NFL News & Analysis

Jaguars' Tyson Campbell is striving for greatness as one of NFL's ascending cornerbacks

  • Tyson Campbell’s ascent: The Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback is PFF’s sixth-highest graded cornerback as a second-year player.
  • Famous friends: Campbell and former high school teammate Patrick Surtain II still assist each other in preparing for opposing wide receivers.
  • Growing pains: A high school coach details Campbell’s brief ugly start to playing cornerback.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

It’s not uncommon for highly drafted players to quickly fall out of favor under a new coaching regime. A perfect example exists with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who selected cornerback C.J. Henderson ninth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft when Doug Marrone was head coach, David Caldwell ran the show as general manager and Todd Walsh served as defensive coordinator. Henderson was traded for 25 cents on the dollar along with a fifth-round pick for tight end Dan Arnold and a third-round pick a year after Urban Meyer took over as head coach with Joe Cullen at defensive coordinator and Trent Baalke as GM.

On the flip side of the coin, Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell is thriving under a new head coach in Doug Pederson and a new defensive coordinator in Mike Caldwell this season as one of the NFL’s best young defenders. The 2021 second-round pick improved his PFF coverage grade from 59.9 as a rookie to 79.0 this season, and he’s coming off one of the best performances of his career, when he allowed three catches from six targets for eight yards with two pass breakups in a game that the Jaguars otherwise gave up 381 yards and three touchdowns to Indianapolis Colts QB Matt Ryan in Week 6. His 0.14 yards per coverage snap Sunday was the fourth-lowest by a cornerback who was targeted at least five times in a single game this season.

“It's more of a variety of defenses,” Campbell said of Caldwell’s scheme. “We play a lot of things and mix a lot of things up. The defense is based on everyone's strengths. I feel like he's calling plays based on his personnel. He knows what his guys are really good at and that allows us just to play free and play fast.”

The Georgia product keeps it relatively simple when describing his strengths: tackling, covering, quickness to break on the ball and making plays. He’s an “effort guy.”

He’s also a 6-foot-1 cornerback who can run a 4.40-second 40-yard dash.

Based on PFF’s grading, Campbell ranks best against out routes, in routes and slants in Cover-2, Cover-3, quarters and Cover-6 in addition to in press coverage looks.

An AFC personnel executive sees a “bright future” for Campbell.

“He’s a talented youngster,” he said. “Longer frame with speed. He’s been playing well and it’s hard to play (cornerback) in this league nowadays.”

Campbell is PFF’s sixth-highest graded cornerback (min. 200 snaps) this season with a 79.5 overall mark. He ranks ninth with 10 defensive stops and has allowed 20 catches on 33 targets for 188 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and three pass breakups. His 33% open-target rate is tied for 11th among cornerbacks with 66-plus coverage snaps, and his 0.76 yards per coverage snap ranks tied for 18th.

Campbell is clearly locked in this season.

“I’m just being big on my preparation, whether it be how I practice, how I study when I’m at home by myself,” Campbell said. “Those play a big factor in helping the game slow down for me so I can play faster on Sundays.

“Just getting an idea of my opponent, what they like to do. Fix my mistakes that I’ve made in the prior game or prior week of practice. And then my practice habits, running to the ball, using my technique, so that allows me to, on Sunday, it will be second nature.”

Campbell worked with Chad Wilson at All Eyes DB Camp this offseason along with Denver Broncos cornerback Patrick Surtain II, Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland, cornerback Xavien Howard, fellow-Jaguars cornerback Shaquill Griffin and Wilson’s sons — Arizona Cardinals cornerback Marco Wilson and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Quincy Wilson — to build strength and fine-tune his technique.

“He’s getting better with the details,” Chad Wilson said. “A little more comfortable being – first of all, being a defensive back in the NFL is very difficult. I personally think it's the toughest position to play. You know, some will argue with me about it being quarterback, but given the rules, how easy it is to get pass interference, the fact that people don't really want defense to prosper, as fans. All these fantasy football players that have invaded the game of football, as fans, and just how much social media vitriol these guys take when they give up any kind of a pass, it's a very difficult position to play. 

“And then to do it as a rookie, and come in and start right away and be thrown in the fire can be a little difficult, and you tend to you know, pay attention to a lot of things that you shouldn't pay attention to when you're a rookie. … So, he matured during the year. He started off you know, not so fast last year, and then towards the end of the year, as you may have seen, he made great progress and it just carried through into this season. He's extremely talented. So I just knew that once he got on course, mentally, he would be fine. He'd be great.”

There have been some highs and lows since Campbell’s rookie season, but since Week 12 of his 2021 campaign, Campbell ranks seventh among cornerbacks with an 80.0 overall PFF grade, 10th with a 79.8 run-defense grade and 13th with a 77.9 coverage grade as one of the NFL’s most well-rounded players at his position.

Chad Wilson coached Campbell, Surtain and Marco Wilson in the same secondary at American Heritage School in South Florida. The team, unsurprisingly, won back-to-back state championships to close out the three NFL cornerbacks’ careers.

Chad Wilson has a favorite story to tell about Campbell when the cornerback was a sophomore in high school. Campbell was a running back at the time, and then-head coach Mike Rumph sent him over to Wilson’s defensive backs group.

“I didn't know who he was,” Wilson said about Campbell. “I just started coaching at American Heritage and he came over, and we're doing our individual periods. So we're doing our DB drills and he literally messed up every drill. It just did not look good. You know, he just did not look good at all.”

Then the team was heading into a seven-on-sevon period.

“I went over to the head coach, I was like, ‘Hey, the new kid, what do you see there? Why'd you send them over to me?’ Like, ‘Why did you think he'd be a DB?’” Wilson recalled.

“And in the midst of me saying that, the offense ran a play and they threw a post route. The wide receiver was wide open. I'm getting ready to lose my you know what, and out of nowhere comes Tyson Campbell full speed, out of nowhere, knocked the ball down. And I look back over to head coach and said, ‘Hey, man, we're gonna be alright. I think we're gonna be good. We'll figure it out.’”

Campbell and Surtain, who currently ranks third among cornerbacks in overall PFF grade and second in coverage grade, now help each other prepare for opposing teams.

“Just asking each other questions, what do we think of this receiver? What kind of habits does this receiver have, what tendencies do you notice about different receivers. Sometimes we just ask how we prepare. Like what kind of notes are we taking. Just picking each others’ brain. Every Sunday, we wish each other good luck.”

Campbell has lofty career goals. Mostly, he wants to win Super Bowls. American Heritage was a perennial winner. Georgia went 31-7 in his three seasons with the Bulldogs. The Jaguars have won just five games since he was drafted. He wants to make All-Pros and the Pro Bowl and ultimately “be recognized as one of the best to ever play the position.”

“To his credit, man, he put in all the extra work,” Chad Wilson said. “He really put in the extra work to get his DB skills up. And that's what it took. 

“Being down here in Florida, I've seen all kinds of talented guys that just didn't make it and sometimes it's because they're just relying on their talent, and they didn't put the work in. But not only is Tyson talented, he's always willing to put the extra work in, so it's no surprise to me that he's having the success that he's having now.”

The 2-4 Jaguars face a tough test against the 5-1 New York Giants at home on Sunday. It seems that Campbell’s Super Bowl hopes will have to wait, but he sees a “very talented team” around him that is led by quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who’s also made “a big jump” in Year 2, and needs to start finishing in the fourth quarter.

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