It’s a Monday afternoon in early June and the football world wants to know, Where is Jalen Ramsey?
Ramsey, an All-Pro cornerback and 2016 first-rounder out of Florida State, is not participating in the Jacksonville Jaguars offseason program. He’s not even in Florida. Ramsey is in Smyrna, Tennessee, training with his father and arguing about basketball.
“Was he an all-star point guard this year? You go off current,” Ramsey, 23, says, pacing the floor of Phat Kaps, a clothing store in a Nashville suburb. He gives an example from his line of work: “You can’t still label Marcus Peters All-Pro,” he says of the 2016 All-Pro corner for Kansas City recently traded to the Los Angeles Rams. “He wasn’t All-Pro this year, was he? No. It’s two new niggas on the list.”
(Ramsey. Ramsey’s on that list.)
Today’s argument, a hypothetical head-to-head between the 2018 Finals Cavs and the ’09 Lakers, is the kind that doesn’t mean anything an hour later. But it’s telling of Ramsey’s mindset. As a cornerback, he’s already staring down a disadvantage: a defensive player in an offense-humping league, the foil to the sport’s most iconic plays and players. As he’ll sum up later: “[Throws are] what sells tickets, and it’s a business. But as a DB (defensive back), it’s my job to make sure that don’t happen.” Every play matters, and the moment after every play matters even more, when you can see him taunting his way into opposing players’ heads. Take last season’s Week Nine, when Bengals WR A.J. Green was so badly shook that he started throwing punches at Ramsey’s helmeted mouth.
“No matter who they put in front of me, it’s on.”
“All I’m saying is, you can have as much talent as you want on one team. If y’all can’t play together, and y’all don’t gel, it’s all null and void,” finishes North Carolina Central University quarterback Micah Zanders, cashier at the store and browbeaten pre-preseason training partner of Ramsey.
“You’re still wrong,” Ramsey says.
Ramsey, in black high tops, shorts, and a “Ramsey Performance Training” T-shirt, has witnessed both sides of the talent/team debate. After leaving FSU early after three years, he played a commendable if ultimately doomed season on an atrocious Jags team that notched a mere three wins (one of which was an at-home mulligan against the Titans) en route to its head coach’s sacking in December. Ramsey’s father, Lamont, will explain it thus: “He lost more games his rookie season than he lost his whole time playing football.” Still, Ramsey tallied fifty-five solo tackles, 14 pass deflections, and two interceptions in 16 games.
But coming back in 2017 as part of a revamped Jacksonville secondary, Ramsey shined, contributing to the team’s out-of-nowhere ten-win season, a Cindarella-story drive to the AFC Championship against the Pats, and a Pro Bowl selection. On the field, he plays fast and intuitive, and he hits like a sledge. “I want yo’ momma to have a bad night,” he says.
Training at home near Nashville was his choice this year, the summer before his third pro season. It’s gutsy at first glance, eschewing The Program and The Facilities for some homegrown voodoo. But Ramsey needs the voodoo. His first summer training in Jacksonville, he injured his meniscus, undergoing knee surgery and barely making it back in time for the regular season. He got hurt again in 2017 and only played one series in pre-season.
“It’s not because I didn’t trust Jacksonville,” Ramsey says. “But I trust my process and I trust my pop’s process more than any other process. So I just figured, let me get back to the basics, because that’s really what it comes down to. Every new level you go to are new challenges, so you got to level up. But the basics never change, no matter what. So if I get back to the basics, which is what I’m doing now, I feel like, all right, no setbacks, and I can go into this year superconfident.”
The Ramsey gym in Smyrna where the basics happen is half Rocky Balboa and half The ‘Burbs. The gym is the family’s two-car garage packed with equipment no different from what you’d find in any other suburban home setup. There’s a squat rack and a bench press. A pile of dumbbells is off to the side of a rubber-covered floor. Before the workout, Ramsey jumps rope on the sidewalk while a lawnmower buzzes from a few streets over.
No one is watching an NFL player put in the work. Except for Lamont.
The Ramsey patriarch, a former collegiate player from Nashville’s inner city and a current firefighter, has been training his son since middle school. Then it was to beat another kid that everyone was watching. The reason Jalen trains now isn’t that different: “If he stops working, they’re going to catch him,” Lamont says. “It’s a lot harder to stay there when everybody’s shooting after you than to go there. So you should be working harder once you get there.”
Lamont trained his kids, and now he trains others—up to 80 athletes at peak season in his spare time, which includes 20 collegiate players and four pros. But today, it’s Jalen.
The workout today is deceptively simple: a seven-minute go-time of exercises, mostly bodyweight, that switch every 30 seconds while hip hop fuzzes from a Bluetooth speaker. Two rounds of jumping jacks, squats, push ups, step-ups, planks. Nothing you wouldn't find at a CrossFit gym. Ramsey moves through it easily, and at its end, he bounds off to drink and check his phone as his partners take their turns.
Later, after the workout and with a bellyful of Nashville barbecue, he’s composed, articulate, arrogant—the latter not especially bad.
“I haven’t met a corner who is not self-confident be elite,” he says. “If you not self-confident, a little on the cocky edge when you play the game, I really haven’t seen one be super-elite.”
With that assessment, Ramsey’s just put the rest of the league on notice for a repeat performance this season.
“No matter who they put in front of me, it’s on.”