Texans Retrospectus: Kareem Jackson

Following every other name in this picture out the door?

With the news that Kareem Jackson will probably be playing for a new team next season seemingly strapped and locked in as a consensus — hard to not feel that way when the source is literally Kareem Jackson — I figured it might be interesting to take a look back at his career with Houston.

Kareem Jackson was Houston’s first-round pick in the 2010 draft. I was relatively new to intensive football writing scene at the time, but I was not a big fan of this pick. I remember campaigning for Boise State corner Kyle Wilson, who washed out of the league in five years, in place of Jackson. I believe there’s even local ABC footage of me saying so at the Texans draft party. But, mostly, I wanted the Texans to take Tennessee nose tackle Dan Williams because I was sick of them getting pushed around at the point of attack — the Rick Smith Texans never emphasized the nose tackle position. (#NTLust4Ever) Of those three players, Jackson certainly had the best career. If the Texans were to galaxy brain the entire NFL and just take the player who wound up with the most AV between their first-round pick and second-round pick, it would have been Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski. I uh, wonder how we’d view him differently in that scenario.

2010 was a wildly different time to be doing draft scouting. We have no real cornerback metrics to go on. At the NFL Combine, Jackson ran a 4.4-second 40-yard-dash, but otherwise was a limited tester. What he did have going for him at the time was an Alabama pedigree from the Nick Saban years, and most draft reports from the time praise his great size at 5-foot-10, 196 pounds — when they praise you at that height, it means they think you’re built like a rock.

In a post-draft press conference, then-general manager Rick Smith elaborated on what put Jackson ahead of the other corners for the Texans: “It was a comprehensive evaluation; obviously a lot of things come into play. First of all he has great skill and he’s a tough guy. We talked the other day about how you continue to add toughness to our football team and we felt like he (CB Kareem Jackson) does that. He has great ball skills, great speed, played in a big time conference, was a three-year starter and was a productive player. All the things you look for really set him apart for us. Obviously we had those guys sitting there, so clearly we had him rated as our guy that we felt could best come in and help our football team. I’m really excited about this young man and what he can do for us.”

All those positive vibes immediately went out the window as Jackson was less-NFL ready than expected. Jackson was destroyed in his rookie season. One name that I will always remember from this era is the time the Texans played the San Diego Chargers in November and Jackson was torched by Seyi Ajirotutu. More than a quarter of Ajirotutu’s career yardage and 2/3rds of his career touchdowns came from blistering right past Jackson.

To Jackson’s credit, a lot of players that get torched like that in their rookie season never become anything. He regrouped and improved … eventually. His sophomore season was also pretty bad, and he was benched for journeyman Jason Allen at one point, but the Texans made the playoffs largely because of what an embarrassment the unit was in 2010, when they finished with the worst pass defense DVOA in the NFL. This forced the firing of Frank Bush, the pursuit of Wade Phillips, and the signing of All-Pro corner Johnathan Joseph. (Oh, and the Texans also spent their first-round pick on some guy named Watt.) But in 2012, when the Texans sped off to the races with an 11-1 start, Jackson was a much-improved player.

Looking back I don’t think Jackson ever was able to comfortably deal with outside receivers. He got better at knowing when he had to use the recovery speed, and reading releases in general, But he still had issues turning his head and I think a lot of his improvement was about just being in decent enough position that the quarterback had to respect his involvement in the play to begin with.

Where his instincts improved lied in getting better at reading the quarterback’s eyes to begin with. Jackson found his first career touchdown against the Titans in 2012 by reading a slant to Damien Williams and jumping it.

Jackson was able to cobble together a nice little prime of about 2012-2016 with those instincts, getting better at his positioning on harder routes downfield, and tackling that was well above-average for a cornerback.

Jackson re-signed to a four-year, $34 million contract with the Texans in the 2015 offseason. I would argue that he was probably not much of a cornerback towards the end of the deal, as his speed declined. On a team that had deeper cap problems, Jackson might have been a cut candidate in one of the last couple of years. Jackson was always a candidate to move to safety given his excellent tackling and run defense, but the Texans never took a stand on it until 2018. Then, naturally, every cornerback on the roster battled injuries to some extent and Jackson was forced into playing outside. Jackson had one of his best seasons in the NFL, but it was a little obscured by poor quarterback play, as his speed was never greatly tested in the regular season. Still, he showcased plenty as a short-area DB that should leave teams looking for a good safety or perhaps even a dime linebacker intrigued:

Against a real quarterback like Andrew Luck in the 2018 AFC Divisional Round, Jackson’s lack of speed was exposed by another journeyman Chargers wideout: Dontrelle Inman. Inman caught 4-of-4 balls for 51 yards, a touchdown, a DPI, and a holding penalty. He’s simply not an outside corner at this stage of his career, unfortunately.

Jackson’s career arc is rather complex, but I think what we can say about him for sure is that he was always a bit stretched as an outside cornerback. He was able to figure out how to deal with that more as he learned more about NFL football, but I think the importance of Johnathan Joseph taking the No. 1 role and a lot of mediocre-to-bad AFC South passing offenses helped him look a bit better than he actually was.

If a player like this were coming out of college today, I think he’d be more of a third- or fourth-round pick candidate, mostly because I think his flaws would have been more evident on tape than they were in the turn-of-the-century SEC. (Alabama pedigree definitely would have helped him regardless.) Still, with his tackling ability, the developed skill of reading the quarterback’s eyes, and his skill at breaking on his reads, Jackson was a solid NFL player for a long time. No shame in picking a player like that with a first-round pick. Almost all of the consternation about Jackson has come from asking him to do more than he knew how to handle, and he handled that like a true professional.

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