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How Josh Jackson went from backup cornerback to elite NFL prospect in 1 season

The new Packers DB made the most of an opportunity.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers picked the Iowa CB in the second round. The following was written following the NFL Combine.

Josh Jackson thinks he’s the best cornerback in the NFL Draft. Whether that’s true depends in some part on whether you think Minkah Fitzpatrick is a corner or a safety. Among players who are definite corners at the next level, only Denzel Ward is likely to get picked sooner.

“I’m a playmaker,” Jackson said at the NFL Scouting Combine in March. “Whatever team I go to they’re going to be able to rely on me to be accountable. I’m a playmaker.”

It’s a broad term, but in 2017, no college DB was more of a playmaker than Jackson. He was the only player in the country to intercept eight passes, two of which he ran back for touchdowns in a game in which he was Iowa’s sole offense. He had 18 pass breakups. He did all of this in his first year as a starter for Kirk Ferentz’s team.

Jackson proved he was one of the country’s best at finishing plays.

There are at least a handful of really talented cornerbacks in every NFL Draft. Some of the best didn’t put up big interception totals in college because they rarely got thrown at. So we can’t evaluate corners strictly on interception totals. They can’t control how many true opportunities they get to create turnovers, no matter how good they are.

But we can still point to an elite finisher when it’s obvious. And Jackson is a ball hawk, with excellent closing speed and a receiver’s hand-eye coordination. Here he is making the best interception in the college game in 2017, an Odell Beckham Jr.-style one-hander during the Hawkeyes’ surprising romp over then-No. 6 Ohio State in 2017, his junior season:

How does Jackson finish?

“It started in practice, making sure I finished in practice,” Jackson said during his press conference at the combine in Indianapolis. “Come out to the game, I wanted to execute and take advantage of opportunities. It all falls back to practice and film prep.”

Jackson’s profile grew because of his picks, but he was more than that.

Iowa switched Jackson often between left and right cornerback, and he guarded multiple receivers most games. But he was largely responsible for holding some of the country’s better receivers to slow games. Against Iowa, Iowa State’s Allen Lazard had six catches for 23 yards. Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton had two for 46. Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan had seven catches for 74 yards but needed 16 targets, many against Jackson, to get them.

“You’ve got to be on your toes. You’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to execute,” Jackson said. Someone asked what he tells himself when he’s about to go toe-to-toe with a No. 1 receiver, and Jackson said he didn’t tell himself anything.

“I just line up and try to be the best I can,” he said. “Just focus.”

At the combine, Jackson ran a slower 40-yard dash than he wanted to, at 4.56 seconds. That was 10th-slowest among 36 corners to run. He’d said he wanted to be in the 4.4s. But he was one of the event’s bigger players at the position, measuring in at 6’1 and 192 pounds. His 38-inch vertical leap was fourth-best, his 18 bench reps third, and his 123-inch broad jump 11th. That all gels with the big, physical corner Jackson looks like on tape. He reportedly measured out better at his pro day a few weeks later, too.

Jackson is a rare first-round prospect as a one-year college starter.

He declared for the draft after his junior year. The season before that, he was the Hawkeyes’ primary backup to Desmond King, a star DB and return man who went on to have an excellent rookie season with the Chargers in 2017.

Jackson played plenty before his junior season — college teams now have three corners on the field more often than they don’t — but Iowa never tasked him as an all-downs, lockdown presence until 2017. Professional teams have made note of that.

“I’ve had those questions,” Jackson acknowledged at the combine. “I told them I played behind some really good players. I played in the nickel my first two years as a freshman and sophomore. I had the opportunity this year and I just wanted to come out and show I’m ready to play and show we didn’t lose a step on the back end.”

It’s not like it’s unheard of for a player to get picked early after only one year of starts. In 2016, Mitchell Trubisky went No. 2 overall after one season as North Carolina’s starting QB. Another top corner in this class, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, wasn’t entrenched as a top-two starting cornerback until 2017. NFL teams don’t seem that preoccupied with it. There’s a little less film on Jackson than most of his peers at the top of the class, but his play in 2017 was so good that there shouldn’t be many questions about him.

Jackson was supposed to start at Iowa as a sophomore, but he got beaten out in fall camp for the spot opposite King. That instilled a lesson that’s still helping now.

“You’ve just got to get back on the field and just keep working hard and just earn your spot,” he said. “Nothing’s given. You’ve got to be able to earn it.”