From the moment he stepped on the field as a Wildcat, Justin Jackson has produced. A four-year starter, Jackson went over the 1,000-yard mark in each of his four seasons in Evanston and set pretty much every Northwestern rushing record imaginable. He was remarkably consistent game in and game out, never missing time due to injury and managing a career YPC of 4.8. His 2017 season saw the Ball Carrier set a new record seemingly every week, capped off by another vintage performance in the Music City Bowl. Though Justin Jackson is incredible enough to have a week in his honor at InsideNU.com, he’s pegged to be drafted in the sixth or seventh round of the NFL Draft next week because of concerns about his size and extensive workload in college. Here’s a comprehensive look at Justin Jackson, the NFL Draft prospect.
Here’s a look at JJ’s combine measurements, courtesy of Mockdraftable.com, and how they stack up against other draft-eligible running backs.
Obviously, Jackson’s athleticism tested very well. His 40-yard dash time of 4.52 was exactly even with Georgia’s Nick Chubb, and was faster than USC’s Ronald Jones II (4.65) or Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson (4.54). In the shuttle and cone drills, Jackson’s elite athleticism showed. However, Jackson’s measurables are less inspiring, and a cause for concern among NFL scouts. At 193 pounds, he’s a little thin for a running back, and his lack of strength is a cause for concern too.
The Christian McCaffrey comparision is an interesting one. Jackson and McCaffrey have similar bodies and carried similar workloads in college, though McCaffrey was a feature back for only two years. Coming out college, McCaffrey was the superior athlete and displayed more versatility, which is why he was a first round pick in 2017, but he is proof that someone with Jackson’s body type and athletic profile can succeed in the NFL.
You don’t get to 5,440 career rushing yards without an elite skill or two. Jackson’s calling card is his elusiveness, held up by his incredible agility. Quickly cutting laterally to elude a defender is Jackson’s best strength. He can make a defensive lineman miss in the backfield to escape for a five-yard run, or juke a safety to break off a long touchdown.
He’s also got an unique ability to find creases in tight areas for extra yardage, or cut back for a bigger gain. Northwestern’s offensive line struggled at times, but Jackson maintained his production over four years because of his ability to find yards wherever he could using his excellent vision and slipperiness. His cutback on this touchdown against Nebraska was one of the more memorable jukes of 2017.
Another weapon in Jackson’s arsenal is the stiff arm. NFL scouts may bemoan Jackson’s short arms, but JJBC definitely does a lot with what he has, employing his stiff arm liberally to stymie defenders.
Jackson’s pass catching ability also developed nicely over his four years at Northwestern. He emerged as an important tertiary option in the passing game, offering a check down to Clayton Thorson. He was third on the team with 44 receptions in 2017. His overtime catch against Iowa is Justin Jackson at his best— versatile, elusive, and clutch.
Jackson always seemed to turn it on when Northwestern needed a boost, whether it was back to back 170-yard plus performances on the road against Iowa and Michigan State in 2016, his dominant 224-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Pinstripe Bowl, or finishing with 157 yards and two scores in the Music City Bowl after Clayton Thorson went down with an injury.
No one can take away Jackson’s accomplishments at Northwestern. He’s the most productive Northwestern running back ever, and one of the most productive running backs in the history of the Big Ten. Scouts are concerned about Jackson’s workload in college and his measurables. Given NFL running backs have such a short shelf life, teams have to be worried about drafting someone with nearly 1300 touches accrued already. The fact that Jackson never had a major injury and often played when he was banged up won’t earn him many brownie points.
Jackson’s rather diminutive stature for a running back, at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, doesn’t assuage concerns about his durability, either. The first four listed concerns on his draft profile page all have to do with his body type. His lack of strength means Jackson could become too reliant on his east-west juke moves, which worked incredibly well in college but might not be as effective against NFL defenders. Physically, Jackson just doesn’t stack up well against many of his 2018 counterparts, which is why he’s not considered a top-15 running back despite his incredible collegiate production.
Justin Jackson Career Stats
Jackson is probably going to hear his name called on the third day of the draft, in the sixth round or later. He’s certainly not going to be drafted by a team looking for the former Wildcat to be a feature back. NFL.com has him logged as an NFL backup or special teamer moving forward, and ESPN, CBS, and NFL.com all have him ranked 16th or lower in their running back rankings.
There’s a reason Jackson didn’t leave Northwestern early despite three solid seasons. His immense production in college belies some of his shortcomings as an NFL back, especially as an every-down type of runner. Nonetheless, someone will take a look at Justin Jackson because of his elite elusiveness, vision, and agility. Given his success at the college level, there’s no reason to believe JJBC won’t carve out an NFL role.