Talent evaluation isn’t just about finding players who are good at what they do. More important is finding players who are good at what you do, and if your scheme cannot bend to what the player does well, no matter how well he does it, it’s not going to work out.
That is what happened with the Washington Commanders and cornerback William Jackson III, to hear head coach Ron Rivera tell it after the NFC East bottom-dwellers traded the former first-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for an exchange of 2025 late-round draft picks.
“We looked at what we tried to do with William and it didn’t work”, he admitted in a candid conversation with JP Finlay on Washington Football Talk. “Quite honestly, we didn’t find the fit that we were hoping to find. We were looking for a guy that had a specific skill set that could understand the match coverages and play the match coverages the way we do with everybody else, and he struggled with it because he really is a man coverage-type guy. Along the lines during our evaluation process, we were wrong”.
Coming out of Houston as an older player, Jackson was a fast riser on the draft boards in 2016. The Steelers coveted him—former defensive backs coach Carnell Lake acknowledged that they were all set to draft him before the Cincinnati Bengals scooped him up one pick ahead—and now they have him.
Now 30 years old as of a few days ago, he has spent the past two seasons since signing a free agent contract with Washington playing in a zone system in which he has not been comfortably and to which he has struggled to adapt. Although his interception numbers while in Cincinnati didn’t jump out at you, however, he was a very solid cover corner, which is what Pittsburgh is hoping he can bring to them for the remainder of the 2022 season. They scouted him coming out of college and identified him as a scheme fit, so now they get to find out.
“Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. And when you get it wrong, when you recognize it, realize it, time to move on”, Rivera said about the decision to pull the trigger on the Jackson trade, adding that it wasn’t entirely without consideration for the player.
“That’s’ what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to, not just for our sake”, he added, “but also to give William an opportunity to go to a team that knows that they’re gonna give this guy a shot to use his skill set in exactly what they do specifically”.
He will get that opportunity now. The Steelers already have Cameron Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Levi Wallace (plus James Pierre and Josh Jackson) at the outside cornerback position, but neither Witherspoon nor Wallace should impede his path to playing time.
With the team on a bye week, they will have time to baptize Jackson into their system, though he shouldn’t be wholly unfamiliar with it. Not only did he play his first four seasons in the AFC North, he also played under Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for one season in 2018. Austin has been in Pittsburgh since then, including previously in a role that emphasized the secondary.
The Steelers will owe him a proportional amount of his 2022 $5 million base salary plus $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses for the remaining 10 weeks of the year. He is due $12.5 million plus per-game roster bonuses in 2023, the final year of his contract, but if the two sides determine over the next couple of months that this is a relationship that works, then an extension would be worked out to keep him here at a significantly reduced cap charge. If not, they could release him with no dead money, since the Commanders own the prorated portions of his contract.