While most Cincinnati Bengals fans will likely only remember 2017 as a season of disappointment, there were several positive developments of note as well.
The most significant of these might be the lights-out play of 2016 first-round pick William Jackson III. For a franchise that has taken so many first-round corners without a true hit in recent memory, Jackson is showing all the signs of a shutdown corner that the franchise can rely on for years to come.
It didn’t take long for Jackson to make his first big impression in 2017. After spending 2016 on injured reserve, Jackson was given limited snaps in the first two games of the year. With the Bengals 0-2 and facing a hot Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay team, he was able to give Cincinnati the spark they needed when they needed it.
Using his elite ball skills, the former Houston Cougar is able to jump his man’s route and return a Rodgers pass 75 yards the other way for a Bengals touchdown.
Sure, Cincinnati ended up losing the game in overtime, but this was the play that put the Bengals in a position to win that game to begin with.
At 6-feet tall and 190 pounds with a 4.37 40-yard dash, the prototypical corner had the physical attributes alone to warrant a first-round grade. But it was Jackson’s instinct and ability to play the ball in the air that made him special. He’s proven able to do it all year when given the opportunity.
Big plays in big situations
One of the most essential plays for a boundary corner to make is covering the end-zone fade. Some guys just aren’t capable of doing it. It often involves being isolated against a larger receiver and having to recover and make a play on the ball without interfering with the offensive player. It’s no easy task, but Jackson makes it seem like nothing.
Jackson does an even better job of running the route than the receiver, and ends up in a position to almost intercept a DeShone Kizer pass. He isn’t fooled by the offensive player’s footwork and moves to the corner while boxing out the receiver and showing his chest to the quarterback.
The corner also showed a nose for getting to the quarterback when asked and was able to pounce of Marcus Mariota for a sack against the Titans.
Jackson does a great job of coming off the edge quickly and bringing the quarterback down. I would say this sack is mostly a great call by Paul Guenther, but it still takes a certain amount of skill to make sure to wrap up an elusive player like Mariota.
The athleticism, instincts, and big play ability is all there for the 25-year-old defender, so where does his career go from here?
No matter who is coaching or providing input to the Bengals in 2018, Jackson has shown he’s ready for a starting role. Adam Jones is 34 and still playing well, and the team paid Dre Kirkpatrick last offseason, but neither of them will be able to deny Jackson a starting spot next year.
The most likely scenario will be to cut Jones, who will save the Bengals $6 million dollars against the cap which can be used to target some free agency talent, particularly along the offensive line.
So far, the only thing bad about William Jackson’s game so far is he isn’t being given enough snaps to show it off, and I believe anyone still doubting Jackson’s ability needs to look no further than his performance against Antonio Brown.
Bengals versus Steelers is a very emotional NFL rivalry, but the numbers do a great enough job speaking for themselves, and it’s a battle Jackson wins convincingly.
William Jackson III vs. Antonio Brown this season— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 6, 2017
Antonio Brown is the league’s leading receiver, and Jackson has denied him a single catch in eight attempts. You can’t blame Ben Roethlisberger either, since Jackson has had to physically break up four of those would-be receptions himself.
If the young defensive back can handle the receiver with the best stats in the league, how does he fair against the other talent in the league?
Unsurprisingly, he does very well.
Through Week 13, Jackson has had some insane numbers. Per PFF, Jackson allowed 0.67 yards per coverage snap (good for third in the league), was second in allowed passer rating with 41.4, and was fifth in coverage snaps per reception with 17.8.
The last number is the most impressive for me. Jackson is only allowing a catch once every 18 times he drops back in coverage. That’s insane. It means that not only is he showing tremendous coverage skills, but also that quarterbacks are staying away from throwing his direction.
Overall, Jackson has a PFF grade of 87.0, which is good for 15th in the NFL.
With limited opportunities, William Jackson has shown that he has what it takes to be not only the Bengals premier corner, but one of the league’s premier corners as well.
In a season with not many hopeful things to talk about, the young defender from Houston, Texas is giving the Queen City a reason to smile. The best is yet to come.