With all due respect to 2017 Thorpe Award winner Marlon Humphrey of Alabama - the best defensive back in the country and a future top 10 draft pick - no college cornerback played the position better this season than Iowa's Jackson.
Jackson's stellar campaign - which included leading the country in interceptions (seven), passes broken up (25) and tied for second with two pick-sixes - is all the more impressive given his relative inexperience and anonymity entering the season. The redshirt junior who signed with Iowa as a lowly two-star recruit began 2017 with just one career start at cornerback and was practicing as a wide receiver as late as the spring of 2015.
But what a year it was.
After switching back and forth between offense and defense early in his career, Jackson was penciled in as a starter at cornerback entering fall camp with the Hawkeyes needing to replace Desmond King and Greg Mabin, each of whom are now in the NFL. An offseason of diligent preparation that earned public kudos from head coach Kirk Ferentz and others on his staff helped Jackson confirm his first team status entering the season-opener - a matchup with Wyoming and its celebrated junior quarterback Josh Allen.
Though most the scouts attending this game were there to see how well Allen would handle the jump in competition, it was Jackson who stole the spotlight, recording a then-career high five tackles and intercepting the first pass of his career, returning it 41 yards.
Against North Texas two weeks later, Jackson added another interception and blocked a field goal. He followed that up by recording three pass breakups against Northwestern and four more against Minnesota, including one that was intercepted by a teammate.
It was his next two games - when he recorded a combined five interceptions and returned two for scores against Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State and Wisconsin, however, that truly put Jackson on the scouting map.
Jackson's three interceptions - including a highlight reel one-handed pluck in the end zone - were critical in Iowa's 55-24 stunner over the heavily favored Buckeyes.
Iowa wasn't as fortunate a week later against the Badgers, ultimately losing 38-14 but don't blame Jackson, who provided the only points for the Hawkeyes with two pick-sixes and forced a fumble to thwart another promising drive by Wisconsin. The first came on a simple out route in which Jackson undercut the intended receiver to spark Iowa to an early 7-0 lead. The second was an even better play with Jackson reading quarterback Alex Hornibrook's eyes, releasing off of his primary assignment and attacking a screen. Hornibrook's pass was high and the intended receiver tipped it into the air. Having read the screen and beaten Wisconsin's blockers to their back, Jackson showed off the quick reactions and soft hands that have scouts so excited about his upside, easily snatching the ball out of the air and out-racing Hornibrook to the end zone to narrow Wisconsin's third quarter lead to just 17-14.
Following his splashy performances in back to back weeks against top 10 teams, Ferentz and his staff gave Jackson the ultimate compliment, allowing him to travel right and left to shadow the opponents' top receiver over the final two games (Purdue, Nebraska) - something Iowa has not done in the past, even with King and Micah Hyde, each of whom were voted the Big Ten Defensive Backs of the Year (2015, 2012).
For as incredible as Jackson was in 2017, he was virtually invisible in the years leading up to it.
After redshirting in 2014, Jackson saw action in every 2015 game on special teams and also played on Iowa's defensive sub-packages but recorded just eight tackles and two passes broken up. He wasn't much more productive in 2016, playing in 12 games but only recording 10 tackles and four passes broken up during that time.
Jackson's big opportunity came in the Outback Bowl when injuries to teammates pushed him into the starting lineup for the first time in his career. Though he registered "just" three solo stops (including a tackle for loss) in the 30-3 loss to Florida, the ascension set in motion what would turn out to be arguably the greatest breakout performance of an NFL prospect in 2017.
While scouts will understandably be concerned with the fact that Jackson is essentially a one-year wonder with only 14 career starts, his 2017 tape is undeniable. He possesses an ideal blend of size, route anticipation and ball-skills that project very well to the next level, especially in a press-heavy scheme.
Graded as just a two-star recruit out of high school, opting to sign with Iowa over offers from Nevada, Colorado State and New Mexico State... Team captain as a senior while playing both wide receiver and defensive back as a senior. Recorded 24 receptions for 485 yards and nine touchdowns... helped team reach second round of state playoffs as a junior... also participated in basketball and track, qualifying for state track meet in the triple jump as a junior... Moved from defensive back to wide receiver during 2015 spring practice at Iowa, before returning to defense in the fall of that year.
Possesses an ideal frame for a modern day press cornerback with broad shoulders, long arms and loose hips, which help him change direction and accelerate smoothly, showing enough functional speed to handle deep ball coverage duties. Experience as a receiver shows with his route anticipation and extraordinary ball-skills. Possesses more natural hands than some receiver prospects, using textbook technique to pluck passes outside of his frame and showing rare hand-eye coordination and quickness to adjust to deflected passes. Good size and timing on his leaps to box out receivers on 50-50 balls, showing the aggression and hand strength to rip or punch the ball away.
Patient and composed when the ball is in the air, playing with a "my ball" mentality and competing until the end of the play. Uses his long arms to snake around would-be receivers to bat passes away, showing the body control to not hit the receiver too soon and draw flags. Better physicality and run containment than one might expect given that his time spent at receiver... Still a work in progress in this area but is competitive and issues appear to be coachable... Generally a reliable open-field tackler, occasionally lowering his shoulder to deliver big hits. Uses his length well to lasso ball-carriers. Shows some savvy off the edge when blitzing, timing his rush and showing good agility to avoid would-be blockers. Sells out, leaping into the air, contorting and waving his arms to ruin passing lanes for the quarterback. Some punt return experience. Shows vision, elusiveness and enough speed to break away when he has the ball, turning two of his seven interceptions in 2017 into touchdowns. -- Rob Rang 12/22/2017
Like most long-levered defensive backs, Jackson loses a step in his transition and is vulnerable to smaller, quicker receivers. Can get caught leaning and leave too easy of an inside release. Can get grabby downfield, especially when playing off. Flashes physicality as a tackler but too often gets tied up with blockers, needing to show better awareness and hand technique to rip, release and re-locate ball-carriers. Can get out of control as a tackler, lunging rather than breaking down with some missed tackles on tape. Was not challenged by many true speedsters in the Big Ten and may lack ideal straight-line speed, making Combine workouts an important test for his ultimate draft grade. -- Rob Rang 12/22/2017
COMPARES TO: Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, Steelers. It is appropriate that Jackson won the Tatum-Woodson Award as the Big Ten's top defensive back in 2017 because he shows a similar combination of agility, instincts and ball-skills as the former Purdue and Pittsburgh great. Jackson has a lot of work to do as a tackler to be the well-rounded player Woodson was - earning 11 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro honors in 17 NFL seasons - but in leading the country with seven interceptions (and returning two of them for touchdowns), Iowa's cornerback showed the same exciting traits which helped Woodson steal 71 passes over his illustrious career, retiring as the league's all-time interception-return yardage leader (1,483).
IN OUR VIEW: Every year some lanky cornerback draws the distinction of being this classes' Sherman (or Woodson) but Jackson might actually live up to the comparison. Like Sherman at Stanford, Jackson played both wide receiver and cornerback in college, a fact that honed both players' route anticipation and ball-skills. Questions about schematic fit pushed Sherman into the fifth round of the 2012 draft. In part because of the trail Sherman blazed, scouts won't make the same mistake with Jackson.