Scott Fowler

Who will be the Panthers’ breakout defensive star in 2019? Here’s my candidate

For the Carolina Panthers to exceed expectations this season, they must improve from within.

Acquiring some key free agents has helped – center Matt Paradis, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin all could shore up the trenches. The Panthers will also get some aid from their draft picks.

But the way NFL teams really get better faster is for a number of young players to suddenly take a leap in the same season, the way Christian McCaffrey did in 2019.

So who could be this year’s McCaffrey on the defensive side of the ball?

I nominate cornerback Donte Jackson.

Entering only his second NFL season, Jackson is the Panthers’ speedy chatterbox.

“I’m always talking,” he said. “I’m very loud, very outspoken and just like to have fun.”

Jackson made a number of mistakes as a rookie starter in 2019, but he also made a team-high four interceptions. His starting cornerback counterpart James Bradberry got his hands on the ball more often (20 passes defensed for Bradberry, compared to only seven for Jackson). But Jackson made the most of his chances – his interception total was greater than the rest of the Panthers’ cornerbacks combined.

All four of those picks came in the Panthers’ first eight games, however, when the team went 6-2. Jackson didn’t make another one after that, and the Panthers plummeted to a 1-7 record in the final eight games and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.


“It was really tough,” Jackson said of the second half of the 2018 season. “We’ve got a team full of competitors, guys who want to win. So to come up short? It sucks.”

‘The mental aspect’

Jackson is a burner, with 4.3 speed in the 40 that impresses everyone. However, he also gets burned himself, either by incorrectly gambling on a route or not being clear on what the offense is about to do. The cornerback from LSU -- who finished second in a recent 40-yard dash tournament against other NFL players -- said one thing he wants to improve in his second year is “the mental aspect.”

“Knowing what to expect from certain formations and certain receivers,” Jackson said. “And probably trying to get my head in the (play)book a little more.”

Jackson started all 16 games as a rookie. He’s still trying to wrap his head around being called a veteran player now.

“Obviously, the guys ask for a little more out of me this year,” Jackson said. “I kind of have a bigger role in the defense, even though I played a big role as a rookie. The older guys are really looking at me like a veteran leader now. So that’s kind of something different for me to get used to.”

His advice for the 2019 rookies sounds a lot like the sort of advice Josh Norman used to give younger defensive backs when Norman was a Panther.

“Just get your swagger,” Jackson said. “Most of the guys were the big guy on campus at their college. So now it’s really just trying to get that swagger and just bring that same confidence out here.”

Looking for ‘pick six’

Jackson said he has spent much of the summer “chilling with my daughter,” who turned 1 in June. “She’s been running since she was eight months,” Jackson said. “I’m looking forward to one day getting her on somebody’s track team.”

In the meantime, Jackson will use his own speed and swagger. I love his potential – if he can cut down on the mistakes.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson had a rare “pick two” against New Orleans in 2018, scoring after he intercepted Drew Brees’ two-point conversion attempt. Jeff Siner

Speaking of potential, what was probably Jackson’s best play in 2018 didn’t even officially count as an interception because it was made on a two-point conversion attempt. But against New Orleans, Jackson had a rare “pick two” – intercepting a Drew Brees attempt and bolting 98 yards.

Those are the only NFL points Jackson has scored so far. But with his speed, he seems like a good bet for a more traditional “pick six” at some point in 2019. It would be his first.

“I’d like to get a few more picks this year,” Jackson said. “But more than that, I’d like to get a few more wins.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.