The Tennessee Titans’ defense has emerging studs at almost every position. Free safety Kevin Byard already is one; defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and EDGE Harold Landry are on their way to being a dominant duo; linebacker Rashaan Evans took a huge step forward in Year 2. And at corner? That player is Adoree’ Jackson, rising fourth-year pro.
But despite all of Jackson’s success at outside corner this past season, the Titans may be looking at a slight position shift for him. Namely, the Titans still have Malcolm Butler, drafted another outside corner in LSU’s Kristian Fulton, and lost slot specialist Logan Ryan to free agency. Their new solution for their nickel sets is bumping Jackson to the inside.
Replacing Logan Ryan is a tall order. Acknowledged by his peers as the 60th-best player in the NFL Top 100, Ryan played every single snap on defense for the Titans, joining Byard as the cornerstones of Dean Pees’ versatile secondary. Ryan primarily saw snaps at slot corner, also occasionally stepping to outside corner or rotating into linebacker-like alignments. Ryan was second among corners in the NFL in pass-rush reps (45) and first in sacks (5), as he was frequently blitzed from depth. He was also first among corners in run stops with 17—tackles in the running game that PFF categorizes as a failure for the offense.
Of course, the primary responsibility of the slot corner isn’t blitzing or filling against the run—but those are additional responsibilities that every slot corner has, and they are particularly critical in the Titans’ defensive structure, which loves to blitz from the second level and create confusion in the defensive box. That’s why, despite his coverage struggles, a player like Ryan was still important to the Titans.
And that’s critical to note: Ryan wasn’t the best cover dude in the world for the Titans. Of course, given how much they asked of him, he was often put in more difficult spots than most slot corners. But Ryan was the most targeted slot corner in the NFL last season by a fair bit (97 targets, 13 more than Justin Coleman) and gave up the seventh-worst yards per snap out of all slot corners last year (1.71). No slot corner gave up more than Ryan’s five touchdowns, but also none had more than his three interceptions, which was the saving grace of his performance in coverage last year.
In comparison, Jackson had his best season in coverage last season—but primarily as an outside corner. Jackson largely played outside corner for the Titans, only losing snaps against base coverage when Ryan and starter Malcolm Butler stayed on the field. Jackson allowed only 0.86 yards per coverage snap last season, and has grown nicely into a strong starting outside corner in the NFL.
But is he suited for this move to the inside? Over his first three seasons in the league, Jackson has had 66, 60, and 44 coverage snaps from the slot, with wildly inconsistent success rates season to season. In other words, we don’t have a great sample size for Jackson’s slot performance.
When we watch him in the slot on 2019 film, we see what we’d expect based on his performance on the outside: he was sticky. Jackson is a wonderful athlete with ideal fluidity, quickness, and speed, and when matching traditional slot receivers with similar physical profiles, he was able to stay married in man coverage through quick-breaking routes, and connect in zone to deny easy spacing concepts.
If the Titans do bounce Jackson into the slot for 2020, they should expect better coverage than they got from Ryan—and given the way slot receivers waxed them in 2019, it’s not surprising that they’re prioritizing the improvement of their coverage there.
But the other side of that coin is the ancillary skills the defense demands from its slot. Jackson does not have a sack to his name and can struggle with tackling at times given his lighter size (5-foot-11 and 185 pounds). In run-fill responsibilities, Jackson can get beaten by wide receivers in space—playing him over tight ends or asking him to be a force player against outside runs will not be nearly as successful as it was with Ryan, who’s a denser player (5-foot-11 and 195 pounds) and plays with a lot more physicality than Jackson does.
Jackson is such a talented cover man, and his particular brand of successful coverage is born of his light feet and quick reactions. Not all cover men win that way, and as such, not all cover men are a bit lighter for the position—but such is the case with Jackson. As such, if the Titans want to pick up one end of the stick—improving their coverage ability from the slot—they have to pick up the other end: losing some of the ancillary skills they asked from Ryan in the slot.
Will it be worth it? Ask me after the 2020 season. In general, we want our slot corners to be able to discourage targets to slot receivers, break up passes to slot receivers, and tackle slot receivers after completions. I think Jackson will be better in each of those categories than Ryan was—but the defense in Tennessee had a unique structure under Pees, and much what they did with Ryan made that system work. Now Pees is gone, and the Titans’ defense will be managed by head coach Mike Vrabel. If Vrabel wants more true man coverage and rush more simply with the Titans’ defensive front, then the move to Jackson makes sense; if they’re retaining their Pees structure, the tradeoff here is a dangerous one.