The Bengals showed their hand in the William Jackson III stakes last month when they exercised his fifth-year option for 2020. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who regularly tangles with Jackson in training camp and other practice scrums, believes their vision is 2020.
"To me he has the tangibles to be the best corner in the league," says Boyd, the newest member of the Bengals' 1,000-yard club. "This year will be that year. I know they see big things in him. We all do. That's why they picked up his option. As long as he learns just one scheme and doesn't have to keep learning different things, he's going to be a shut-down corner in the next couple of years."
Jackson became the Bengals' latest first-round draft pick to get his fifth-year option picked up, a structure that has been in place since 2011. The only first-rounder the Bengals didn't bring back is 2015's Cedric Ogbuehi, leaving them a 6-for-7 percentage (they exercised both 2012's in Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler) that's not as easy as it looks.
According to ProFootballTalk.com, 45 percent of Jackson's 2016 class (14 out of 31) didn't get a fifth year. And the website said in each of the last two years, 20 fifth-year options were picked up, meaning that 12, or 38 percent, were not.
And, according to last month's data base supplied online by Warren Sharp via PFT, the Bengals are one of four teams that have exercised at least six options since 2011, along with the Rams (7-for-8), the Texans (6-for-6) and the Vikings (6-for-10). Maybe more importantly is they're one of nine teams with either no losses (Texans and Chargers) or just one (Bengals, Panthers, Cowboys, Rams, Dolphins, Chiefs, Steelers).
This time, the 6-0, 196-pound Jackson, the 2016 prototype of this decade's NFL press cornerback (lean and long and 40 fast), is plastered to another teammate. As he leaves Paul Brown Stadium following Tuesday's off-season workout, he's step for step with linebacker Nick Vigil.
Jackson is asking him what exactly are his job specifications on one play in the Bengals' new defensive playbook and Vigil, one of coordinator Lou Anarumo's signal-callers, patiently explains the options and Jackson leaves satisfied. He realizes knowing the playbook is where he has to start if he wants to reach the Pro Bowl that was predicted for him after his first full NFL season in 2017 after last season was mired by personal injury and overall scheme chaos.
Photos from the Bengals' voluntary offseason workout program on Thursday, May 2, 2019 at Paul Brown Stadium.
"It's just a particular play," Jackson says. "From a mental standpoint, everything (last year) was different. Different scheme. Different this. And playing things differently. It was a learning curve for me. In the back end of the season, that's when I kind of picked it up and started getting back to myself … I won't allow myself (to have a learning curve)."
With Jackson facing his third different defense in his fourth season, cornerbacks coach Daronte Jones says that approach to another new scheme shows Jackson's growth adjusting to the invisible intangibles of the game.
"It's not like he's a fourth-year player that has been in same system that you can see flourishing," Jones says. "He's been going at it. He's been serious about his work. There's a lot of learning … (Realizing it) that's where maturity comes from. He's definitely grown in that way."
After Jackson missed his entire rookie season with shoulder surgery, he became the darling of the ProFootballFocus.com crowd with a brilliant 2017 in a sometimes starting role. As he coped with injuries and a new defense that had its plug pulled halfway through 2018, the grades weren't there until the end.
Take a look at two of the last four games of the season against top receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams of the Chargers and JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Steelers, according to PFF. In his one target with Smith-Schuster, he allowed just a three-yard catch. He covered Allen on three targets and gave up one catch for no yards and broke up another pass. He covered Williams twice and allowed a nine-yard reception.
What the stats don't show is by the first week of October he had broken his finger in Atlanta and hyperextended his knee against the Dolphins. Making all 16 starts despite the nicks made opting for the option all that much easier.
"I didn't really bring that up," Jackson says. "People don't care about that … It's football. My job is not to complain about the injuries I have."
So the playbook is the thing for him right now. He agrees with his teammates that have been asked. This defense isn't laced with loopholes and they like the early returns.
"There's no gray are right now," Jackson says. "It's very down to the point. I'm excited."
On the other side of the ball, it's just as clear why Boyd likes to get his work in against Jackson.
"He's as fast the receivers," Boyd says. "Just to see that speed and see if I can separate on double moves and try to outrun him. Going against him makes your job a lot harder.
"Not too many corners can really run like him and his body is starting to fill up. He's about 6-foot, almost 200. What can he not do? All he has to do is play the ball and catch it."
A few picks. No injuries. A black-and-white scheme. It could add up to a Pro Bowl.
"That's the plan," says Jackson of one of the leading options.