Free Agent Profile: Kareem Jackson
Cornerback is one of those positions that takes some getting used to in the NFL. Typically rookie corners struggle and grade below the league average before slowly developing and hitting their stride by their third season.
For some corners the initial struggle can be much worse than just below average, and it can take them even longer for the light to go on, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t become fine players. Unfortunately for the team that drafts them, it might just be in the final year of their contract, rendering that first round pick something of a waste.
That might be how the Houston Texans feel right now about Kareem Jackson, the 20th pick overall in the 2010 draft.
Jackson has been beaten for a passer rating of well over 100 in three of his five NFL seasons. His third year was arguably his best as a pro back in 2012 and he allowed just 51 catches on 107 targets (47.7%) and a passer rating of 69.6 on those plays.
He was still beaten for five touchdowns (something we’ll come back to), but he had four picks and 15 passes defensed. That season he had become a fine cover corner.
The following season saw an unexpected slump back down in performance. He gave up 42 catches on 70 targets (60.0%), surrendered six touchdowns, didn’t pick off a pass and was beaten for a passer rating of 106.5 when targeted. It was looking as if Jackson might just never quite get it.
Last year, though, was far more like his 2012 campaign. He allowed 42 catches from 71 targets (59.2%), but was beaten for just 10.7 yards a catch despite a 61-yarder in there from week three against the Giants. He surrendered three scored but also notched three picks and was beaten for a passer rating of 74.1 by opposing quarterbacks.
The book on Jackson is that he has become a very good corner, but a guy who still occasionally gets beaten badly on plays. I was curious enough about that to work up a tape of every significant negative grade he had earned in coverage over the past two seasons and see if I could discern a pattern to his struggles. Was there a specific flaw in his game, a certain type of play he was always beaten with, or were they more random than that?
What I saw actually reassured me far more about his overall coverage ability.
For the most part you saw Jackson in very close coverage, but he would occasionally cross the line in terms of physicality, getting a little too grabby or a little too physical in man coverage. This isn’t ideal, and in these plays it cost him penalties, but I’d far prefer to see a guy flirting with the line than somebody just getting roasted in coverage and never getting the chance to get hands on a receiver.
There were a couple of those plays that I think given a kinder officiating crew he wouldn’t have been flagged for at all, and a couple more that were extremely tight calls on deep passes.
Take this play as an example.
Jackson gives up a huge pass interference penalty, but it’s a really close call. He gets hung out to dry by Shilo Keo biting badly on play action and leaving a big gap in behind him. Jackson reads the route well and runs with the receiver down field before attacking the only angle he can to make a play on the ball with the correct hand.
There was certainly contact on the play, but was it interference? The officials certainly thought so, but I’ve seen this play let go before. The point though was that it wasn’t terrible coverage despite the terrible outcome.
What else was on that tape? Well, there were a couple of mental mistakes, including one where multiple members of the Houston defense goofed, allowing an uncovered receiver to walk in for a touchdown. This was as much a failing of communication in the secondary as it was any significant failing of Jackson’s.
There were other legitimate poor coverage plays there too, but nothing that struck me as indicative of a major flaw in his game. He slipped trying to break on a slant, allowing his man to break free from man coverage and earn a big gain. Once he was caught peeking at the quarterback in man coverage and was late reading the break of his receiver, leading to a big gain on a slant route (the 63-yarder against the Giants we mentioned earlier), and he was occasionally a little late to break on inside-breaking routes across his face.
But generally I saw a player in good coverage most of the time, with a few mistakes that spanned the spectrum of cornerback errors. This wasn’t a bad player or a guy with a major weakness, this was a guy in good coverage who makes occasional mistakes.
Also worth noting is that Jackson has moved around within the Houston defense, playing both left and right outside and in the slot as Houston matched up to various offenses. Jackson wasn’t tracking the opposing No. 1 in the way Darrelle Revis made so famous, but he was moving and that in itself represents a certain versatility. When he lined up outside on either side he gave up a passer rating of just 30.5 last season (and the slot was where he struggled the most, often against bunch formations and stacked releases which produced the confusion in the Houston secondary).
So what’s the bottom line?
Kareem Jackson may never be Darrelle Revis, but he does appear to have developed into a fine cover corner, albeit one who struggles a little bit with drawing the line the right side of what the officials will tolerate in terms of contact during his coverage.
He plays extremely well on the outside, and though he will occasionally get beaten, he would upgrade most teams looking for a starting cornerback and would be a fine target in free agency.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam