INDIANAPOLIS – Whether Iowa’s Josh Jackson or Ohio State’s Denzel Ward ends up the highest-rated cornerback won’t be known until draft night.
What is known now is they’re players with different strengths. Neither early entry in this draft is the slam-dunk, perfect prospect at the NFL’s most unforgiving defensive position, but the tools and potential both possess are immensely promising for the projected first-rounders.
Jackson is a ball hawk first and foremost. In his only year as a full-time starter for the Hawkeyes in 2017, he intercepted a nation-best eight passes, including five against the two teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin) that played for the Big Ten championship.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Jackson ran back both of his picks against the Badgers for touchdowns, and his whopping 26 overall passes defensed in one season jumps off the stat sheet.
“I think I’m a leader, I’m a playmaker,” Jackson said Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I know when I step on the field I’ll be able to make plays.
“Whatever team I go to, they’re going to be able to rely on me to be accountable.”
His overall speed has been questioned, though, so his 40-yard dash time on Monday could impact his draft position considerably. He’s aiming to run in the 4.4s.
He also was mostly a zone cornerback, and he admitted scouts want to see him be more “hands on” at the line of scrimmage and play better man-to-man technique.
Only starting for one year at Iowa, after two years as the nickel corner, is an issue that cuts both ways. Some might say it’s an indication of how much better he could become. Others will wonder about his NFL readiness.
“Some teams may be hesitant, but I think it’s football,” Jackson said. “A lot of people can play regardless if you’re a (one-year) starter or three-year starter. If you can play ball, you can play ball.”
Ward feels the same way about the biggest knock on him, his size. At 5-10, 184, the speedy cover guy believes the film of some of his tackles shows that he plays bigger than he measures.
One of those big hits came early in 2016 against Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews, in an emotional game for Ward.
“What was special about that game, that day was my dad’s birthday,” Ward said of his late father, Paul, who had passed away suddenly at age 46 the previous spring. “It was hard for me that game. I kind of made that game in honor of him.”
Ward also takes a lot of pride in his Ohio State pedigree. Assuming he’s chosen in the first round of the draft, he’ll be the fifth Buckeyes defensive back and fourth corner to be a first-rounder just in the last three years.
Ohio State had three first-round picks from its secondary last April – cornerback Marshon Lattimore was chosen 11th overall by the Saints and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, safety Malik Hooker went four picks later to the Colts, and cornerback Gareon Conley was chosen 24th overall by the Raiders. The year prior, cornerback Eli Apple was selected No. 10 by the Giants.
“I definitely feel like I want to uphold the tradition of being that next guy to come out of Ohio State, be a first-round draft pick and produce in the league,” he said.
Ward added that NFL teams want to see him locate and track the ball better in the air, which when paired with his speed could boost his interception total of just two in three collegiate seasons.
Still, anytime he was matched up against the opponent’s top target, he relished the opportunity.
“I definitely feel like (in that situation) I’m the best player on the field,” he said. “I take pride in being on the island and competing with that receiver.”
Given the unpredictable nature of the draft, it’s possible at the 14th overall pick the Packers will have their choice of these two Big Ten stars to help at cornerback, or they might not get a shot at either one.
Whichever way it falls, the attitude and approach of both players are among the many likeable traits amidst the expected imperfections.
“Nothing’s going to be given to you,” Jackson said. “You have to earn it.”