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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Dane Jackson: Diamond in the rough?

Written by Greg Boucher

Since taking the helm Brandon Beane has completely revamped this franchise, addressing nearly every deficiency on this roster since 2018. He solved a decades old problem at QB when he drafted Josh Allen, he injected star power and speed to a depleted receiving corps signing Beasley and Brown before trading for Diggs. He spent high draft capital on young running backs in consecutive years takin Singletary and Moss in the 3rd round. He signed one of the league’s best centers in Mitch Morse and locked up two of the leagues better offensive tackles in Dawkins and Williams. On the defensive line he added tremendous size and talent to an aging front drafting Oliver, Epenesa, Rousseau and Basham while paying the price to keep the speed and versatility at the linebacking position with Milano and Edmunds. While Beane has revamped nearly every aspect of this roster the one group he has not tinkered with has been the secondary. He was handed one of the NFL’s best units, one that featured a talented trio of Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and 2017 1st round pick Tre’Davious White. What was absent in 2018 and has been since he has taken over is a quality cornerback to man the boundary across from White. In Beane’s four years as the Bills general manager he has drafted a total of five cornerbacks not having used higher than a 4th round pick to upgrade the position. The predominant starter at CB2 the past three seasons and the intended starter heading into this season is the former UDFA Levi Wallace, who was resigned this off-season. His play has been somewhat pedestrian with moments of success and disappointment throughout. Wallace’s major deficiency is his lack of downfield speed and twitchiness which has hampered his coverage and limited the scheme. While the Bills’ defense has proven they can win with Wallace as the majority starter there is a looming issue with remaining status quo. The better Tre White becomes, and many anticipate him developing into one of the top cover guys in the league, the more opponents will shy away from him. This will increase Wallace’s workload and the probability for let major let downs. Despite the concern for the position Beane did little this off-season to upgrade it. He failed to sign any of the marquee players available in free agency nor did he use any of his high draft picks. This leads many to believe that Beane and McDermott are confident in Dane Jackson emerging as a diamond in the rough.

Jackson showed up late on many people’s radar as he suffered from a covid interrupted pre-season. He missed out on the normal activities and practices and the ever-important pre-season games where late round rookies get the reps to showcase their skills and move up depth charts. Despite being a 7th round pick, Jackson has talent and having played at Pitt which runs a similar scheme he fits well into McDermott’s system. He has decent measurables for a cornerback, standing at 6 foot and weighing just shy of 190lbs. He also possesses good arm length (30 3/8 in) which he utilized well in college, picking off 4 balls while breaking up 39 passes over his four-year career. He is also a smooth athlete, coordinated and controlled in coverage, with good burst transitioning to the break. Jackson was as instinctive as he was competitive in college, refusing to give up the easy catch, allowing a stingy 42% completion rate. The big knock-on Jackson, which more than likely kept him from being a day two pick was his pure speed. He clocked in with a 4.60 and a 4.57 at the combine, ranking him 22nd overall amongst defensive backs.

It was clear from the onset that the plan for Jackson was to transition slowly, allowing him time to get acclimated to the NFL, but injuries and lack of depth thrust him into the line-up earlier than McDermott had anticipated. Jackson saw his first bit of NFL action in week 7 vs the Jets when he was called up from the team’s practice squad but the 7th rounder did not allow the big stage to distract him. He played extremely tough, breaking up a couple passes as well as notching his first career interception against Sam Darnold. “That was huge, for any rookie to contribute like that, especially coming off the bench the way he did. That’s our team, you know, next man up mentality.” McDermott said of the rookie’s performance. “It’s a great lesson for the rest of the young players on our team that when your number is called you better be ready.” With that performance the young corner became the topic of conversation in Bills’ circles. Considering the lackluster play from the position, fans expected to see a great deal more of him going forward. Unfortunately, when Levi Wallace and Josh Norman returned to health Jackson was demoted and put back on the shelf. Jackson did not participate in the following New England game and only managed a few snaps in the Seattle game. He did not surface again until week 10 vs Arizona where he logged 8 tackles, while a key pass break up vs Deandre Hopkins, one of the game’s most elite pass catchers. Despite an encouraging performance Jackson was demoted again for a healthy Wallace and Norman, further aggravating Bills fans who had grown tired of the aforementioned players. Jackson did not see the field until the season finale against Miami, after the Bills had clinched the division and chose to rest a majority of starters but yet again Jackson showed out registering 3 tackles and 2 pass break ups on the day.

Two starts and a few series are a microscopic sample size for an NFL player but Jackson’s performance last year has many expecting big things from the 2nd year corner. Beane had stated several times that he will be given every chance to compete for the starting job opposite Tre White. Throughout this off-season Jackson has not let his supporters down, reports of his work outs with NFL freak and Pitt alumnus, Arron Donald have opened some eyes. Sure, the two play entirely different positions but for the 190lbs. corner to partake in the same sessions as the former defensive player of the year speaks to his commitment of getting bigger and stronger going into this season. Jackson did not just turn heads with his off-season workouts he was equally impressive during the recent OTA’s, something the young corner missed out on in 2020. Jackson made several notable plays during the practices; one caught the eye of veteran safety Jordan Poyer. “The first play out there today, I think he had a one-on-one rep with Diggs, and he broke up the pass… That dude can play… He’s only going to gain his confidence the more he plays. I think the sky is the limit for that dude.” Poyer said of Jackson during a recent interview. Its not only the players who are noticing Jackson’s potential either, it’s the coaches.

“It’s still early, we’re only in our fifth OTA practice today, but I can see how he’s handling himself in the meetings, the way he carries himself in practice. He’s not that shy rookie that I saw when we had camp a year ago, that guy who didn’t say two words, and you had to pull him upfront to just get to know him a little bit. Now he’s out there high-fiving, talking with his teammates, laughing and joking. It’s a good thing. He’s comfortable with his teammates, and that should allow him to go out and just play free and enjoy the experience.” Bills defensive coordinator and former defensive back Leslie Frazier said.

We have been told for several years now to “Trust the process” when it comes to the direction of this team and the decisions HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have made with this roster. The dramatic turnaround of this once fledgling franchise has earned them our allegiance as a fan base and if their words and actions are telling us that Dane Jackson could very well be “that guy.” I think we should trust them.

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