Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at each of the Jets draft picks. We’re now looking at each of the undrafted rookies, continuing today with an in-depth look at Washington State wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr.
Jackson is listed at 5’9” and 193 pounds and almost posted a thousand-yard season in 2021 as he was named to the all-Pac 12 second team. Prior to that, he had caught 38 passes in three seasons at Washington State and played two years at Independence Community College.
Jackson was a three-star prospect coming out of high school, with a father who had played six years in the NFL. He was originally going to attend Toledo but when he became academically ineligible he was forced down the junior college route.
Jackson headed to Independence Community College, which was the school featured in the Netflix documentary “Last Chance U”. In two years there, he caught 74 passes for 1,030 yards and nine touchdowns, although his production was lower in year two than in year one.
After these two years, Jackson headed to Washington State and caught 26 passes for 287 yards and two scores in his first season. Over the next two years, his career stalled as he caught just 12 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown and dealt with some injuries.
He was eligible to return in 2021 and was named as a second team all-Pac 12 selection after catching 66 passes for 987 yards and seven scores.
Jackson wasn’t invited to the scouting combine and wasn’t initially signed to an undrafted free agent deal after the draft. However, he impressed the coaches at Jets rookie camp to earn a contract after attending on a tryout basis.
Now let’s take a look at what Jackson brings to the table, divided into categories.
Jackson is undersized with an extremely small catch radius. He displays quickness and burst on film but his pro day numbers were basically average across the board with a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical and underwhelming numbers for agility and strength.
Jackson played exclusively on the outside until his final season but then moved into the slot for his breakout season. Due to his lack of size, that’s presumably the role that would be earmarked for him at the pro level.
In high school, Jackson also played free safety and was expected to take after his father who was a defensive back at the NFL level but ultimately preferred having the ball in his hands.
Jackson had some big plays in high school but didn’t make many downfield plays in his first three seasons with the Cougars. After moving into the slot, he established himself as more of a downfield threat, working down the seams and getting behind the defense a few times per game to raise his yards per catch average.
He is excellent at tracking the ball and locates it early so he can make a play on it before the defensive back can.
Despite his production working out of the slot in his final season, Jackson perhaps doesn’t show as much as you’d like to see from a smaller player in terms of his ability to generate separation.
Much of this is scheme related. Within Mike Leach’s spread offense, Jackson wasn’t really required to run a full route tree with most of his production coming on go routes, receiver screens and crossing patterns.
He did run the occasional in-breaking or out-breaking routes though, and looked competent at doing so:
One of the things that makes him successful on downfield route is how quickly he can accelerate, which often seemed to take his man by surprise.
This may be a case where Jackson has more route running ability than he’s been able to put on film, so perhaps he will pick up the Jets’ system more quickly than expected.
Jackson was solid when given opportunities in his first three years, generating a catch rate of over 80 percent with only two dropped passes. With more targets in 2021, his catch rate was still a solid 67 percent although he had four drops.
Despite his small catch radius, Jackson’s ability to locate the ball quickly gives him the ability to go up and over defensive backs to make plays.
Jackson can extend for leaping or diving catches and went viral after this sensational twisting grab for a touchdown last year.
This wasn’t a one-off incident because he also had this spectacular one-handed grab when he was in high school.
Only a few of Jackson’s 10 touchdown receptions for the Cougars actually came in the red zone, so he again needs to work at his ability to separate against man coverage to be an option near the goal line. He was targeted underneath a few times in the red zone, but failed to convert.
After the catch
Jackson generated plenty of yards after the catch, but a lot of this was just running away from the defense after downfield catches. He didn’t actually break many tackles at the collegiate level.
He was effective on tunnel screens with his ability to burst into space and follow his blocks. In 2021, they ran 10 of these, gaining 89 yards.
Jackson fumbled twice in his college career; once with the Cougars and once while at Independence.
Jackson gives some effort as a blocker but tends to have mixed results. His lack of size can be a detriment at times and he can sometimes get his angles wrong.
Jackson is able to make catches in close coverage and has a knack for using his body to create separation at the catch point. However, he will usually go down on first contact as a ball carrier and isn’t capable of dominating as a blocker.
He didn’t get called for any penalties during his four seasons playing for Washington State.
The Jets were trying Jackson out as a punt returner at rookie camp, despite the fact he didn’t return kicks or punts at Washington State. He did at high school, though, and returned five punts for 84 yards - including a 43-yarder - in his first year at Independence.
He saw some action covering kicks at Washington State, although he only recorded one tackle in two seasons within that role.
Instincts and Intelligence
Jackson was described as a savvy player by Leach and he shows that here as he adjusts his position to remain in the open area of the defense.
In all, he did quite a lot of damage against zone coverages and also displays good vision when catching short passes.
It’s been a tough journey to make it onto an NFL roster for Jackson, so he has displayed impressive toughness and determination to get this far. The fact he neglected his studies in high school would be viewed less as a character concern and more as an experience he will have learned from and overcome as he matured.
He’s had a chip on his shoulder since those days and carried that mentality with him into rookie camp to earn a contract.
On the field, Jackson’s discipline was good as he didn’t have a single penalty while with the Cougars.
Durability is a bit of a concern for Jackson who missed almost all of the 2020 season after suffering a serious leg injury in the opener but has also been banged up with various ailments throughout his time at Washington State. He had a hamstring issue in 2018 and a shoulder injury a lower body injury in 2021.
As noted, Jackson played in a spread offense so it may take him a while to get used to the intricacies of the Jets’ system. He will presumably be in the mix for a slot role.
He was a teammate of fellow rookie Jermaine Johnson II while at Independence and is the cousin of Cardinals wide receiver Hollywood Brown.
One concerning factor for Jackson is his late breakout, which happened when he’d have been three or four years older than most of the players he was facing. That advantage will disappear now, which could make the jump to the NFL level much more difficult.
The Jets have some depth at wide receiver, including a number of players who can play in the slot, so Jackson is a long-shot to make the roster in 2022. However, he’s impressed the coaching staff so far and could be a candidate for a practice squad spot if he continues to do so.