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William Jackson proved his long-term value with the best season of any Bengals CB in years

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The Bengals’ 2016 first-round pick had a fantastic season despite starting only five games, and the team’s new defensive coordinator should focus on featuring him as a lockdown corner.

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While the Bengals’ 2017 season was very frustrating, and ended with head coach Marvin Lewis getting rewarded with a two-year extension, the play of the team’s young guys has been encouraging. And in 2017, nobody performed better than William Jackson III when given the chance. His (essentially) rookie campaign was one for the ages, and hopefully it is only the start to a great career.

The redshirt rookie had one of the best seasons for a Bengals cornerback in recent time, according to ProFootballFocus.com, showing that if he’s not there already, he’s on track to becoming a true shutdown corner for Cincinnati very soon.

The former Cougar only started in five games, but left his mark everytime he played and ended 2017 with the third most snaps played among the secondary and seventh overall on defense. On any other team he might not have gone back to the bench after the first start of his career against the Steelers in the Bengals’ Week 7 matchup, but in Cincinnati had to wait until the veterans on the team got injured, despite locking down star wide receiver Antonio Brown one-on-one. It wasn’t the first time the Bengals had decided to keep him waiting though, as they went with Cedric Peerman last year when they had to pick one player to return from Injured Reserve.

Jackson was a silver lining for a Bengals team that missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year after making the postseason for five straight seasons from 2011-2015. He didn’t play much until the Week 7 Steelers game, but already announced himself to the world with a pick six off Aaron Rodgers in Week 3 - only the second one in Rodgers’ 13-year career. Then he shut down Brown and clearly proved why he was a first-round pick in 2016.

When in primary coverage against Brown, Jackson did not allow a catch on four targets and had three passes defensed. When Ben Roethlisberger targeted Jackson in coverage, he only had a 39.6 passer rating. Jackson kept it going and recorded the fifth-lowest passer rating against for outside corners since 2006 at 36.1.

It’s not that playing WJIII earlier this season would have saved the Bengals, but when following injuries to Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones he took over as a starter, he looked dominant. He was the most exciting player for Cincinnati in the last four games of the season, including an especially fantastic performance against the Lions in Week 16 to kick them out of the playoff race. Jackson ended up with three passes defended in that matchup, including this beauty in the endzone.

The 25-year-old corner has shown he’s got the speed, athleticism, ball skills and instincts to be the Bengals’ number one cornerback for years to come. And opposing quarterbacks have noticed it too, as Jackson had the most coverage snaps per reception allowed in the NFL since the 2014 season, and the 12th-most cover snaps per target, meaning passers rarely look his way, and when they did they very rarely got a completion. He had the least amount of yards per coverage snap since 2014 as well. WJIII was incredible all over the field, but also stepped up his game big time in the red zone.

And against star competition...

Jackson’s rise gives the Bengals’ defense a lot of possibilities going forward. For the past few years, the Paul Guenther-led unit had mostly played zone coverage and had also shied away from blitzing often. The presence of a true elite corner who can lock down opposing number one receivers will allow Teryl Austin, the Bengals’ new defensive coordinator to deploy more aggressive schemes - which in turn could help the defensive line as well.

In a three-game stretch against Bears, Vikings and Lions, Jackson only allowed eight yards in coverage, and didn’t give up a catch against Minnesota and Detroit. It’s easy to wonder why the Bengals didn’t give him a chance earlier on during the season. It’s true that WJIII had four defensive pass interference penalties called against him in the first five weeks of the season, but he cleaned it up and didn’t get any the rest of the way.

Other than the rookie mistake of allowing Le’Veon Bell to go untouched for a touchdown on Monday Night Football (due to being afraid of an unnecessary roughness penalty) Jackson has played like a star.

Now it is only a matter of whether Austin gives Jackson the keys to the secondary and if the Bengals finally let Adam Jones go this offseason. No other cornerback(s) since the Bengals’ duo of Leon Hall-Johnathan Joseph in the past decade have been as exciting for this franchise as Jackson. If you need a reason to be excited about the Bengals in 2018, make no mistake about it, Jackson is it.

*All data from PFF.