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7 plays that defined William Jackson’s 2017 season

Jackson is quickly ascending up the NFL hierarchy of cornerbacks.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It took the Bengals nearly a decade, but they seem to have found a new, and possibly better version of Johnathan Joseph.

Ever since Joseph departed for Houston and cheaper Gatorade, the Bengals have salvaged at the very least serviceable play from a variety of seasoned vets on cheap contracts.

Nate Clements was the first in 2011, and Terence Newman replaced him in 2012, kickstarting the resurgence of his career at the ripe age of 34. A year later in 2013, Newman began to share the field with Adam Jones, who was bumped up to the starting lineup after joining the team in 2010.

Two years later, Jones had fully revived his career and played his best football ever in 2015 across from 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, who began to show signs of competence.

But they knew Jones wouldn’t be a long-term option; so with Joseph’s former running-mate Leon Hall heading out the door, along with 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Dennard still struggling after two years, they felt the need to dip back in the first-round at the position in 2016.

At last, enter William Jackson III.

The expectations for Jackson were higher than the ones set for Kirkpatrick and Dennard mainly for two reasons: The praise head coach Marvin Lewis had for him in the 2016 offseason was, and more importantly, Jackson being a superior cornerback entering the league than either of them.

For starters, he had the production. Being an integral cog in the 13-1 Houston Cougars 2015 squad, Jackson lead the nation in passes defended with 23 to go along with a team-leading five interceptions.

Jackson had the physical tools. Measuring in at 6-0, 189 pounds, he blazed a 4.37 40 yard dash and a 6.86 3-cone at the combine and his pro day respectively. Last offseason, I wrote about these two times put Jackson in good company and after he missed all of his rookie season with a torn pectoral, that athleticism was on full display.

But while being a great athlete is typically a prerequisite of being a great cornerback, it is not the only one. It’s rare for first-year players to perform at a high level at the position, even more so now with all the rule changes that has benefited passing offenses substantially.

But that’s exactly what Jackson did, even though he still showed some warts in his craft. I went through his film and picked out seven plays that seem to tell the story of Jackson’s first season.

The two abilities that Jackson showed the NFL world he had plenty of were recovery/closing speed and ball skills. Most of the best plays he made and the plays in this article feature these two attributes.

Here against Antonio Brown, he stays with the deep over route and just as the pass from Ben Roethlisberger is about to reach Brown, Jackson extends his right arm and swats away the throw.

A fairly noticeable struggle of Jackson was how uncomfortable he was playing close to the line of scrimmage. He would completely sell out for the vertical threat in complete retreat mode because he never bothered to utilize any press or catch coverage technique.

On this play, he is completely turned around by Brown, but that speed and those ball skills can bail you out in serious ways. For most corners, the only way they can disrupt this catch is by also warranting a flag. Jackson is able to get around Brown’s backside and somehow still make a play on the ball.

Getting burned by a T.Y. Hilton isn’t the focal point of this play, as it’s not an uncommon occurrence for the pro bowl receiver to make a fool of a corner playing off coverage on a double move.

Jackson gets destroyed but that acceleration keeps him in the play. Thankfully, Jacoby Brissett throws an underthrown ball and Jackson catches up to Hilton to break up the long throw.

How many cornerbacks can get in the way between a Roethlisberger-Brown back shoulder fade?

Jackson’s hand usage got so much better as the year went on and his feel for routes improved because of it. When you can stay with routes and keep your hands on the receiver without being grabby or warranting a flag, you can disrupt all the timing of the route and play the ball like the receiver.

He doesn’t even turn his head back to Roethlisberger until Brown does and still has the reaction time to get his hand in the way.

The yin and yang of Jackson in one play. Brown once again gets Jackson on his heels off the release to the nine route because of Jackson’s passiveness with his hands. Because of this, he allows Brown to get inside leverage and is in a near-impossible position to make a play on a properly placed pass.

The ball couldn’t have been put in a better spot, and it didn’t matter. How Jackson was able to juggle the pigskin out of Brown’s chest with barely one outstretched hand over Brown’s shoulder is nothing short of incredible.

It gets harder and harder to comprehend how Jackson is able to get his hands on some of these throws when it looks like the receiver has total positional advantage at the catch point, but this is what Jackson does best.

At the top of the route, he does a superb job of disrupting but not impeding the break inside, works his way behind the route and times his attack perfectly for the break up.

The reason why you want to watch film from the beginning of the season to the end is because you can just tell what progress and development look like. He does a good job of getting hands on the route and creating space for himself to work off any potential breaks, looks back to read Joe Flacco’s eyes at the top of the route, and uses that closing speed to make a play on the ball.

Jackson’s 2017 campaign was even better on paper than it was on tape, which is why the folks at Pro Football Focus are so enamored with him. On Monday, PFF revealed the first part of their top 50 players in the NFL.

Not only did Jackson made the list at the 42nd spot, he was ranked 8 spots higher than Bengals pro bowl receiver A.J. Green. This praise is so extraordinary for Jackson that we may have to question if it’s been fully earned.

Jackson wasn’t perfect, there are still areas of his game that are rough and they were to be expected of a player that hadn’t played football in over a year and a half. But his development path is on a much more promising course than Kirkpatrick and Dennard’s were, even though Jackson is significantly older than those two entering year 3.

The Bengals haven’t had a cornerback on the boundary this talented since Joseph. And while I wouldn’t say he’s at the top of the league at his position like PFF would tell you, there’s little reason why he won’t be in the coming years.