The Packers have changed their defense drastically over this offseason. They addressed the pass rush and pass coverage with free-agent signings in Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Adrion Amos, as well as in the draft with Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage. The Packers also have a talented young core of cornerbacks led by 2018 standout Jaire Alexander.
Alexander has generated a lot of buzz over the course of last season and this offseason as a potential breakout star for the Packers’ defense. Alexander has a lot of skills that will push him in that direction, and his game against the Los Angeles Rams showed he is capable of being a shutdown corner.
However, the Packers also have another young ballhawk corner that is not getting the buzz he deserves this offseason. Josh Jackson, second-year corner from Iowa, is poised for a breakout year, and here is why.
Jackson was a potential first-round pick in the 2018 draft but fell to the second round where the Packers took him with the 18th pick. Jackson came into the league with high hopes after leading the NCAA in interceptions in 2017 and came to a team that struggled with pass coverage. Jackson played in a crowded secondary last season. The Packers had veteran Tramon Williams, second-year corner Kevin King, Braushad Breeland, Jaire Alexander, and Josh Jackson, all fighting for snaps this past season.
Even in a crowded backfield, Jackson earned significant playing time with 67.4% of snaps. With Kevin King being plagued by injuries during his young, two-year career and Tramon Williams moving to safety, Jackson was able to start 10 games and gain valuable experience. Jackson played 19.9% of his snaps in the slot which was the second-most on the team behind Breeland who played 26.5%. With the departure of Breeland to the Chiefs and Kevin King coming into what is hoped to be a healthy season, Josh Jackson will be relied on heavily to line up on slot receivers.
Jackson and Alexander were two of the most used corners for the Packers last season. Jackson defended 315 routes last season only led by Alexander who defended 365. Their numbers of routes defended are very similar, but one number that isn’t similar is targets allowed. Alexander allowed 97 targets for a target rate of 26.6%, while Jackson only allowed 71 targets for a target rate of 22.5%. Jackson didn’t only allow fewer targets, but also fewer receptions. Quarterbacks only completed 41 receptions for 531 yards and 0 touchdowns to receivers when Jackson was defending compared to Alexander’s 62 receptions for 908 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The difference in these numbers can be traced back to two reasons. One, Alexander played 42 more snaps than Jackson, so naturally, there will be more targets and potential for his receiver to score. The second, and probably the biggest reason, is Alexander was the Packers number one corner this past year when King was injured, so he was covering teams top receivers. Alexander was responsible for stopping Julio Jones, Adam Thielen, Brandon Cooks, and Julian Edelman last season. Those are the top receivers in the league, so as a rookie, Alexander is going to give up yards and touchdowns.
Even though Jackson was not the top corner for the Packers last season, he still faced top receivers. In week two against the Vikings, 50.7% of Jackson’s snaps were defending Adam Thielen who only managed two receptions for 31 yards. In week 12 Jackson spent 82.6% of his snaps on Stefon Diggs only giving up 2 receptions on 5 targets for 35 yards. One of his best performances came in week 14 against the Falcons where 61.8% of his snaps came against Mohamed Sanu. Jackson allowed 4 receptions on 7 targets for only 23 yards. He also had two pass break-ups in the game as well. Jackson faced tough competition and did not give up a single touchdown or 100-yard game.
Jackson comes into this season with a lot to prove. Fans and the media are high on Jaire Alexander for obvious reasons, but seem to be forgetting the talent Jackson brings to the field.
Jackson was 16th in the league and led the Packers on yard separation between him and the receiver with .82 yards per target which allowed him to record 10 pass breakups. He puts himself in a great position to make a play on the ball which is exactly why he led the NCAA in interceptions in 2017.
With an improved Packers defensive line, quarterbacks will have less time in the pocket which means more opportunities for a ballhawk like Jackson and a talented Packers secondary.
Look for Josh Jackson to capitalize on the Packers new pass rush and overtake Alexander as the Packers breakout corner in 2019.