Three games into his career, Jalen Ramsey’s Richard Sherman impersonation has been near-perfect.
Sherman started talking as soon as he broke into Seattle’s starting lineup back in 2011. He picked off an Andy Dalton pass to A.J. Green in his first start, then laced into Green in postgame interviews, describing the Bengals superstar as "just a lot of noise talking and bad routes." Sherman followed that up with the "U mad bro?" tweet directed at Tom Brady in 2012, then went back and forth with Darrelle Revis the following offseason in a brief but entertaining Twitter beef about who was a better player. Everyone remembers Sherman’s outburst in 2014 when he took Michael Crabtree to task after making a play that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, and his pièce de résistance was an on-air exchange with Skip Bayless on ESPN.
After telling us that he was the best player in the 2016 draft back in March, Ramsey has since dared Aaron Rodgers to throw his way and treated Steve Smith Sr. — you know, this Steve Smith Sr. — like that kid no one really liked in fifth grade. That might seem like a stretch coming from a member of the 0–3 Jacksonville Jaguars, but much like Sherman, Ramsey’s backed up all his talk with some of the best play we’ve seen from a first-year defensive back in a really long time.
The Jaguars took Ramsey with the fifth overall pick in April’s draft because of his combination of size (6-foot-1, 211 pounds), speed (ran a 4.41-second 40), explosiveness (41.5-inch vert) and versatility (played both corner and safety at Florida State). No college product since Patrick Peterson, who also went fifth in the 2011 draft, has offered the same set of attributes — and despite his team’s struggles, Ramsey already looks like he’s well on his way to putting it all together and becoming the NFL’s next shutdown cornerback.
Before Jacksonville’s Week 1 matchup against Green Bay, Ramsey said, "I’m not scared, throw my way if you want to." It was a challenge directed to Rodgers, just before his first game as a pro.
Ramsey played mostly in the slot against Rodgers and Co., mixing between off-technique and tight coverage up at the line of scrimmage. He looked smooth and disciplined in coverage, and while the Packers won the game, Ramsey made sure to point out afterward that the Green Bay quarterback "didn’t throw [his] way."
That wasn’t exactly true — Pro Football Focus had him as the defender on four targets and three catches — but Ramsey did shut down the receivers in his area. Each of those catches was for a short gain and came on underneath dump-offs or quick passes that the Jaguars’ defensive design encourages.
Rodgers really challenged Ramsey only once — on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the rookie lined up across from Randall Cobb. Cobb ran an out-breaking route in the end zone, which is an extremely difficult situation for a cornerback, as Cobb has the option of going either inside, outside, or just straight up the seam. Ramsey reacted to the route like a veteran, stayed with Cobb step for step, and did enough to force Rodgers to push the ball too far outside.
In the Week 2 matchup with the Chargers, the Jaguars moved Ramsey to the right side of their defense — and again, despite his team’s loss, Ramsey shone. He was targeted five times, giving up just three catches for 25 yards, and he showed that coverage is not his only talent. Late in the second quarter, Ramsey blew up an attempted screen play:
That physicality showed up on Sunday against the Ravens as well. On three separate plays — the first two in the second quarter and then in the third frame — Ramsey flew downhill to make big tackles.
In just his third start, the Jaguars moved Ramsey over to their left side, which is generally thought of as the tougher half of the field because right-handed quarterbacks are more comfortable throwing, and more likely to throw, to their right. As Jacksonville’s de facto no. 1 corner, he was nearly flawless in coverage, particularly when lined up across from Smith. Whatever the two said to each other during the game, Smith apparently took exception to it, and approached Ramsey after the Ravens had won. Ramsey shrugged it off.
"Once you’re beating your opponent who’s in front of you, physically and psychologically, they tend to get mad like that," he told reporters after the game. "I don’t care how old he is. I don’t care. If you line up in front of me, you’re going to get me. If that made him angry, then he can go home and sleep on it."
[Extremely fire emoji]
Smith finished with eight catches for 87 yards, but just one of those came against Ramsey — a quick out route for 9 yards in the second quarter. On the day, PFF credited Ramsey for coverage on six targets, with four catches given up, and those four catches amounted to a grand total of 13 yards. Joe Flacco rarely looked his way downfield, and the two times he did, Ramsey made great plays.
The first came early in the first quarter. As Mike Wallace tried to get behind Ramsey on a go-route, the rookie wasn’t having it.
The second came with 5:31 remaining in the game. Flacco lofted a pass down the seam in the direction of Dennis Pitta but threw behind him; Ramsey laid out, got a hand on it, and tipped it right into the hands of safety Tashaun Gipson.
The Jaguars would go on to blow their lead and lose the game, but not on account of the great play from their first-year corner. On the season, Ramsey has surrendered just 63 yards in coverage on 10 catches — the lowest yardage mark for any corner in the league with 10 or more targets — and the average of 6.3 yards per catch tells you exactly what types of routes he’s giving up when opposing passers do throw it his way.
Ramsey has played all three cornerback positions for the Jaguars — both sides, and in the slot — and has the athleticism, technique, and, importantly, the confidence to develop into an elite cover corner. It’s rare to find any player with Ramsey’s size and physicality on the outside that can also bump inside and play over the slot, let alone a rookie with three starts to his name. Like Sherman, he knows how to use his agility and length in coverage, but learning the intricacies of opposing offenses — the route combinations, tendencies, and nuanced tells a quarterback betrays — will be what he’ll need to master next. The Jags may be looking at another losing season, but Jacksonville fans can at least take solace in knowing Ramsey is going to be a star.