It took only a couple of possessions for Jalen Ramsey to realize that he had won. As he tussled and jawed with Bengals superstar A.J. Green early in their Week 9 showdown, the Jaguars’ young corner didn’t expect much pushback. Over an illustrious seven-year career, Green has been known for two trademarks: 1,000-yard seasons and stoicism. That’s why Ramsey was shocked midway through the first quarter when the receiver responded to one of his barbs. “I kind of got him to play my game,” Ramsey says. “I was surprised, but at the same time, instantly in my head it was like, Boom, got him. He’s out.”
With 10 seconds remaining in the first half, Ramsey shoved Green at the end of a 1-yard run. Green sprang to his feet, made his way behind Ramsey, and wrapped both arms around the cornerback’s neck before slamming him to the turf. A pair of right crosses to the head followed. Both players were ejected. Ramsey remembers feeling shocked by the ruling. “I successfully did my job, taking him out of the game completely,” Ramsey says. “Even on a whole ’nother level, [I] literally [took] him out of the game.”
The scuffle was the latest — and most widely publicized — dustup for the fifth-overall pick of the 2016 draft. During his rookie campaign, Ramsey clashed with legendary receiver Steve Smith after a Week 3 loss to the Ravens. A month later, Ramsey was ejected from a game against the Raiders after taking part in a special teams kerfuffle with wideout Johnny Holton. And this spring, he took a shot at Texans star DeAndre Hopkins through a photo posted to Instagram. Two years into his career, the 23-year-old has already earned a reputation for pushing opponents to the edge, even those whom he privately admires. In the days leading up to Jacksonville’s matchup with Cincinnati, Ramsey told his father that he was looking forward to facing a receiver with Green’s résumé. “There’s a respect factor there,” Lamont Ramsey says, “but when you’re on the field, I taught him that you put your pads on just like he does. Don’t be in awe of anybody.”
After slinking into the locker room and taking a quick shower following his ejection in the Bengals game, Ramsey made the five-minute drive from EverBank Field to his Jacksonville home. He flipped on the TV but avoided watching the final minutes of the Jaguars’ 23–7 win. His father, girlfriend, and agent arrived shortly thereafter. The group went to a nearby Ruth’s Chris Steak House with fellow cornerback Aaron Colvin and his fiancée and largely avoided talking about the game. “I was hot,” Ramsey says. “I was just pissed, thinking in my head, ‘Man, if I knew I was gonna get kicked out, I would have beat his ass.’”
The next week brought a deluge of video clips, talking-head segments, and questions that focused more on Ramsey’s agitating antics than his nearly flawless play over the first half of the 2017 season. Twenty-five games into his career, Ramsey looks like one of the top cornerbacks in football. His 13 pass breakups are tied for the league lead, and he’s emerged as one of the defining faces of a defense that can stake a claim as the NFL’s best and has propelled the Jaguars to a 6–3 start. Yet even as he’s developed into an All-Pro-caliber talent, Ramsey may be best known as a shit talker. “I don’t really pay too much attention to it,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change.”
The Ramseys spent most of Jalen’s childhood about 25 miles southeast of Nashville in a town called Smyrna, Tennessee. He was the youngest of two boys, born three and a half years after his brother, Jamal, and by the time he was a toddler he already had a knack for wreaking havoc. When Jalen was 3, he managed to trip and knock out his two front teeth while roughhousing at day care with Jamal and his friends. “Anything he could run into, he was probably running into it,” Jamal says. “He was fast paced, like Mighty Mouse in a sense. Small, fast, and running into everything. Just pure destruction from the time he could start walking until now.”
The boys spent virtually every waking moment together outside, playing games from tag to home run derby. Jalen was often surrounded by kids three or four years older than him, and to skirt being the last one picked, Mighty Mouse would often puff out his chest. “I kind of had to play with that arrogance to make [the other kids] think, ‘OK, he’s confident,’” Jalen says. “‘Let’s pick him up.’” Just like that, his journey to the Trash Talk Hall of Fame had begun.
While Jamal drifted to basketball when he was young, football was Jalen’s first love. Lamont remembers once asking his sons what they wanted to be when they grew up; Jalen responded that he wanted to be a football player, and when his father told him to make another choice, Jalen suggested he could be the police officer who stands on the field during games. Lamont, a captain at the Nashville Fire Department who has been employed there for 22 years, also made time to run Ramsey Performance Training, a facility he still oversees. He taught Jalen perfect push-up and pull-up form by age 9, and onlookers noticed as Jalen blossomed into a miniature version of his old man. “We just say it like it is,” Lamont says. “He’ll tell you the truth, and if you don’t like it, so what?” Their personalities led to battles of stubborn will. “They are the same exact person,” Jamal cracks, “only 20 years apart.”
For as naturally athletic as Jalen was, he was small throughout his childhood. While Jamal stood about 6 feet tall by the time he was in eighth grade, Jalen was a pint-size 5-foot-3 as a high school freshman. Doctors promised that he’d ultimately catch his towering older brother, and during his sophomore year Jalen sprouted 8 inches in a matter of months. His new frame helped further unlock his athletic gifts. At the national Nike combine the following spring, Ramsey recorded the best SPARQ score among players in the Class of 2013, and the fifth-best mark overall. Scholarship offers poured in, and recruiting website Rivals.com rated the Brentwood Academy standout as the best prospect in Tennessee.
Jalen’s truncated path to five-star status caused friction with his father, who made it his mission to keep Jalen’s feet planted on the ground. “His biggest thing was, ‘I want to push him so much that his mind-set changes, so that when he goes to college by himself, he’ll still have that [relentless] mind-set,’” Ramsey says. “He wanted to affect me when he wasn’t around. He did that successfully.”
Ramsey signed with Florida State in February 2013, immediately stepping onto the most talented defense in the country. The Seminoles’ roster was loaded with future NFL players upon his arrival: Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, and Ronald Darby, among others. Joyner was a senior that season, fresh off securing All-ACC honors in 2012. He recalls knowing that the then-18-year-old Ramsey belonged from the moment that he set foot in Tallahassee. “Seeing a lot of freshmen come in, you know what kind of attitude and demeanor is gonna get a guy through,” Joyner says. “[Jalen] came in with that determination as if he was coming up for business, not for fun. He lived up to the hype.”
On Labor Day weekend 2013, Lamont flew from Nashville to Pittsburgh to attend the Seminoles’ season opener. “As soon as I landed, I turned my phone on, and I had a [message]: Dad, call me, call me,” Lamont says. Jalen had been named a starter that morning, and while outwardly he was thrilled, inwardly his stomach churned. “Hell yeah, I was nervous!” Ramsey says. “I was [a freshman] on a team full of straight dogs.” On Pitt’s second drive of the game, with the Panthers up 7–0, Ramsey picked off redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage. Florida State never looked back, winning 41–13 and sparking a 14–0 campaign that would culminate in a national title.
“I about bawled out in there, just started crying,” Lamont says of that night in Pittsburgh. “That was a pretty proud moment.”
Charles Kelly served as Florida State’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach during Ramsey’s final two seasons on campus, giving the coach an ideal vantage point to watch Ramsey morph from a talented freshman cornerback into a top-five draft prospect who many scouts believed was the most versatile defender on the 2016 board. “[I told NFL coaches], ‘If I’m drafting, that’s the guy I’m picking,’” Kelly says. “What other guy at that time had played every position in the secondary, and played it at the level that he played it?” Despite watching Ramsey earn consensus All-America honors on the field, Kelly’s enduring memory from Jalen’s time at Florida State has nothing to do with football.
Ramsey also competed on the Seminoles’ track and field team, focusing primarily on the long jump. In the spring of 2015, the ACC Outdoor Championships were held in Tallahassee, so Kelly swung by as a spectator. Ramsey had already won the long jump with a leap of 7.96 meters when, on a lark, he also decided to run the 100-meter dash. Although he had little formal training as a sprinter, he qualified for the finals with a prelim run of 10.69 seconds. In the meet’s signature event, Kelly watched as Ramsey — a then-202-pound defensive back — ran a personal-best time of 10.61 seconds to finish in seventh place. “Just watching him compete [while] running the 100 meters that night, against all those guys who’d worked on it all year,” Kelly says, “that just about summed [up] who he was to me.”
Ramsey’s athletic superiority is made plain on the football field, but it might be best understood through his track-and-field exploits. As a junior in high school, he went so far as to try taking up the decathalon. There was just one problem: Ramsey had no experience with half of the events. He’d never held a shot put, never thrown a discus, and certainly never attempted to pole vault. It took a single practice for several of those concerns to disappear. “Obviously, he’s a great athlete,” Brentwood track coach Brad Perry says. “You can watch him play football and see that. But the thing that really stood out is that he has a really uncanny ability to be able to make adjustments to his body.”
By altering the angle of his foot placement in the shot put ring or adjusting the motion of his elbow while launching a discus, Ramsey started besting throwers who dwarfed him. The pole vault, though, was a different beast. Ramsey hated it. “I wasn’t trusting no little pole to propel me over all the way up in the air and land on a mat safely,” he says. In high school, Ramsey says, he weighed 195 — roughly 20 pounds heavier than most athletes who do the event. Rummaging through Brentwood Academy’s equipment, Perry dusted off a rarely used pole about as wide as the bottom of a pint glass. “It [was] basically like a telephone pole,” Perry says, “it was so hard to bend.”
Along with the physics inherent to pole vaulting, Ramsey also abhorred how he looked while struggling. During one practice from his junior year, Alabama’s football staff dropped in for a recruiting visit and watched as he stumbled his way through a training session. “It killed him that they saw him, quite frankly, look awkward,” Perry says. “He was so angry at the end.” Understanding his limitations, Ramsey went to Perry and formed a plan. He’d try to clear 9 feet and do his best to make up the deficit in the other events. Barely months into his career as a decathlete, Ramsey won the state title in Tennessee.
No event showcased Ramsey’s uncommon natural gifts like the long jump, though, as his style and feats remain the stuff of legend. He set the Tennessee high school state record in 2013, and the ferocity with which Ramsey would launch himself into the air and plummet into the sand sometimes felt as if it could cause a tremor, like a superhero crashing to the ground. “It’s almost a little bit of reckless abandon,” says Florida State track coach Bob Braman. “He slams down the runway like it’s the world championship and then takes off the board without any concern. He’s thrusting himself through the air without a lot of regard.”
Despite jumping with “more violence than grace,” as Perry puts it, and spending most of each year devoted to football, Ramsey placed fourth in the long jump at the 2015 NCAA indoor track and field championships, posting a personal-best mark of 26 feet, 1.75 inches. Spending time with Ramsey left a lasting impression on veteran Florida State jumping coaching Dennis Nobles, who describes him as a generational athlete who wanted to channel his gifts. “It was kind of like in the other arts,” Nobles says. “A guitar player is quite often going to learn how to play the banjo, going to learn how to play the bass, going to learn how the play piano. It was an outlet for his creative ability.”
Nobles, who watched long jumpers for more than 25 years at FSU, has no doubt that if Ramsey had taken up track full time, he could be headed to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics. “You knock 25 pounds off of Jalen and some of the nonfunctional muscle mass, and he’s probably close to a 27-foot long jumper,” Nobles says. “It would put him in the top five or six in the U.S., maybe top 15 in the world.”
Ramsey’s trash-talk training may have started early, but he says it took more than a decade before he believed his own boasts. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Florida State that he started to accept that he was the athlete and player he’d talked himself up to be. Even as he ascended to the top of recruiting lists, he watched his childhood friend, Corn Elder, win Tennessee’s Mr. Football award among Division II, Class AA backs in each of their final two high school seasons. “I always had doubts in my mind like, ‘Damn, maybe Corn is better than me,’” Ramsey says. “Maybe it’s just easy for me here.”
When Ramsey sealed the Seminoles’ 30–26 win at Miami in 2014 with a late interception — capping a performance in which he helped defeat Elder’s college team by deflecting four passes and forcing a fumble — those doubts finally faded for good. “I started believing, ‘All right, I’m that dude,’” Ramsey says. “‘I am who God wants me to be. I am who everybody thinks I am.’”
It was around that same time when Ramsey’s shit talking turned from a hobby into a full-blown obsession. Every week, he’d scour the internet, trying to learn everything that he could about the receivers he’d face the following Saturday. He dug through Wikipedia entries, Facebook pages, and Twitter timelines, searching for any tiny detail he could use to crawl under an opponent’s skin. “I would tell [a wideout] about his girlfriend, I would tell him about his mom. I would go personal, personal, personal,” Ramsey says. “I’d go as far as I needed to go to get him out of his game.”
He says that when he got to the NFL in 2016, that kind of studying stopped. Girlfriends had become wives. Photos of players’ children filled Instagram. Ramsey’s digs are simpler now — you’re trash; you won’t catch a pass; that was weak — but what makes them so effective is that they never stop. “I’m like a gnat,” Ramsey says. “I’m going to say something every single play. Literally every single play.”
Gnats thrive in humidity, and Jags teammate Allen Robinson says that Ramsey is most insufferable on those hot July days in training camp. Ramsey missed the early part of camp this year while recovering from abdominal surgery, but that didn’t prevent him from yapping on the sideline during entire practices. By his third day of listening to Ramsey’s incessant chatter, Robinson was fed up. “He was constantly chirping, nonstop, nonstop, nonstop,” Robinson says. “And for me, I’d kinda had it at that point.”
As the two talked afterward, tensions lessened. And Ramsey revealed the same motivations he and Robinson had discussed in the past. “Once you talk about it later, it’s like, ‘I’m going to let you know straight up, A-Rob, you will not play a corner like me,” Ramsey says. “If you can take what I do to you during practice, I can promise you’re going to be the best receiver in this league.”
Ramsey’s favorite NFL battles to date have come against DeAndre Hopkins. Ramsey adores matching up with physical receivers, and his three career games against the Texans have won Hopkins his unceasing respect. After their first matchup in 2016, Ramsey knew that he had to elevate his trash talk. So, rather than wait for their Week 15 game, he spent the days leading up to it dropping nuggets to reporters that he knew Hopkins would read on social media. “After one of his catches, [Hopkins] got up and said, ‘Don’t ever disrespect me again, saying that Amari Cooper is the best receiver you’ve played,’” Ramsey says. Matching wits with the best, Ramsey now understands his manipulation needs to involve the entire chessboard. He’s like Littlefinger — with a 42-inch vertical leap.
No one is spared from Ramsey’s web, even the people he cares about most. During team walkthroughs last season, he would knock down any pass thrown his way, much to the chagrin of then-Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. “He would tell me to stop, and I would say, ‘No, I won’t stop,’” Ramsey says. “I’m not going to even get in the habit of letting somebody catch it. It was just a mind-set thing. It got to the point at the end of the year when Blake [Bortles] would just throw it the other way.”
In the backyard, Jalen’s 8-year-old nephew, Jeremy, now gets the same treatment. Uncle Jalen rarely holds back, even during their games of Madden. It’s in these video game sessions that Ramsey has already started schooling him in the dark art of spitting junk — and that he hears Jeremy catching on. “At the end of the day, it’s in his blood,” Ramsey says. “I ain’t gotta teach him too much.”
Even as he’s grown to become the Yoda of shit talking, Ramsey admits that his cornerback education is ongoing. In that realm, A.J. Bouye is the master. The Jaguars handed Bouye a five-year, $67.5 million deal to join the team as a free agent this spring, further stacking their secondary. Bouye and Ramsey now comprise the most intimidating coverage duo in football, and the paths they took to Jacksonville couldn’t be more different. Ramsey is the corner any scout would build from scratch: His massive frame allows him to handle wideouts who thrive on physicality, yet he still has what it takes to shadow shifty slot receivers. Safety Barry Church recalls watching in awe during training camp as the 6-foot-2 Ramsey hounded the 5-foot-6 Shane Wynn in space. “That shit … that kind of amazed me,” Church says. “Like damn, that dude can do some work. If it’s a bigger receiver, [Jalen] can hang with those dudes. But those quick little scatterbug dudes, if you can hang with them, you’ve got talent.”
By contrast, Bouye has built his career on overcoming his pedigree and understanding the sport’s most minuscule details. Whereas Ramsey dominated the NFL combine in 2016, Bouye wasn’t even invited three years earlier. He went undrafted that year, but by his second season with the Texans, he was a starter. He’s now the eighth-highest-paid cornerback in football.
When Bouye arrived for OTAs in June, Ramsey was floored by the technical aspects of his game. Jacksonville’s defensive backs took to calling their new teammate “Sweet Feet,” and Ramsey spent all spring bugging Bouye to learn his tricks of the trade. “That’s the point I’m trying to get to, to not always be relying on my God-given talent all the time,” Ramsey says. “To get that technique perfect.” The pair spent hours analyzing film and swapping ideas on how to combat receivers. Bouye even taught Ramsey all that he knew about Hopkins: what his alignments mean, how he wants to “put hands on you,” the way to pull him through as a countermove.
The interplay between Bouye and Ramsey provides a window into what has made the Jaguars the most stifling pass defense in the NFL. A mixture of draft-day hits (Ramsey, Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, and Yannick Ngakoue) and key free-agent signings (Bouye, Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, and Church) has left this group with no clear weaknesses. Now perched atop the AFC South, the Jags lead the NFL in passer rating allowed (65.9) and sacks (35), and rank first in Football Outsiders’ passing defense DVOA.
Ramsey’s unmatched confidence has seeped into the rest of his Jaguars teammates. “We kind of feel it,” Ramsey says. “Like the secondary, we think that we’re the best part of this team. But we’ll hear the linebackers talking, and they’ll say the same thing. And we’ll hear the D-line talking, and they’ll say the same thing about their unit.” He’ll also tell anyone who’s listening — and some folks who aren’t — that the NFL’s best defense also boasts the league’s best cornerback. It just isn’t him. “[A.J.] is,” Ramsey admits. “He’s got a step on me right now. I’m pushing him, though, every day.”
True to form, Ramsey is quick to remind everyone that his time is coming — and soon. “I’m telling [A.J.], ‘Eventually, I won’t be saying this,’” Ramsey says. “I’m going to be letting people know that I am the best in the country.”