but one would eventually rotate to cover the slot in man coverage. While watching Jackson’s film, I noticed he was primarily tasked with executing this assignment.
“We talk about intermixing skill sets, well now we have a guy like Donte, we have Kevon who can run, we have the big corners with Bradberry and Ross Cockrell – a bunch of guys,” Hurney said. “We have created a lot of competition at that spot.”
As an outside corner, Jackson allowed two touchdowns and an 80.7 passer rating. For a better idea of his strengths, flaws, and fit let’s dive into Jackson’s film.
You would prefer a good-sized cornerback, but fortunately they have come in all sizes. Some of the best coverage men have been extremely small and dwarfed by their wide receivers and still were able to cover because of quickness, explosion and anticipation.
These are the traits hall of fame coach Bill Walsh searches for in cornerback prospects. Jackson has all three traits, but in man and zone his anticipation to pick up on route concepts stand out.
LSU DB Donte Jackson with the read/react skills to jump on Kirk's underneath route. pic.twitter.com/o10olXBDav— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) February 27, 2018
Jackson rotates into the slot to match with 2nd round wide receiver Christian Kirk. Kirk runs a short hitch route, but Jackson picks up on the route and immediately tackles the receiver to limit any yards after the catch.
Jackson is lined up as the deep middle third safety. Arkansas is running a version of a hi-lo hitch concept. The slot receiver breaks his route at 10 yards. but Jackson anticipates the route just before the quarterback winds up. He sinks his hips and accelerates quickly to break up the pass.
Ole Miss attempts to get the ball in AJ Brown's hands on a quick out. Jackson snuffs out the route and lays a strong tackle pic.twitter.com/lSowrX4DJq— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Jackson lines up in the slot to the trips side. LSU is in zone coverage, so Jackson has to keep his eyes on the quarterback before the snap. He reads the eyes while also glancing at the route development. Jackson shows off all three of Walsh’s traits on this play. He anticipates the route, quickly breaks on the ball, and explodes to land a clean hit.
Donte Jackson only had one interception in 2017, but he displayed strong ball skills.
Not concerned about his ability to challenge at catch point, but he really should be making simple interceptions like this. pic.twitter.com/LFi6lycnG9— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
While the cliche about cornerbacks having poor hands is somewhat accurate, there should still be expectations to come down with easy interceptions. Towards the end of the Auburn game, Jackson had an opportunity to run back a pick six. He dropped a clean ball.
Ball underthrown, but this was an awesome interception by Jackson. Keeps his outside leverage, then dives in front of Kirk for the pick pic.twitter.com/gVQjkYkUou— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) February 27, 2018
Despite his poor hands, Jackson did come down with a special interception against Texas A&M. He gets matched up with Christian Kirk. Jackson flips his hips from inside to outside leverage before jumping in front of the throw. This is where his athleticism shows up.
Jackson in the slot to trips side. Stays within hip pocket of WR on scramble drill. Plays through the ball for a PD pic.twitter.com/r4QE10dCIo— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Once the quarterback begins his scramble, Jackson is quick to accelerate to stay within arm’s length of the receiver. Here’s where his ball skills show up. He high points the ball while running at full speed.
Jackson in the slot at top of screen. Outside leverage, but breaks on the ball once WR stems inside pic.twitter.com/QMbPoOcGhs— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Jackson is in the slot, but he’s playing outside leverage in zone coverage. He reads the route, breaks, and makes a clean play on the ball. The interception production isn’t there, but if he’s preventing big plays that’s good enough for now.
Why his height shouldn’t worry you
Donte Jackson’s size was a question mark according to many draft analysts. I was worried about his frame too, but my concerns were alleviated after watching his film.
“He does a lot to overcome his size with how competitive he is,” Beathard explained. “He’s a tough kid. He’s aggressive, he’ll come downhill on run fits, he doesn’t shy away. He’ll compete to get off blocks. With a kid his size, he’s got to do those things to show you he can play at this level.
Jackson’s performance against Ole Miss stood out in this regard. For much of the game he was facing A.J Brown who is expected to be one of the best wide receiver prospects in the 2019 class. Ole Miss’ athletics website has Brown listed at 6’1 225 pounds, so he is certainly no slouch.
Donte Jackson lines up as the split safety to the near side. Matches with AJ Brown in the slot. Stays square, but with low center of gravity. Makes a clean break on the ball. pic.twitter.com/eR3Bd5p5PE— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Jackson doesn’t interfere with Brown, but uses his length to break on the pass. Brown is physically bigger and stronger, but Jackson is a fierce competitor.
Jackson again faces AJ Brown at top of screen. Lines up in off coverage with inside leverage. Jackson stays on top of his route, then flips his hips to challenge the ball at the catch point. Incomplete pic.twitter.com/7gCZpb5olA— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Jackson has inside leverage against Brown. Brown runs a deep corner route, but Jackson stays patient on his feet to continue carrying the route. The quarterback throws a jump ball and Jackson challenges Brown at the catch point.
Jackson against Brown in the slot to trips side. Brown runs a crosser, but Jackson stays on his hip pocket the entire time. Good coverage pic.twitter.com/kja9lbYxz8— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Jackson doesn’t allow Brown to separate when he extends his arm to stem towards the sideline. Jackson stays within the hip pocket of the receiver and then shows his strength to play through the ball to force a pass breakup.
Footwork at top of routes
One area where Jackson has to improve is to read the footwork of receivers. He gets caught off balance when he’s force to quickly change direction. Jackson didn’t complete any agility drills at the combine or his pro day, so the tape is the only way to rely on this trait.
Jackson lines up off cov vs Calvin Ridley. Ridley sells his route inside before cutting outside, which catches Jackson off balance. Fortunate the QB didn't notice pic.twitter.com/VxCZr4AkFn— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) May 1, 2018
Jackson matches with Calvin Ridley. Ridley starts his route inside. He drops his weight to sell his route before cutting outside. As a result Jackson gets caught off balance. He gets fortunate that the quarterback doesn’t target Ridley.
Kirk gets Jackson on this double move. Pretty throw and catch too. pic.twitter.com/TESAKVggzV— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) February 27, 2018
Ball doesn't go his way, but this was a pretty cut by Kirk to catch Donte Jackson off balance imo pic.twitter.com/mks9RBc6Jm— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) February 27, 2018
Christian Kirk exposed Jackson’s footwork on these two routes. The first route is a double move, which causes Jackson to commit underneath. Kirk explodes past him, but Jackson does recover. The damage is already done as that half step allows Kirk to haul in the long reception. The second route has Kirk use an outside jab step outside the hash before stemming downfield on a post. The outside step causes Jackson to get off balance.
Fit on the Panthers defense
Jackson has experience at safety, slot corner, and outside corner, but I anticipate him being used primarily at corner. I expect the Panthers to continue to install more pattern matching concepts within their zone schemes. Jackson won’t be asked to man up on Mike Evans, Michael Thomas, or Julio Jones. He has the instincts, speed, and competitiveness to match with slot and Z wide receivers like DeSean Jackson, Mohamed Sanu, and Ted Ginn.
He has to clean up his footwork at the top of routes and come down with easy interceptions, but his toughness will compensate for his lack of size. I graded Jackson as a day 1 starter. The Panthers did well to grab him in the 2nd round.