In June, ESPN’s Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety, ranked his top 10 fastest players in the NFL. Fifth on the list was receiver DeSean Jackson, who the Minnesota Vikings will face this Sunday.
“Even at age 30, Jackson hasn’t slowed down on the tape. One of the top deep threats in the league, Jackson has the ideal combination of vertical speed, route-running ability and body control at the point of attack. We saw that this past season when Jackson smoked the Giants on a deep post (watch). Separate on the break, track the ball and then make a highlight grab. That’s smooth. Based on what I see, I bet Jackson would drop a 4.3 on the stopwatch today. He can still fly.”
Jackson has a track record as the league’s premier deep threat. According to NFL.com “Next Gen” data, Jackson averaged 19.3 air yards per target last week, fourth-highest among receivers.
The route chart below comes via Matt Harmon of NFL.com.
Last season, Jackson only needed 56 catches to clear 1,000 yards, with 24 of his receptions coming on throws that traveled more than 10 yards in the air and 250 of his 1,005 yards came on four plays.
“His speed is probably as good as anybody in the league, but he does a good job of running routes,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said Thursday. “He does a good job of stemming at the top of the routes so we’ll have to be disciplined in what we’re trying to get accomplished when we’re guarding him this weekend.”
While the Vikings played Washington last year, they missed out on seeing Jackson. He missed the matchup with a shoulder injury. So Sunday’s game will mark the first time since 2014 that the star speedster matches up against head coach Mike Zimmer.
In their only battle, Jackson roasted the Vikings’ secondary for four catches on seven targets, 120 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s not a big mystery, he does a great job of setting guys up,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He sets guys up, reads coverages well, understands where the defender is and how to bend away from him.”
The Vikings’ defense is a lot different now than it was in 2014. On Sunday, there’s a good chance that star shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes will match up 1-on-1 with 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Evans, who led the Bucs in receptions last season. That could leave Trae Waynes to guard Jackson.
Waynes hasn’t had the start to the season the Vikings expected. They broke camp with hopes that he would take a step forward from a decent 2016 season, but Waynes took a 49-yard penalty while guarding Martavis Bryant and gave up a 51-yard catch. In Week 1, Waynes gave up nine receptions on 10 throws in his direction, including a 52-yard bomb to Tommylee Lewis.
Waynes has the speed to match Jackson. At the NFL Combine, the former Michigan State star ran a 4.31 40-yard dash, which is 0.04 quicker than Jackson’s mark way back when. But the Vikings’ former first-round pick has struggled to play the ball at times, even dating back to last season when he allowed a 48-yard throw from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson.
“We just have to keep working the fundamentals and the techniques of the position,” Edwards said. “Keep paying attention to the details and not grab at the top of the route so that’s what we’re working on this week and we get ready for the game.”
The Vikings do have options aside from having Waynes track Jackson. They could play each corner on their respective side and face off with Evans or Jackson depending on where each lines up or Zimmer could give Rhodes the Jackson assignment – though with a 40.5 inch vertical, Rhodes is probably a better fit against Evans.
They could also turn to Tramaine Brock if Waynes has issues with Jackson. Brock has been inactive over the past two weeks and Edwards would not say whether he will play this week. But Brock has been a starter over the last two years.
None of those choices make as much sense as giving the Vikings’ fastest corner the assignment of tracking Tampa’s fastest receiver. A good performance could set Waynes off in the right direction after two tough weeks.