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Reviewing the Jaguars’ 2020 Draft Class: How Did CJ Henderson Fare as a Rookie?

CJ Henderson was Jacksonville's top draft pick last April and was ultimately the second defensive back off the entire board. So, how did he perform as a rookie and what does it mean for the Jaguars and him moving forward?

The 2020 season is over and the Jacksonville Jaguars and the rest of the NFL are moving onto the offseason. The new goal for 31 teams is to knock off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the next few months will play a major role in that endeavor. 

But what will also play a big role in the advancement, or decline, of each team will be the development of the 2020 rookies. The Jaguars had one of the largest rookie groups in the NFL thanks to 12 draft picks and numerous undrafted free agents, so few teams will lean on their second-year players as much as the Jaguars will next season. 

With this in mind, we are going to go through each of the Jaguars' 12 draft picks from 2020 and examine the ups and downs of their rookie season.

First up is the Jaguars' first pick: No. 9 overall selection CJ Henderson, who was the second cornerback drafted and is the second-highest pick the Jaguars have ever used on a defensive back.

What did we see out of Henderson's rookie season and what does it mean for 2021? We examine here. 

2020 Stats

all stats via Pro Football Reference. 

  • Eight games (eight starts). 
  • 36 tackles.
  • Six pass deflections.
  • One interception.
  • One forced fumble. 
  • Allowed 33 catches on 51 targets (64.7% completion rate). 
  • 13.4 yards per completion allowed. 
  • 8.7 yards per target allowed. 
  • 110.2 passer rating allowed. 

What Went Right

The second cornerback drafted in 2020, CJ Henderson showed off the physical talent that made him a top-10 pick right away. He was a Week 1 starter for the Jaguars at outside cornerback and was immediately given the tough task of stopping T.Y. Hilton and Philip Rivers in his NFL debut. 

He didn't disappoint, turning in one of the best individual performances of any rookie in 2020. Henderson recorded three pass breakups and an interception in Week 1, including a game-clinching breakup of a completion to Hilton on the game's final fourth-down. This game was the ultimate display of the athleticism and playmaking ability that made the Jaguars fall for Henderson in the draft to begin with.

On the entire season, Henderson finished tied for fourth in pass breakups among all rookie cornerbacks with six. While this may not be a staggering figure, it is worth noting that he did this in just eight games. He had just 270 snaps in coverage, while the players in front of him had 519, 444, and 607. He wasn't able to be on the field nearly as much as most other top rookie cornerbacks, but he was still able to get his hands on the football nearly as much. 

Henderson's two best games came against his two most difficult matchups as well. He allowed a passer rating of just 28.3 against the Colts and then had two pass breakups and a forced fumble against Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams. Adams still scored a touchdown on Henderson, but Henderson had his fair share of wins against the NFL's best receiver. 

Finally, Henderson deserves some credit for his tackling. He came into the league with the label of an unwilling tackler, but he frequently displayed the aggressiveness and physicality needed to make tackles on the boundary and in space. He was credited by Pro Football Reference with five missed tackles, a number that was much lower than other rookie cornerbacks who played a similar amount of snaps.

What Went Wrong

There is no place to start here other than Henderson's relative unavailability. The Jaguars were desperate for starting-caliber cornerbacks all season in large part because they didn't have Henderson on the field nearly as much as they likely hoped they would. 

Henderson played in just eight games due to two different injured stretches, including being placed on injured reserve for the rest of the season following Week 10 due to a groin injury. Among all rookie cornerbacks who played at least 100 snaps, Henderson ranked 12 out of 27 in coverage snaps. 

When the Jaguars picked him, he was expected to be their top cornerback week in and week out. In many ways, the entire secondary was dependent on him. Despite this, the Jaguars saw Henderson play just 42% of the team's defensive snaps in 2020. If Henderson is to reach his full potential and ensure the Jaguars made the right investment, he will have to stay on the field.

Then there is the matter of Henderson's relative inconsistency. This should be expected considering the difficulty of transitioning to the NFL at cornerback, but Henderson wasn't always due for a solid performance as a rookie. According to PFF, Henderson allowed the eighth-highest coverage snaps per reception mark at 8.2 among rookie corners with 100 coverage snaps. He also allowed the sixth-highest yards per coverage snap with 1.58, while only five rookie corners allowed more touchdown receptions than Henderson's four. 

Henderson has a lot of talent, but there were plenty of rookie moments for him throughout his first season. These weren't on display at the frequency of several other rookie cornerbacks, and his peaks helped offset the low points to a degree, but it is the truth about his rookie season.

2021 Outlook

Henderson's 2020 season more or less earned an "incomplete" for his rookie season. He played in just half of the team's games and he was up-and-down throughout his time when he was on the field, though again this should have been expected considering the situation. 

What is Henderson's outlook moving forward, though? 2021 will likely be a huge year for him as he transitions to a new coaching staff and defensive scheme. Former defensive coordinator Todd Wash has already been added to a different staff, and it appears as if former Baltimore Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen will be Henderson's newest coordinator. Henderson has the physical skills to thrive in a scheme like Baltimore's, in large part because his explosiveness makes him a potentially lethal blitzer. 

Henderson will need to prove to Cullen and head coach Urban Meyer that he is a No. 1 cornerback, however. The only person left in Jacksonville with any connections to Henderson's selection last fall is general manager Trent Baalke, who was the director of pro personnel last season. Meyer and his staff have no connections to Henderson, so he will have to prove himself just like everyone else on the roster.

Ultimately, Henderson should be expected to be a Week 1 starter for the Jaguars yet again. Anything beyond that will be up to his development and health, but he should be one of the new coaching staff's top defenders next year as long as things go as planned.