NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Entering his fourth season, Tennessee Titans defensive back Adoree' Jackson could assume a different role in the secondary, which will likely involve extensive snaps as the nickel. New defensive backs coach Anthony Midget said the coaching staff expects great things from Jackson, who was drafted No. 18 overall in 2017.
Jackson used to return punts, but his special-teams snaps fell to just 12 in 2019 while logging 537 snaps in 11 regular-season games on defense -- primarily at left cornerback. He doesn't know if he will be asked to be the primary nickelback when the Titans eventually report for training camp, but he embraces the chance to expand his game. He is preparing for the additional set of responsibilities that would come with that role by asking questions during virtual meetings.
"Being able to go in these virtual meetings and listen in and see the picture, and the virtual classroom and things that we do is good to help get a better understanding and knowledge of the role and position just in case I’m needed," Jackson said via a virtual news conference last week.
"If I’m going to be playing more inside at nickel, and the difference is it’s more about being more aware of your surroundings for what the safeties may have, or the linebackers and everything, because you all play on one accord. When you’re playing corner you pretty much have to worry about yourself in those aspects, and playing the nickel is a lot of different assignments and alignments and techniques that come into play."
Jackson's speed and versatility make him a prime candidate to match up against the NFL's top receivers. Teams move their top pass-catchers around within the formation, including in the slot, to create favorable situations.
"I think a lot of times teams are looking at matchups and they’re putting their No. 1 guy in the slot for a big percentage of the game," safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "Somebody like Michael Thomas will go to the slot sometimes. Davante Adams, you’ll see him in the slot. You see guys try to take advantage of that matchup."
Throughout the 2020 season, Jackson might be asked to travel with a variety of receivers, including Adams, T.Y. Hilton from the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs, and Odell Beckham Jr. of the Cleveland Browns. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Jackson has a low base, allowing him to change direction with ease to stay with crafty route runners. His leaping ability and ball skills make him able to defend against bigger wide receivers.
Titans GM Jon Robinson complimented Jackson's ability to "match quickness and ability to mirror," which is critical when working in the slot against quicker receivers who can employ their shiftiness to get open.
Gone are the days where only shorter, quicker receivers played in the slot. While players such as Julian Edelman are still impactful, offensive coordinators have started to put bigger, more physical receivers inside to create a size advantage over smaller cornerbacks who traditionally play there.
"There’s always going to be changes in the game. You might see a smaller, faster guy outside, and a bigger guy inside with what they might like matchup-wise," Jackson said. "It depends on what team you’re playing. You go against Atlanta, you might see Julio [Jones] in the slot. You go against Kansas City, you see Tyreek [Hill], he may be outside or he may be inside. So, it just all has to do with what the coaches are looking for and what they use their guys for."
There's more to playing nickel than just coverage. Logan Ryan, the Titans' primary nickel corner last season, was asked to help out in run support, blitz the quarterback and more.
"That nickel guy has to be able to cover, he has to be able to blitz, he has to be able to fit in the run game, he has to be smart and he has to be able to do multiple things," Midget said. "So, it’s not just a guy that you put in the slot just to cover a guy. He has to be a guy that can go in there and mix it up versus the run and the pass, and handle everything we’ll give to that position mentally."
The Titans showed their confidence in Jackson by picking up his fifth-year option for the 2021 season, which included a $10.2 million price tag. Jackson didn't make an interception last season, but he played well down the stretch, including five passes defended in Tennessee's two playoff wins.
Despite not having OTAs due to the COVID-19 epidemic, Jackson vowed to find a way to get better every day. The expectations and potential for a player with Jackson's talent are extremely high, but his teammates believe he's up for the challenge.
"I know Adoree'. I know he’s motivated," Vaccaro said. "He loves football, he cares. I love playing with him, I love playing next to him. He’s a really smart player. I know he’s smart enough to do it. I know the nickel position takes a lot of football IQ, a lot of intelligence, and I know he has that. It’s on the coaches, whether they want to do that with him."