The Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back has emerged as one of the NFL's top young talents—and one of its premier trash talkers. Here, the corner sounds off on QBs, the weight of expectations, and protests against police brutality.
As it often does with Jalen Ramsey, the confrontation begins with a little trash talk. It’s a sleepy Friday morning in New York before Memorial Day, and the Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back is enjoying breakfast with his girlfriend Bre at Sadelle’s—a SoHo bakery with an alarming cache of Le Creuset wares. With little warning, Bre, a college track star and the younger sister of Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate, does something reckless: she tells Ramsey that her family would beat his in a game of flag football.
Ramsey, incredulous, pauses eating his sticky buns to dial his dad, Lamont.
“So Bre’s right here, and she trying to tell these people at GQ that if we have a Ramsey versus Tate Olympics, that they’ll beat us,” Ramsey tells “Big L,” when he picks up. “She said your knee’ll go bad and everything.” Lamont’s guffaw crackles over the speakerphone, competing with the restaurant’s early morning din: “I’ll make her dad throw all them ribs up he been sitting around eating.”
Like father, like son.
“He ain’t playing no games with your family,” Ramsey continues, after his dad hangs up, not yet sure he’s made his point. “And your family’s too short! I’m going up on top of all of them. Please let Golden guard me. I’m going up top on Golden.”
Perhaps this is to be expected. In his first two seasons in the NFL, Jalen Ramsey hasn't quite let his game speak for itself. He has infamously talked smack to Steve Smith, Sr.—calling the legendary receiver and trash-talker an “old man”—exchanged jabs with Tom Brady before a game, and even got so far inside A.J. Green’s head last season that the Bengals wideout chokeslammed Ramsey long after the whistle.
Of course, the unofficial rules of trash talking dictate that you can't talk shit unless you can back it up. And here it helps that the 23-year-old just might be the best cornerback in the NFL.
He followed up an impressive rookie campaign in 2016-17 with an even more dominant second season last year, earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Constantly lined up against the league’s best and fastest receivers, he blankets them like a whiteout atop a mountain. Wideouts that do find enough separation to haul in a catch see that gap close very quickly, as Ramsey recovers with the force and speed of a train that lifts weights—and can tackle.
His 6-foot-1 frame is packed with tightly coiled muscle, and belied by a baby face that has only a trace of whiskers. In person, he's polite and thoughtful, but never misses an opportunity to trade playful barbs or offer his thoughts. Those opinions can get him in trouble—he was suspended from Jaguars training camp this week when he lashed out at a local reporter who was recording a scuffle among his teammates—but that outspokenness is the flipside of an exuberance that helped the Jacksonville Jaguars become one of the NFL's elite defenses. In the two seasons since they staked their future on Ramsey by taking him with the fifth overall pick, the Jags have gone from a 3-13 doormat to an electric upstart that nearly shocked the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Consequently, they'll open the season with something they have not had in a long while: the weight of expectation.
As the team’s defensive superstar, Jalen Ramsey, too, has a certain swagger to live up to. Which is why he’s planning to spend this offseason day in Dapper Dan’s private, appointment-only atelier in Harlem, shopping for a custom made Gucci-printed outfit, before trying to beat the Memorial Day traffic to make it to his jeweler in New Jersey. (This after a brief stop in a SoHo consignment store where he nearly haggles his way into a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk.)
But before all that: breakfast—and some thoughts on nearly every quarterback in the league, which starts when he tells me that this year’s NFL Draft “was a little off.”
GQ: How so?
Jalen Ramsey: If all those teams were wanting [Cleveland Browns’ No. 1 overall pick] Baker [Mayfield] so bad—Baker compares better with Lamar [Jackson] than any of those other quarterbacks. So if they want that type of quarterback—confident, get out the pocket, throw on the run, big plays, charisma—then yeah, I understand Baker going number one. But if all the other people were competing and wanting Baker, too, then why wasn't Lamar the second quarterback chosen? Instead of at the end of the first round.
I think [Buffalo Bills draft pick Josh] Allen is trash. I don't care what nobody say. He's trash. And it's gonna show too. That's a stupid draft pick to me. We play them this year, and I'm excited as hell. I hope he's their starting quarterback. He played at Wyoming. Every time they played a big school—like, they played Iowa State, which is not a big school in my opinion because I went to Florida State, and he threw five interceptions, and they lost by a couple touchdowns or something like that.✞ He never beat a big school. If you look at his games against big schools, it was always hella interceptions, hella turnovers. It's like: Yo, if you're this good, why couldn't you do better? He fits that mold, he's a big, tall quarterback. Big arm, supposedly. I don't see it, personally.
I would've picked [Lamar Jackson] earlier than 32. I think he's gonna do a good job. Especially with the [Baltimore Ravens'] offensive coordinator—he likes running quarterbacks, likes that read option. And just being honest about it, [Joe] Flacco sucks. I played him two years in a row. He sucks.
"God didn't make me to be on this Earth by myself. Somebody gonna like me. So if a couple people don't like me, I'm not tripping. I am good."
Who are the quarterbacks, in your opinion, who don't suck?
Aaron Rodgers does not. Tom Brady doesn't. I gotta think now, about all the teams... I think Marcus Mariota is a great quarterback for their team. I think Tyrod Taylor is actually a better quarterback than he gets credit for, because he does not make mistakes. He's honestly a Marcus Mariota type player, where he manages a game really well, always has them at least in position to be in the game late in the game. He just doesn't have turnovers that often. That's really all you need, especially if you get a good defense.
Are you sold on the Jimmy Garoppolo hype?
I don't know yet. Just cause when they beat us, his hype picked up. They were like, "He beat the number one defense." It was all schemes. He didn't beat us. It wasn't like he diced us up. It was literally all schemes. They were doing flat routes to the wide open fullback, and he's running for 20 yards down the field four times during the game... So he didn't really dice us up. It was their fullback and their tight end on over routes. But if you know how to work within your scheme then it means you're good. I guess you could say he's good.
I gotta go down the list of NFL teams, if y'all wanna make sure I'm hitting all the good quarterbacks….
[At this point, Ramsey has his phone out, scrolling through names.]
Deshaun Watson, he'll be the league MVP in a couple years. One hundred percent. There's not even a debate about that. Him and Carson Wentz, for every year starting now until five to ten years, it's gonna be them two. They're that good.
Jared Goff, he's average to above average. He reminds me of Jimmy Garoppolo a little bit. Year one, he wasn't good. He wasn't even good enough to earn his own starting role. Like, if you the number one pick, you expected to start now. Period. He wasn't ready to do that. He wasn't able to do that. Then when he did get in, he didn't really do that good. But in his second year, they got a new offensive coordinator. Your offensive coordinator is just your brainiac. When we played them, it felt like his offensive coordinator was drawing up perfect plays and then he was hitting the open man. For what his team ask him to do, yeah, he's good.
Dak Prescott, he's good. He's alright. He's okay. I'll put it that way. [Ezekiel Elliott] runs that team though. Everything runs around Zeke.
What about Kirk Cousins?
I think he's good. I think he's a winner. He's a hell of a competitor. Coming off the play action, he's the best quarterback in the league. Play action passing, he's a hell of a quarterback. Derek Carr, I think he's good. Eli [Manning]... It's not really Eli. I think it's Odell [Beckham, Jr.]. I won't say Eli's good, I'll say Odell's good. And their connection is good. I think Russell [Wilson] is good. I think he's just a really good leader too. Big Ben [Roethlisberger], I think he's decent at best… It's not Big Ben, it's [Antonio Brown]. Big Ben slings the ball a lot of the time. He just slings it, and his receivers go get it. He has a strong arm, but he ain't all that. I played him twice last year, and he really disappointed me. He'll be in the Hall of Fame and all that.
What about your boy Blake Bortles?
Blake do what he gotta do… I think in crunch time moments, like last year's playoff game—not as a team, because we would have trusted him—but I think as an organization, we should have trusted him more to keep throwing it. We kinda got complacent and conservative. And I think that's why we lost. We started running it on first and second down, throwing it on third down, every single time we were out there. [The Patriots] caught on to that.
How much trouble do you give him in practice?
We never go against him unless it's training camp. We never go against them in practice, during the season.
They go against the two's?
Yeah, scout team. Plus we don't wanna hurt his confidence. That'll probably hurt his confidence.
He won them a Super Bowl so he's good enough to do that. He had a hella good team, too, though. But as long as you can do what the team asks you to do, then you're straight. Like people say Blake sucks, but he took us to the AFC Championship game off strictly doing what was just asked of him: not turning the ball over, running Leonard [Fournette] to death, letting the defense get some turnovers, and putting us in a good field position to capitalize on.
That was what we asked him to do. Playoff Blake is good. People can say whatever but playoff Blake is good. I think that's how it is with a lot of teams: as long as you do what that team is asking you to do, and you do it well with the rest of the team, then you can be considered good—or at least not bad. You not a bad quarterback if you do what your team asks of you. Matthew Stafford, I think he's straight. I don't think he the best quarterback out there. But he do what he gotta do.
Drew Brees. I'm a fan of Drew Brees. I think Drew Brees really good, even at this age. He still runs. Everything. Andrew Luck—I don't really think he's that good. Him and T.Y. [Hilton] had a connection in the past that made him stand out a little bit more, but I don't think he's good. Who's the Miami quarterback?
I don't know much about him. I haven't heard the greatest of stuff about him but I don't know him personally so I can't tell you. I don't watch their games either. Philip Rivers, I think he's pretty good. What's the Atlanta quarterback's name?
I think Matt Ryan's overrated. You can't tell me you win MVP two years ago, and then last year, you a complete bust, and you still got Julio Jones? There's no way that should ever happen. I don't care. You know what that tells me? That tells me [Offensive Coordinator Kyle] Shanahan left, went to San Francisco, got Garoppolo, made Garoppolo this big thing. And now Garoppolo is a big name—and now [Matt Ryan] has this bad year? Alright, well, was it really you, or was it your coach? He was doing what was asked of him and it was making him look really, really good.
You know that if that were to go in GQ and Matt Ryan would read it, it would make bulletin board material, right? That doesn't bother you?
I don't play them this year anyway… Nah, it just makes me wonder though.
"The culture in Jacksonville needs to change a little bit. We need to have that young juice, that fire, that we don't care what other people think, we go and get it."
I mean, it's valid.
How do you win MVP, and then your coach leave, and you have a terrible year? He still has Julio Jones. It just doesn't make sense to me.
Where are you most competitive off the field?
Everything. Whatever you name. I was always competing. My brother is three and a half years older than me, and then our older cousin who always used to hang out with us, he's like four years older than me. So he and my brother were always hanging out doing stuff, playing in the playground in the neighborhood, so I had to have that confidence to keep up with them, and hold my own. And then it just carried over, into my life.
One thing I admire about you is you always say what's on your mind. You're honest, 100 percent. Where'd you learn that?
My dad. He’s just unapologetically him, and I'm the same way. I'm just me, unapologetically. I don't really care. We've never really seeked approval of anybody. You either like us or you don't. If you don't like us, shit, it's a trillion other people in this world, somebody gonna like me. Somebody. God didn't make me to be on this Earth by myself. Somebody gonna like me. So if a couple people don't like me, I'm not tripping. I am good.
The funniest stuff is when my dad hits my agent up or somebody, and he'll be like, "Yo, why did Jalen do this?" And they'll just be thinking in the back of their head: Because he's you. What are you talking about? He is you. That's why he did it.
When you say something, and it has a moment on the internet, do you catch wind of that or no?
Everything I say catches the Internet. Literally everything. I could say something that I feel is light and it's gonna go crazy. And they find a way to twist it a little bit, too.
When we were doing interviews right before the game with the Patriots, they're like, "Are you going be on Gronk any at all?" I kept deferring the question because the coach was like, "Don't tell anybody our game plan." I was like, "I'ma just do whatever the game plan is. If I happen to be on him sometimes, I’ll be on him. If not, then I'm sure everybody else will be able to guard him well." I was low-key giving whatever answers the coaches wanted me to give. And then they asked me, "But if you do happen to get on him, how do you think you'll match up against him?" And I said, "I think I match up well against him. Gronk's never played a corner like me."
And they blew that up. They were like, "Jalen Ramsey says Gronk has never seen a corner like him." The way that I said it and the way that y'all put it in the headline was totally different than how we were talking about it. And even if y'all do wanna blow it up, what am I supposed to say? I'm supposed to say, "I'm scared to play Gronk?" No.
Even with "We gonna win that bitch,"✞ it was a pep rally. It wasn't a press conference. What am I supposed to tell our fans?
"We might win."
“Hey. We gonna go out here, we gonna practice really hard this week, and we're going to try to beat the Patriots next week so we can go to the Super Bowl. We're gonna try.” No. “We gonna go out there, and we gonna win that bitch.” It's gonna get everybody in the crowd hype, which it did.
There was actually a couple times this year when we had DB meetings, where they specifically have been like, "Yo Jalen. We need you to say this. Come Thursday, we need you to say this on the media. So we get this buzz right here.” And I just go out and I'm like, I got y'all... It’s second nature to me. I'm gonna say what I wanna say.
And they're like, "We need it. You say the stuff that a lot of us wanna say, but we can't say it because it ain't our personality, really. We ain't never been out there. We ain't never jumped out on the edge. They ain't ready for it yet, but you already out there. So if you thinking it, just say it."
My coaches even said it before.
What’s an example of a time they told you to say something?
Specifically, I remember a couple of times with the DBs when they just kept wanting me to feed it out there, "Yo, we the best DBs in the nation. Throw some stats out on them.” I was already doing that, but they were kinda like, "Feed it more. Really feed it in there. We need to get this buzz." After I do that, then we start getting the nicknames. “They're better than the Legion of Boom, they need a nickname.” Then, boom, people start calling us the Jackson 5. Boom, then we get a couple articles. It's like: hey, that's what Richard Sherman did to boost them up...
It's strategic. It's me being me, and it's strategic at the same time. People think, "Oh yeah. He just saying shit sometimes." Yeah, maybe sometimes I am. But I'm me unapologetically. And it's strategic at the same time. That's what we need. The culture in Jacksonville needs to change a little bit. We need to have that young juice, that fire, that we don't care what other people think, we go and get it.
"Every year is Super Bowl or bust, really. If you ain't shooting for the Super Bowl… I mean, I guess if you're the Browns, you're shooting for a win. Or a few wins, at least."
Are you worried about it coming to bite you in the ass at any point or not?
Nah. That just comes back to how well you prepare. If I wasn't... I was gonna say, if I wasn't talking shit but there's not really a case where I'm not talking shit. Okay, what talking shit does for me: It gets me in my game more. And it makes me—honestly—focus more. Because if you talking, you gotta back it up. If I talk it at the beginning of the week, that means all through the week—I already try to remain focused but I gotta be extra locked in. We gotta back this up. If you know you gonna back it up, why worry about it?
It's like, when you a little kid, and you know you're the fastest in your grade, and y'all go out for field day, and you tell everybody, "I'm gonna win field day." You're not worried about it when you get up to the line, because you know you're the fastest kid in your grade.
Did you win field day?
I'm sure you guys weren't surprised at last year’s success, but now people expect you guys to be good, and expect you to be one of the best corners in the league. I'm curious how that weight might feel different to you.
That's even the harder part. The hard part is staying at the top. Getting to the top, you got somebody you shooting at. Then when you get to the top, now people shooting at you. Like [Arizona Cardinals cornerback] Pat Pete, to be on year eight or nine and still be considered one of the best? That's something big. That's why it gets on my nerves when people always hating on King James. This dude is in year 15 and he’s still going for the crown. He's clearly the best. That's our challenge this year. How well are we gonna be able to defend that, I guess? How well we gonna be able to stay on the top? We've gotten there—well, to a certain aspect. We got another level to get as a team, but me, individually, how am I going to continue to show people that I'm still at the top? That's the battle I'm going against, internally.
What should we expect from the Jaguars this season? It's like Super Bowl or bust now, isn't it?
Every year is Super Bowl or bust, really. If you ain't shooting for the Super Bowl… I mean, I guess if you're the Browns, you're shooting for a win. Or a few wins, at least. But everybody else, you gotta be shooting for the Super Bowl. I mean, maybe we were in it last year like, "They haven't been to the playoffs in this many years," so we've got to make it to the playoffs. But it's Super Bowl or best for every team really. It don't matter unless you win the Super Bowl.
I've noticed you let your mouthpiece hang sometimes.
Really, this how the whole not wearing a mouthpiece thing started. I used to always wear a mouthpiece my whole life—a big pacifier. And then my freshman year, my first couple games I played at corner. I had a mouthpiece in. Then I got moved to safety like my third game. I started having to make a whole lot of calls and stuff. And I didn't have time to always make a call [and] put my mouthpiece back in. So I was like, "Alright. Imma stop wearing it." I just stopped wearing it completely so it stopped being a distraction. Ever since then, talking has been a big part of my game—not only like talking shit but more so talking to my teammates.
And then when I got moved back to corner, I didn't have to talk as much to my guys—it's more me receiving calls—so I can wear one if I want to but... It's kind of swaggy to not wear it, let it hang. I might not talk to my guys before, but I'm a talk to the other team. That's really how it started though.
What's your reaction when you heard the new anthem rules [that teams can either stand on the field, or remain in the locker room]?
This is what people don't understand. A lot of people might get caught up, like, "He didn't come out, he doesn't respect America." High school and college, we never came out for the anthem. We were always inside still getting ready. And even now, they be rushing us out of the locker room like, "Come on. We gotta go," when half the time, half of us not even ready. Sometimes after guys will run back in there real quick to grab a couple more things. So now if it's not required that we be out there, guys might stay in there anyway and try to finish whatever they doing. Somebody might have to use the bathroom. Somebody have to finish getting taped. Somebody might have to re-tape. Somebody might have to do something with their helmet, their swag, something.
And people might take that the wrong way. I think it’s gonna be a fair share of people not going out. I think there's going to be a fair share of people going out. I'll probably not go out. I'll probably just stay in and get ready for the game. That's what I've always done, my whole life. I only went out there when I been in the NFL. If I don't have to be out there, I'll probably just mind my own business.
I think the NFL's just missing it right now. They're making it about what it's not really about. It's not about: we don't love America; it’s not about not respecting the flag. That's not what it's about at all.
Why do you think they made that rule? What do you think they're trying to accomplish?
It's honestly like they forgot in the first place who told Kaepernick to take the knee. A military guy✞ told him to take a knee, giving him all type of suggestions. At first, he was just sitting there… And then he went, talked to all the necessary people he felt like he needed to talk to—military personnel, everybody—to get advice. And an actual military guy told him, "Get on the line with the guys, but just take a knee." And people don't even talk about that was the reality, that's how it started. And ever since what's his name's been in the office, he like really blew it up, made it something it's really not.
Do you think Kaepernick's good enough to be in the league?
Yeah. Oh, hell yeah. He's way better than some of these second string quarterbacks out here. Possibly better than some of these first string quarterbacks out here. And some teams have third string quarterbacks. He's definitely good enough to be in the league, but he won't be. Sadly... Because if somebody does pick him, and they just stay in the locker room—I think it's like a pride thing now. It's kind of like, "If all of a sudden we pick him up now, people might be like, so why didn't we pick him up last year? Now we gonna pick him because he has the opportunity to stay in the locker room?” It'll reflect bad on teams if they pick him up now. So I don't think he'll get picked up.