Kevin Coyle says Will Jackson reminds him in style of ball-hawking Tory James (above).
How can you not like William Jackson III already?
After all, his first act as a Bengal was to break the hearts of the Steelers Thursday night in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Bengals swiped him at No. 24 with the Steelers poised at No. 25 to draft their first first-round cornerback of the 21st century.
The Steelers, word was appeared, to be all over Jackson. He was their guy as the draft wound down and there were some that believed he was the last starting caliber corner on the board. The Steelers stayed at corner and took a good player in Miami's Artie Burns, a great character guy. The Jackson pick drew universal praise while the pundits were split on Burns at No. 25. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called it a solid pick but "settling" for the Steelers' first first-round corner since they drafted Chad Scott in 1997.
The Bengals have been doing this for the last decade. Jackson is their fifth first-round corner since 2006.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther liked the answer immediately when he met with his newest player two weeks ago at Paul Brown Stadium.
"They don't give you much help over there on the boundary, do they?" Guenther asked Jackson of the University of Houston's scheme.
No problem, Jackson told him. "Just tell me which dude you want me to cover and I'll cover him."
That's the press-in-your-face mentality that the Bengals have used in this defensive renaissance that has coincided with six post-season appearances in the last seven years.
It stretches back to the 2009 AFC North sweep when the team MVPs were cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, back-to-back first-rounders in 2006 and 2007, respectively. And it was here last year when 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick and 2014 first rounder Darqueze Dennard (before he got hurt in the 10th game) teamed with Pro Bowler Adam Jones to help set the franchise scoring record on the way to another AFC North title.
The 6-1, 195-pound Jackson fits the formula we've seen before.
Like Joseph in 2006, Jackson is a junior college product who raced into hearts and minds with a blistering 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. But he can track the ball like Hall and, like Kirkpatrick, he is long. And like Dennard he can break down the game on the grease board while preferring to miss out on the bright lights of the draft festivities and stay home with his family for the call.
Like Kirkpatrick and Dennard, he won't have to be rushed into the starting lineup. Jones and Kirkpatrick are the starters. Dennard is the slot. But Lewis says Jackson is going to be active on Sundays. So that means even though he played little special teams in college, Jackson is no doubt going to be asked to be a gunner on special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' punt cover team. Among other things for Simmons.
"We've always said that we draft cover guys and rushers. That's really important. That's always been our philosophy. This fits along those lines," Guenther said. "As we went through the draft, we really just followed our board as we had it, and this guy was right there for us to take him. It was really a non-discussion."
Well, there was talk about a wide receiver, but old friends like former Bengals offensive coordinators Hue Jackson and Jay Gruden made it hard as the head coach of Cleveland and Washington, respectively.
The Browns traded back from eight to 15 and grabbed Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman, which started the wide receiver run earlier than the Bengals wanted. Washington flipped picks with Houston and went down to No. 22. Everyone knew the Texans, now at No. 21, wanted a receiver. No one knew Washington wanted a receiver. They both got one with Notre Dame speedster Will Fuller going to Houston and Gruden grabbing Doctson, the guy some believe to be the draft's best all-around receiver.
The Bengals were thought to be interested in trading up only a couple of spots to grab a receiver. Yet they didn't seem all that bothered by it not happening They weren't wowed by Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell's speed even before the Vikes picked him at No. 23 and the health of UCLA linebacker Myles Jack must have been a non-starter with everyone in the first round.
"We have fine doctors here that will make those calls on whether they're guys we can take, or their risk or non-risk," Guenther said. "Our job as coaches is to evaluate the players, put them up there how we see them and rank them. As a defensive staff, everyone grades their position, and we'll all get in a room on April 1 and go for about two and a half or three weeks.
"So we rank all those players. We put them up there without knowing the medical initially, and then they (the medical staff) will tell us as we go if it's a guy we want to go with or not."
But in Jackson they not only got their highest-rated player on the board, they got a guy that fits in with what they do and think.
Jackson joins Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall as first-round corners under Kevin Coyle.
"He was one of my favorite guys I think," Guenther said. "After (Jalen) Ramsey, I thought he was the best corner. I think he's got the best up-side of any cornerback in the draft."
After a four-year hiatus as defensive coordinator of the Dolphins, secondary coach Kevin Coyle returned to find out the Bengals Way hasn't changed all that much. He contributed to the drafting of Joseph and Hall and the street signing of Adam Jones, so he helped develop the formula.
When he was in the car that drove Jackson back to the airport after his PBS visit, Coyle heard Jackson talk about how his first start at Houston in his first year there came against future NFL first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater, the Louisville quarterback. So after they dropped off Jackson they tracked down that tape.
With the 24th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bengals select William Jackson from Houston
"Just a young player that stepped right in and competed at a really high level. That was just the start. His production got better and better every year," Coyle said. "When I say that he had 45 pass deflections — that's what he's credited with, however they keep these stats these days — but that's more than double most of the guys. If a guy is in the high teens or around 20, these are the top guys in the country that you're evaluating. To have 45 is off the charts. We all felt that way, that ball production was key."
It reminded Coyle of another longish, lean Bengals corner with terrific ball skills. Tory James, a 6-2, 190-pounder, arrived as a free agent in head coach Marvin Lewis' first season and racked up 21 interceptions in four seasons in Cincinnati while going to the 2005 Pro Bowl.
"He's not as strong as Tory was yet. But he's young," Coyle said. "He's going to get stronger; he's going to get more physical. It's an area he's going to have to improve in. I don't think it's an area he's deficient in, like a lot of guys coming out of college these days. We'll make that a point of emphasis. We talked about it during his visit, we watched tape of it during his visit and I think he's going to be very willing to do whatever we ask of him that way."
Midwest scout Bill Tobin also took a look at Jackson and they talked about how they wish he could have picked off all the balls he got his hands on.
"He studied him very intently," Coyle said. "He gets to balls that other guys can't get their hands on. He deflects balls because he can't catch it but he has the speed to get to make plays on those types of throws. We've got a really good prospect to work with."
Maybe first impressions are the best after all. When his coaches gather after each scouting combine, Guenther calls them into his office and asks each position coach which players stood out to them.
"I tell them not to look at their notes. Don't look at anything. Just who do they remember before we start to get into the process," Guenther said. "I knew he stood out to me and Kevin mentioned he stood out to him."
Here's something else that stood out Thursday night. Will Jackson, as he prefers to be called, has already been a factor in the AFC North race. He's not on the Steelers and when Hue Jackson drew Coleman, the 5-10 Baylor speedster, the Bengals raised him with a 6-1 Jackson who also burns it.
The first-round formula down on the corner keeps the stakes high.
"His athleticism and speed and his foot quickness are exceptional for us," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We've obviously drafted guys in the first round at corner. And this guy would be on the level of some of the best athleticism with those players we've had here."