I can’t wait to see what Georgia’s leading receiver does with an entire offseason with JT Daniels back. We should see a lot of things open up. They connected for some big plays down the stretch, and it was exciting to see what the Georgia wideout could do with a quarterback who could legitimately stretch the field.

Don’t get it twisted. He was productive with a rotating cast of starting quarterbacks, but it’s Daniels’ return that should have us optimistic about this Georgia receiver.

That guy, believe it or not, isn’t George Pickens. It’s Kearis Jackson.

Pickens will get all of the preseason accolades, and understandably so. Pickens is the former 5-star guy, and he’s the NFL Draft prospect who makes absurd catches.

But Jackson? Dare I say, he might just be Georgia’s most valuable receiver in 2021.

That’s not meant as a dig at Pickens, but are we perhaps a bit too high on someone who accounted for over half of his 2020 yards in the final 2 games of the season? Probably. Pickens does have the 2 big bowl game performances, but that Mizzou game in the regular-season finale was the first time he racked up 100 yards against SEC competition in his career.

And yes, Pickens dealt with an upper body injury that limited him to just 8 games, though it’s no secret that between the Jarrett Guarantano water bottle squirt and the Georgia Tech fight, Pickens’ availability hasn’t always been a given.

Is it possible that Pickens puts it all together with the route-running and being a go-to, top-end wideout on a weekly basis? Sure. His ceiling is, without a doubt, higher than Jackson’s, especially now that he was someone like Daniels to get him the ball downfield.

If we’re talking about value, though, Jackson’s odds of being the steadier, more dependable player are better. And that’s not really factoring in his role as Georgia’s primary kickoff and punt returner, which should probably break any sort of potential tiebreaker. In the regular season, he had 48 targets without a single drop. Pro Football Focus actually had Jackson with a better receiving grade than:

  • Kayshon Boutte, LSU
  • John Metchie, Alabama
  • Seth Williams, Auburn
  • Trevon Grimes, Florida
  • George Pickens, Georgia

Among returning SEC receivers, Treylon Burks was the only guy with a better receiving grade than Jackson in 2020.

Why would that be the case? Well, what he does on third down is massive. Through Georgia’s first 8 games, Georgia quarterbacks had a perfect 158.3 passing rating when targeting Jackson on third down (PFF). Considering how big of a mess UGA was at quarterback for the majority of the year, that’s a testament to just how reliable Jackson was.

Here’s a perfect example of that. When Stetson Bennett IV made his first career start, he was facing pressure from the Auburn front on 3rd-and-10. He rolled out to find Jackson, who came back to the quarterback and helped keep the chains moving:

Instead of punting from their own territory on Bennett’s second possession, that 10-play drive ended with Georgia’s first touchdown of the day. Jackson converted 4 third downs that game.

When Bennett was trying to find his footing as a starter, Jackson was his guy. He was the team’s leading receiver in each of the first 3 games, including the Tennessee game the following week, where he scored his first career touchdown. As you see from this clip, Jackson and Bennett connect on a back-shoulder throw that took the Georgia wideout to the other side of his body. Jackson had the presence of mind to recognize he was open in the coverage bust, and he turned to Bennett with space in the middle of the field:

Sure, Jackson looks wide open on that play. It still took recognizing where he was on the field to not run himself into coverage, and to be able to make that adjustment coming across his body.

That’s what reliable, veteran receivers do.

There might be a belief that because Daniels is taking over, Jackson’s role will take a step back. It’s because Pickens is the downfield threat and Jermaine Burton is the elite route-runner.

Last I checked, Daniels (and all quarterbacks) likes it when guys get open. He especially likes it when Jackson, his slot receiver, gets behind the secondary and turns 3rd-and-20 into 6 points:

Look. Is Pickens more likely to make a downfield play like that? Probably. Is a defense more likely to sleep on Jackson, though? Absolutely. He’s not going to be lined up across from a team’s top corner. That, as we’ve seen throughout Pickens’ first 2 years in Athens, has been a problem at times. He’s not getting the benefit of having a linebacker try to cover him at times like Jackson lining up almost exclusively out of the slot.

I’m far from the only one who feels this way, too. People who cover Georgia, like the folks at Dawg Sports Live, have been banging the drum for Jackson longer than I have:

It’d be a surprise if the usage of Jackson, who was lined up in the slot 360 times compared to 26 snaps out wide (PFF), changed dramatically. I don’t think the returns of Dominick Blaylock and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint should impact that, nor do I believe the lightning quick Arian Smith is going to eat into Jackson’s workload. Smith can still making plenty of highlight-reel plays out of the slot without pushing Jackson to the back burner, especially out of those 5-wide sets we should see more often in 2021.

Just remember that it’s Jackson who got those valuable game reps with Daniels. That connection should continue to grow this offseason, as it should with the rest of this talented group of receivers.

It’s funny because Pickens, Burton, Blaylock, Smith, Rosemy-Jacksaint and even the promising young tight end Darnell Washington were all top-100 recruits in their respective classes. It was Jackson who just missed the cut back in the 2018 class. Now, he’s the elder statesman of the group. No longer is he the guy who can’t carve out a role like when he was a true freshman or like in his injury-riddled 2019 season. He’s the guy Georgia can’t afford to have off the field.

It became obvious that Jackson was as dependable as they come, especially during the early part of the season when Burton and Pickens weren’t really on the same page as Bennett. With Daniels, those guys might make more highlight-reel plays, and they could be higher on the scouting report. But don’t be surprised if by the end of 2021, we’re having the same realization that we had a year earlier.

Jackson is the most valuable wideout in Athens.