Cornerback William Jackson III hits free agency for the first time, likely to have a ton of options. While he’s played his entire career with the Cincinnati Bengals, he could make more money in a new situation. Jackson has some flaws and injury history but also has tremendous upside. Cincinnati does have the leverage of a franchise tag, though that could be too rich for Jackson. Regardless, it appears Jackson will receive a big payday this spring.
As cornerback William Jackson Hits Free Agency, Many Teams Could Have Interest
Spending his entire career in Cincinnati, Jackson is at a crossroads. He’s had up-and-down moments with the Bengals, though he’s posted several high-caliber seasons. Jackson is coming off of a particularly strong 2020 season, though he recorded just one interception. After allowing a 51.4% catch rate and 88.2 quarterback rating when targetted, Jackson is certain to receive lucrative contract offers. His solid 72.4 grade in coverage from Pro Football Focus further drives the point home. While Jackson is important to the team, they’re also in a tricky spot with young edge rusher, Carl Lawson. Both players could head to greener pastures in free agency.
There does exist a case in which Cincinnati reaches an extension or franchise tags Jackson ahead of free agency. However, their spending from the last off-season might cripple that option. The team paid Trae Waynes a three-year, $42 million a year ago and could be uninterested in paying two corners to be number-one options. Waynes spent all of 2020 dealing with an injury but is likely to assume the top corner role in 2021. Regardless, Cincinnati struggled in games without Jackson. Missing Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens allowed Lamar Jackson to casually pick-apart the Bengals defense. Still, the evidence of the Bengals’ porous defense without Jackson could enhance his value to another team. Certainly, losing Jackson adds more questions to a tricky Bengals offseason.
Bringing in a new regime and having plenty of cap space to spend, Jackson could certainly land with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team greatly missed All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey after trading him to the Los Angeles Rams. Now, needing help with shutting down opposing offenses, Jackson presents the team with a strong perimeter fit. The team last made a corner splash signing A.J. Bouye in 2017, but have since released the cover man. C.J. Henderson was a solid rookie corner and seems likely to improve next season. However, Tre Herndon is a less-than-savory second option. Jackson would bring immediate impact to Joe Cullen’s new defensive group. Further, he fills the top-tier void facing Jacksonville since trading Ramsey. Jackson would mark a strong first splash of the Urban Meyer-era.
In need of a new defensive identity, the Atlanta Falcons make sense for a William Jackson III free agency run. Granted, the Falcons are $19 million above the cap and need to make some tough decisions this offseason. They do own the fourth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, though a solution at cornerback doesn’t seem likely to come from this selection. Jackson might find the opportunity to work with defensive coordinator Dean Pees quite appealing. Pees returns from retirement to work with new head coach Arthur Smith. Over his career, including a Super Bowl championship calling defensive plays for Baltimore in 2012, Pees has generated many top-tier defensive units. Most recently, Pees worked to generate a strong defense with the Tennessee Titans before temporarily retiring. Joining the ranks with Pees could allow Jackson to break-out like never before as the team’s top coverage corner. After A.J. Terrell’s rocky rookie season, taking the pressure off by adding Jackson seems like an appealing decision for all parties.
Playing his college ball at the University of Houston, returning home could make a lot of sense for Jackson. While the Houston Texans are in a strange spot as an organization, they would certainly benefit from adding William Jackson in free agency. The team allowed 7.1 net yards per passing attempt last season, fifth-worst in the NFL. It also wouldn’t be the first time Houston nabbed a top corner in free agency from Cincinnati. Houston grabbed Johnathan Joseph in 2011, immediately improving their defensive group. Jackson would represent a similar impact and upgrade in Houston, even with Bradley Roby returning from suspension next season. With $16.8 million in current cap space and more cuts coming, Houston has the assets to bring Jackson home.
After having one of the worst defensive groups a season ago, the Dallas Cowboys need to establish a new identity for their ball-stopping group. With $20 million in open cap space, they’ll have the room to sign a stand-out player like William Jackson III in free agency. Further, it allows Jackson to find a different version of a homecoming to his native Texas. The Cowboys have been rumored to have an interest in other marquee corners via trade. Now, they could hand Jackson a huge contract to be their leading man. With Jourdan Lewis underwhelming in four seasons with Dallas, Jackson is a clear upgrade. Further, Jackson could thrive under Dan Quinn, the engineer of the Legion of Boom defensive groups with the Seattle Seahawks.
The Carolina Panthers are building something unique under head coach Matt Rhule. While they could be more focused on acquiring younger talent, Jackson would certainly allow them to progress on defense next season. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow could certainly benefit from adding more veteran talent on his side of the ball. Donte Jackson and Troy Pride Jr. were fine last season, but neither have the acclaim of William Jackson III. Ranking 15th in passing yards allowed a season ago, Carolina might not see coverage upgrades as a necessity. However, with more than $15 million in cap space, Jackson is a clear upgrade for that group. Carolina could look to improve elsewhere, but Jackson makes sense for a team on the rise in the NFC South.
While it might be unlikely for now, returning to Cincinnati might be the best option for Jackson. The team lacks depth behind Jackson and Waynes, though they could target veterans in free agency to fill the void. Jackson joined Cincinnati under the Marvin Lewis regime and it’s unknown how well he meshed with the current coaching staff. While his departure could cause significant difficulties for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, the team isn’t without options. Darius Phillips had some really bright moments in his second season, though he’s proven inconsistent. The former first-round pick could continue his career with Cincinnati, citing his ability to continue a run of successful seasons with the team.
William Jackson III hits free agency as one of the top coverage corner options. Certainly, someone might hand him a very lucrative deal to be their top corner or even an excellent second option. As of now, it seems likely that Jackson departs from Cincinnati this spring. The 28-year-old corner has a solid reputation and some good football under his belt. While Cincinnati might be in a rough spot without Jackson, he could make a new team very happy. Further, it could allow him to make a chase for his first Pro Bowl appearance.
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