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A comprehensive, comparative look at Justin Jackson’s NFL prospects

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Where does the skill set of Northwestern’s star running back fit in the NFL?

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Northwestern v Pittsburgh Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

By the time the NFL Draft rolls around, Justin Jackson will have been the bell cow of Northwestern’s offense for four years. Put simply, there aren’t a lot of guys that fit that description in the NFL right now, and there are still less who shouldered the collegiate load despite being slightly smaller and slower than the average NFL back.

Jackson makes up for his relative lack of size and speed in other areas, of course. He is one of the shiftier backs in the country, uses his stiff arm often to devastating effect, and can come out of the backfield to catch passes and block as well as any other top collegiate runner. While Jackson does not fit completely into the mold of any one NFL player, I’ve identified three current players in particular with whom he shares the most traits. Looking into the careers of those three, along with their draft position, should help us determine Jackson’s potential.

Paul Perkins, New York Giants

Perkins, who left UCLA a year early to go to the NFL, had a heavy workload during his time with the Bruins. In his sophomore and junior years of college, the second-year Giants running back averaged 244 carries, just under 6 yards per carry, and put up a combined 3,358 yards from scrimmage. Perkins also ran a 4.54 40-yard dash, and stands 5-foot-10 (Jackson’s reported median 40 time is 4.52 and he is typically measured at 5-foot-11). The UCLA star weighed in about 15 pounds heavier than Jackson, but their running styles are described as similar, with Perkins’ ability in both the running and passing game reminiscent of our favorite Northwestern RB: “Decisive when working between the tackles, but can bounce it when warranted. Flashes sudden, 1­-cut ability on stretch plays...Reliable hands when asked to help in passing game. Willing to stick his nose in against the blitz.” (From Perkins’ official NFL draft profile)

Perkins fell to the end of the fourth round, where the always running back-needy Giants snapped him up, mainly due to concerns with his size and speed. From the same profile: “If Perkins had more size and play strength to go with his elusiveness, we would be talking about whether he or Ezekiel Elliott would be the first running back off the board.”

However, there were also problems with his seeming inability to bounce off tacklers, something that Jackson often does well with use of his stiff arm. In the NFL, Perkins has struggled. After an up-and-down rookie year, he came into the 2017 season with the first shot at becoming the Giants’ featured back, but quickly succumbed to Orleans Darkwa and Wayne Galllman, putting up 32 carries for only 61 yards thus far. Perkins’ similar stature, speed, and strengths make him a solid comp for Jackson.

Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals

Ellington, a 4-year veteran out of Clemson, has caught on with the Cardinals as a special teams ace/third down back despite questions about his power and size. Though he wasn’t used a ton in college, he became the Tigers’ featured back for his junior and senior seasons, putting up 2,259 yards at 5.2 yards per carry and 36 receptions over those two years. Many believed in Ellington’s speed, but he proved to be more “quick” than fast—a phrase often used to describe Jackson as well—after disappointing at the combine with a 4.6 40. Despite dropping heavily thanks to his lackluster combine numbers, the Cardinals, who nabbed him in the sixth round, have consistently found a spot for Ellington on the field.

In his first couple of years, Ellington split carries, first with Beanie Wells and later with Chris Johnson. But with the arrival of star David Johnson last year, Ellington faded into the background, still doing special teams work but appearing as little more than an occasional change of pace on the offensive side. Johnson’s injury to start this season has opened things up a bit for Ellington, who has been targeted double-digit times in the Cardinals’ last two matchups. Coming out of college, questions about Ellington’s elusiveness and pass-blocking ability hounded him, and those issues certainly don’t affect Jackson. However, the two have strikingly similar frames (Ellington is 5-foot-10, 199 lbs, Jackson 5-foot-11, 193) and running styles, and Ellington’s ability to carve out a niche for himself as a hardworking background piece gives Jackson at least part of a road map for his potential NFL career.

Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions

As represented by the two players mentioned above, the NFL has many running backs who share several important traits with Jackson, but virtually none who combine below-average size and speed with top-tier elusiveness, versatility, a heavy workload, and a largely clean bill of health. Ameer Abdullah comes closest to hitting on each of these notes. Jackson’s fellow Big Ten product compiled 813 carries at Nebraska despite rarely seeing the field as a freshman and clocking in at just 5-foot-9, 195 lbs, with a combine 40 time of 4.53.

Jackson is at 935 carries for his career already, but Abdullah’s 257 carries per season over his last three years closely mirrors the 285 per season that his Northwestern counterpart laid out over his first three seasons. Abdullah averaged 5.6 yards per carry over his career to Jackson’s current number of 4.8, a difference that is at least partially explainable by the difference in offensive line ability, and Jackson’s number of receptions per season aligns almost exactly with Abdullah’s (for the latter’s last three seasons): 24 and 24.25.

The Lions picked Abdullah 54th overall, higher than any reasonable projection currently has Jackson going. He was held back from the first round by issues that should be by now becoming all too familiar: lack of elite-level size and speed. “Lacks ideal size that teams look for from a three-down running back. Frame is close to maxed out” (From his official NFL draft profile). He also had issues with ball control and pass protection, neither of which Jackson has struggled with. His positives include his burst and ability to turn the corner, ability to break arm tackles, and plus vision/patience, all of which Jackson possesses in spades.

His pass-catching ability was a touch above Jackson’s right now and he can contribute on special teams, but the two share several traits. During his three years in the league, Abdullah has had mixed success. After a promising, but limited rookie campaign, he suffered a season-ending injury two games into 2016 despite a clean bill of health throughout college. His return thus far has been a bit shaky: the third-year back is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry through 5 games, but has had success in the passing game and is still firmly entrenched in the starting role. So far, besides the injury, he has offered a best-case scenario for Jackson, and it helps that the two seem so comparable.

Justin Jackson’s heavy college workload, body type, and lack of top-end speed have helped detract from his amazing accomplishments at Northwestern in the eyes of NFL scouts. Despite his elite elusiveness and ability to play the role of pass protector and pass catcher, he is projected by most as a 4th-round pick currently, and may drop even lower as his recent cold stretch is accounted for (thanks, Northwestern offensive line). But if the contributions of the players above, especially Ellington and Abdullah, are any indication, than Jackson’s skills will give him a chance to at the very least cut out a role for himself in today’s NFL. And if things break right, he certainly has the capacity to be an every-down back.