The Panthers entered the draft with question marks in the secondary and, having failed to address this area in the first round, they spent both the 55th and 85th picks on defensive backs to help shore their secondary. It appears from early statements by Hurney and Rivera that they view Jackson as somebody who can play either in the slot or outside while Gaulden will likely make the move from nickel to free safety. While from a pure position of need perspective, this obviously makes sense, but what have the Panthers got in their two latest acquisitions?
Donte Jackson, LSU
Jackson is very, very fast. That’s always something useful in a cornerback; but there is more to his game than just speed. In man coverage in particular, he shows a good ability to mirror and react to receivers:
While his game is about more than speed, that speed is extremely valuable, as on plays like the following, he shows the ability to run with players down the field without breaking a sweat:
As a pure man-cover corner, Jackson is very promising, but there are some caveats. The most notable factor is his size, as at 5’10 and 178 pounds, he does get bullied in press at times, and while he does have the makeup speed to limit the damage, he will need to get better in this regard if he is to matchup with larger receivers at the NFL level:
The above plays aren’t typical of every snap he plays in press, but he does struggle to jam guys consistently without running the risk of getting flagged as he does on the next play:
Additionally, and this is certainly not unique to Jackson, but when a defensive backs plays predominately in man coverage, they will spend a lot of time with their back to the ball, and this makes it harder to locate the ball in the air. It is clear at this point that the Panthers are committed to playing at least some man coverage next season, and that Jackson could well be part of this move towards a more man-heavy scheme; if Jackson is going to maximize his potential in man, he will need to do a better job of preventing receptions once he is in good position, as on both of the following plays, he does a good job of preventing separation only to allow a reception at the catch point:
Finally, he also needs to better job of handling physical route runners, as on plays such as the following, he simply gets bullied at the route head thereby allowing the reception:
In man coverage, he does need to improve in some of the areas described above, but still is a plus player simply in terms of his ability to mirror and run with receivers. However, where he will need to improve significantly is in zone coverage. Jackson is fairly new to the position, and it has been suggested by some that his lack of awareness in zone is more due to inexperience than anything and should improve with time. If true, this could allow a much great coverage versatility with time, but for now he shows a worrying lack of feel for zone that could limit his use in this way early on. What is encouraging is that he does have the core physical skills to be a good zone corner; on the following play, he shows great reaction speed, breaking quickly on the ball to prevent run after the catch:
And here, he shows the ability to make plays on the ball:
If Jackson can add some physicality both in press and at the head of routes and show a greater understanding and feel for zone coverage then he has the ability to be a very valuable cover man, as his core speed and lateral agility are both excellent and he has enough ball skills to create turnovers. One other area that Jackson needs to improve in is run defense, as he can get caught on blocks:
And does miss more tackles than is ideal:
There is no denying Jackson’s potential, but his ability to be a significant contributor at the NFL will likely depend strongly on how much he is able to develop with coaching and some time in an NFL weight room. If he can add enough strength to cope with more physical route runners as well as to help shedding blocks in the run game, plus develop a greater feel for zone coverage, then he can be a legitimate starting corner in the NFL. What is probably worth noting is how he will likely be used as a matchup option for the Panthers, as while Bradberry and Cockrell matchup well with the likes of Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones and Mohammed Sanu, they have lacked the speedy corner who can cover the DeSean Jacksons and Ted Ginns of this world. While Jackson isn’t quite there yet, he does give them somebody who has the speed to cover such receivers in man coverage.