Ryan Wood and Aaron Nagler talk biggest takeaways from Tuesday's practice. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers hosted a full NFL officiating crew last weekend, rookie cornerback Josh Jackson was an especially interested listener.
Learning how to play under the NFL’s tight contact rules – a point of emphasis among officials – is a challenge for any young cornerback. For Jackson, the ballhawk from Iowa whose length and physicality are his primary tools of the trade, that adjustment could be key to his success.
Jackson put himself on the radar of scouting departments around the league last season with a nation-leading eight interceptions, earning him recognition as a Jim Thorpe Award finalist. With only 14 career starts, the converted receiver was also raw. Jackson entered the draft with a reputation for being grabby, something that’s been noticeable this offseason.
So Jackson took advantage of his first exposure to NFL referees. He asked questions, picked the perspectives of back judges and side judges, trying to understand which contact was no longer allowed.
“They’re pretty strict,” said Jackson, eyebrows arched inside the Packers' locker room Tuesday.
Jackson’s education will continue Thursday night when the Packers host the Tennessee Titans for their preseason opener at Lambeau Field. For the first time, he’ll be in a game setting played under NFL rules. Jackson said he isn’t hoping to work on one thing specifically – “just trying to go play ball,” he said – but he’ll get an opportunity to put his new knowledge of contact rules to use.
With injuries already affecting the Packers' secondary, Jackson should get plenty of snaps. Second-year cornerback Kevin King (shoulder) and rookie Jaire Alexander (groin) are unlikely to play after missing the past two practices. Their absence elevated Jackson to the No. 1 slot corner role, with Tramon Williams and Davon House flanking the perimeter.
It’s unclear how much veterans Williams and House will play in the preseason opener, but Jackson should see plenty of playing time in the slot and on the perimeter. No matter where he is on the field, Jackson is curious how the game will be called.
“I did expect them to be a little more strict here,” Jackson said, “because it’s the NFL. I’d say what I’ve learned from college to now is you’ve got to play cleaner.”
For Jackson, playing cleaner means relying more on his feet. Like a basketball player guarding the dribble, it’s incumbent on NFL cornerbacks to use their footwork to shadow receivers. After five yards, no hand checking is allowed.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said the biggest adjustment for young cornerbacks is learning how to avoid contact at the top of the stem, which is when a receiver starts gathering his momentum to change direction on his route. Without knowing which direction a receiver will break, the natural reaction can be to reach out and grab.
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An NFL cornerback won’t get away with contact that deep downfield.
“It’s definitely a process,” Pettine said, “and it’s been very eye-opening for some of those guys. I think the young guys for the most part, they’ve had their issues. But I think they’ve understood now that they’ve gone through an entire spring and now a good chunk of training camp of what they can and can’t do.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in a game though. A lot of times you just fall back on what you know, what your habits are. But they’ve got to understand, we’ve already had the meeting with the officials, and they reviewed all the clips.”
Jackson has flashed his potential in camp. His ball skills could turn him into a playmaker in the Packers' secondary. Earlier in camp, Jackson jumped a slant route to intercept quarterback Brett Hundley. It was the type of instinctual play Jackson made routinely at Iowa.
His height (6-foot), size (196 pounds) and length (31 1/8-inch arms with a 38-inch vertical leap) are all traits that will benefit him, but he has to learn how to harness his physicality. Jackson hopes his conversation with officials last week will serve as a helpful guide.
“I think it definitely was good to have them here,” Jackson said, “because you know you have to really use your feet a lot more and be in better position rather than kind of being able to use your hands to get off. So that just makes you want to be able to come and just focus on my craft, to use my feet to put myself in the right position.”