INDIANAPOLIS – One day before Josh Jackson dropped down into his track stance inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the Iowa cornerback knew what was on the line.
He has first-round film. Go back to November. Watch him cut underneath an Ohio State receiver and wrestle away the football. See him mimic Odell Beckham Jr. with a one-handed, backward-falling interception at the goal line. Then count the touchdowns — not one, but two – a week later against Wisconsin.
He has first-round size. At 6-0⅜, 196 pounds with 31⅛-inch arms, Jackson has the leverage to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. He’s stronger than Ohio State corner Denzel Ward. Bigger than Central Florida corner Mike Hughes. Strength and size are not Jackson’s issue.
What might be a problem as he transitions to the NFL, a question that followed him to that 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine: Does Josh Jackson have first-round speed?
“I’m looking to run a high 4.4 or a sub-4.5,” Jackson said, reciting the magic number. “I need a good run. All of the other drills, I’ll do well. I’m just looking to run a good time in the 40.”
He didn’t quite make it.
Jackson’s 4.56 40 might not overshadow everything he put on tape. The time, almost identical to what Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (4.57) posted in 2015, didn’t quell concerns that his speed is lacking at the next level. He’ll get another chance to run at Iowa’s pro day later this month. Without a quicker time, scouts around the league — the Packers' front office among them — will face a tough call come April.
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As a corner, none in college football were better than Jackson last season. He was one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award (nation’s best defensive back), eventually given to Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. Jackson's eight interceptions led the country.
Not bad for his only season as a starter.
Jackson arrived in Iowa intent on playing receiver. When he settled on defensive back as a sophomore, it took time to learn the Hawkeyes’ system. He was such a gifted cover man, Iowa defensive coordinator/secondary coach Phil Parker sent Jackson onto the field on nickel downs, even occasionally matching him with the opponent’s top receiver.
“He did pretty impressive,” Parker said. “You put him out there, and put him on the toughest guy to cover. It didn’t faze him at all. So that, to me, was like, ‘Hey, he has a chance. When he understands the game a little bit more, he can play better on first and second downs instead of just playing in subpackage.’”
Jackson’s growth was exponential after his sophomore season. He was a permanent team captain as a junior, an all-downs player. Then the calendar reached November.
Over two weeks, Jackson was as hot as any defensive back in Big Ten history. He had three interceptions in an upset win over Ohio State, the last coming on a highlight reel-worthy, one-handed stab only a former receiver could be expected to make. More impressive, Jackson might have outdone himself a week later, becoming the only player ever with two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the same Big Ten game.
He was the Hawkeyes’ offense that Saturday afternoon in Madison. Final score: Wisconsin 38, Josh Jackson 14.
“Three in one game, and two in the next for touchdowns?” Parker said. “That’s pretty good. I don’t think I’ve seen it.”
It’s hard to solidify Jackson’s draft stock. Because of his shoddy 40, evaluations vary dramatically. What is clear: The Packers could use another playmaking corner in their secondary.
If Kevin King returns to health after his rookie season prematurely ended because of a shoulder injury, he’ll lock down one perimeter corner spot. Damarious Randall, the top playmaker in the Packers’ secondary last season, seems to have found a home in the slot. That leaves a starting spot on the perimeter across from King, a hole general manager Brian Gutekunst must fill this offseason.
Perhaps he could do it with the 14th pick. Jackson said he spoke with 26 teams in Indy. The Packers, presumably, were among them.
“I’m a playmaker,” Jackson said. “I know when I step on the field, I’ll be able to make plays.”
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Parker, entering his 14th season coaching Iowa defensive backs, has seen plenty of talented players come through the program. Before Jackson, current Los Angeles Rams rookie Desmond King was the big man on campus. Jackson said he learned from King’s ability to attack the football in midair.
Parker said Jackson’s playmaking reminded him of Micah Hyde, the former Packers defensive back and punt returner. Hyde is now a Pro Bowl safety with the Buffalo Bills.
Drafting Jackson won’t come without risk. For one, he has limited experience. Jackson said teams asked about him starting only one year in the Big Ten.
“Some teams might be hesitant,” Jackson said, “but I think it’s football. A lot of people can play regardless of being a (one-year) starter, three-year starter. If you can play ball, you can play ball.”
Jackson will also have to prove he’s solid in man coverage. Under Parker, Iowa’s secondary played a lot of zone, dividing the field into quarters. It allowed him to read the quarterback and break on the football as a receiver.
In the NFL, Jackson will have to relearn how to play man coverage. No longer will he be able to put his hands on receivers more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Of course, natural speed helps with that.
Which is why Jackson knew scouts would be closely monitoring his 40 time.
“I’m aiming for 4.4s,” Jackson said. “So I hope not to run a 4.5. But either way, it is what it is. I’m going to try my hardest to run a 4.4.”
One day later, Jackson went out and posted a 4.56. What that means for his draft stock might not be known until late April.