The two most significant additions to the Eagles’ roster last season shared a last name. One was more exciting than the other, but the other left a bigger hole.
When the Eagles lost speed receiver DeSean Jackson in Game 2, they lost a luxury item in what might have been another run at the Super Bowl. But when they lost defensive tackle Malik Jackson in Game 1, they lost an irreplaceable cog on the defensive line, the team’s most important unit.
That doesn’t diminish the absence of DeSean. It just places the proper value on Malik.
“That was the biggest loss,” defensive end Brandon Graham agreed last month.
Malik’s return might be the biggest gain of this offseason. The Eagles expect both Jacksons to play in 2020, and those expectations will influence the moves they make when free agency begins in a month, how they evaluate players at the NFL Scouting Combine next week, and which players they draft in two months. Considering DeSean’s chronic frailty and Malik’s history of durability, they’re more likely to pursue receiver talent than to go all-in on the defensive line.
The Eagles built their defense around the best player on the team, All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. But Cox was coming off foot surgery, and even at his best Cox isn’t the sort of one-man typhoon Aaron Donald is. Cox needs help.
Cox got help in 2018 from a deep line that included Chris Long and Michael Bennett. Neither returned. Instead, the Eagles spent $30 million on a three-year deal with Malik Jackson. He was 29, he hadn’t missed a game in the last six seasons, and, paired with talented teammates like Von Miller in Denver and Calais Campbell in Jacksonville, he averaged 5 1/2 sacks.
Malik Jackson saw a similar talent level in Philadelphia. Beyond Cox, Graham is a perennial top-10 edge rusher, and third-year end Derek Barnett broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee. All three were first-round picks. Malik Jackson was supposed to be the final piece of a line designed to take the pressure off a poor defensive backfield by applying constant pressure on quarterbacks.
Then, on the 34th snap of the season, he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot. The line couldn’t recover. Cox finished with 3 1/2 sacks, his lowest total in six seasons, and the Eagles had 43, one fewer than 2018.
Malik Jackson, a modest man who smacks his hands together when he’s nervous, swears things would have been different if he’d played.
“If I had been healthy, I think me and Fletcher both would be All-Pros and Pro Bowlers right now," he said, his hands smacking. “I’d like to say I’d put one or two more wins up for us, too. But I could say definitely me and Fletch would have been All-Pros this year.”
That isn’t far-fetched. Malik Jackson went to the Pro Bowl after the 2017 season, when he helped “Sack-sonville” reach the AFC championship game.
DeSean Jackson, for all of his big-play ability, hadn’t seen a Pro Bowl in five seasons -- not since his last season in Philadelphia, in fact. That was also the last time he started all 16 games. He’d averaged 13 games the past five seasons. He was 33. DeSean’s three-year, $27 million deal made a bigger splash than Malik’s deal, but he always was a bigger gamble.
Only observers who pay the closest attention to the team and the league understood the gravity of Malik’s injury. The Eagles won the opener, and, coincidentally, they won largely because DeSean Jackson caught touchdown passes of 51 and 53 yards. The win and the big plays overshadowed the catastrophic news of the day.
DeSean made news the next week, too, because DeSean suffered a sports hernia in a startling loss at Atlanta that effectively ended his season. That’s understandable. He’s DeSean, after all, a controversial figure and the most exciting big-play receiver of his time.
But DeSean isn’t targeted often, and he isn’t included in many personnel packages, and he is lethal in only a handful of plays per game, most of which defenses can anticipate if their scouting departments are worth anything. DeSean might be on the field for 70% of the offensive plays, but he’s not involved in most of them.
An interior defensive lineman like Malik Jackson, on the other hand, is crucial on every one of the 65 to 75% of the total defensive snaps he takes. And Malik had no reliable backups.
The Eagles’ roster was built to absorb any loss of DeSean Jackson -- a loss that, given his injury history, the Eagles likely expected. Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, and Nelson Agholor served as primary targets for Carson Wentz. The occasional brilliance of Wentz, along with the emergence of running back Mile Sanders, compensated for what became a deluge of injuries, including DeSean’s.
There was no Carson Wentz or Miles Sanders on defense.
The Eagles’ pass defense ranked last after four games. Cox needed seven games to return to 100%, but by then his defense had given up 38 points in Minnesota, then 37 more at Dallas, and the team had dug a 3-4 hole.
Would a healthy, fading DeSean Jackson have compensated for the 18-point differential against the Vikings or the 27-point difference at Dallas? Probably not. Would a healthy defensive tackle playing in his prime have made those deficits more manageable? That’s far more likely. Malik Jackson knows it.
“They put a lot of faith in me to come in here and get things right,” he said. “To come in here and do what I did in Jacksonville.”
The Eagles’ pass defense finished 19th without Malik Jackson. The Eagles pass offense ranked 11th without DeSean Jackson. You can adjust your offensive scheme when you lose a receiver. You can’t fake it on the defensive line.
“Hopefully things go right next year,” Malik Jackson said, his hands smacking together again.
Graham has no doubt.