Remember Malik Jackson, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle?
The one with 28½ sacks from 2013-17 — a half-sack more than Fletcher Cox? The one that tied a career high with six tackles in the 2017 AFC divisional playoff game that brought Jacksonville to the brink of Super Bowl LII? That guy was good, right?
It must have been some other Malik Jackson, some impostor, who played for the Jaguars last season; at least, that’s what his most accomplished former teammate said; a Malik Jackson that had just 3½ sacks and got benched in 2018 because he couldn’t stop the run.
Jackson’s former teammate then promised that the Eagles will see the old Malik Jackson this season.
“Malik’s gonna ball, man,” Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said.
In an offseason dominated by the departure of former Eagles hero Nick Foles, the arrival of DeSean Jackson and the healthy return of quarterback Carson Wentz, the presence of Jackson has received remarkably less attention than the losses of defensive ends Chris Long, who retired, and Michael Bennett, who requested a new contract and was traded to New England, where he got it.
Campbell knows how a scheme change can boost a career. He left Arizona for Jacksonville after the 2016 and has compiled 24½ sacks, playing next to Jackson much of the time. Campbell also played opposite Yannick Ngakoue, who has 21½ sacks the past two seasons. The 2017 edition, which lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game, tied for second in the league with 55 sacks, allowed the second-fewest points per game and scored five defensive touchdowns. Jackson was a big part of that. Last season he often disappeared in Jacksonville’s scheme. That’s won’t happen in Jim Schwartz’s freewheeling, wide-nine attack, because that’s what it allows players to do — attack.
“That system fits his style better,” Campbell said. "The way they play that technique. Our technique’s a little different. He did well with it, but it’s not his main strength. Now he’s in a system where he can just fire off the ball and use his athleticism."
Which is why Jackson signed with the Eagles after the Jaguars unsuccessfully tried to trade him and, ultimately, cut him to save $11 million against the salary cap, just before they signed Foles.
“It definitely was one of the factors,” Jackson said. “This system allows D-linemen to thrive and go get it. It’s made a few 100-million-men.”
Jackson pointed to Marcell Dareus, whose best season was 2014 under Schwartz in Buffalo, which helped Dareus secure a six-year, $96.5 million deal in 2015. That same offseason Ndamukong Suh, who began his career playing for Schwartz in Detroit, signed a six-year, $114 million deal with Miami.
And, of course, Cox signed a six-year, $102.6 million extension with the Eagles before the 2016 season, after he’d made his first trip to the Pro Bowl. It also was the year that Schwartz arrived in Philadelphia, and was four years after Cox recorded 5½ sacks as a rookie in Jim Washburn’s wide-nine alignment. Cox has gone to three more Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl under Schwartz.
Jackson considered all of that when he signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Eagles. At 29, he won’t be seeing any $100 million paydays. But this contract would bring his career earnings to almost $80 million, and he’ll be 32 when it ends. What’s to say that, by then, he won’t be worth another $20 million to some team? Especially if Cox, 28, remains a dominant next to him.
“I’ve been with Von Miller (in Denver from 2012-15). I’ve been with Calais. Now, I’m here with Fletcher,” Jackson said. “Playing with Fletcher, with him playing inside, it’s going to allow me to have more one-on-ones. Hopefully, I can capitalize and get the double teams off him.”
Things were more restrictive in Jacksonville.
"The system down there — you’ve got to hit the "B" gap, but if the offensive guard gives you a base block and the tackle pulls behind him, then you’ve got to do different things than you do here," Jackson explained. "Here, it’s really just, more, ‘Go get it. Mess up things.’ "
The Eagles are constructed to mess things up again. Cox had a career year, with 10½ sacks, and is the No. 2 defensive tackle in the NFL. Brandon Graham, hindered early in 2018 by injury, consistently pressured the passer, and third-year, first-round end Derek Barnett has 7½ sacks in 21 games, mostly as a backup. Vinny Curry, 31, and Timmy Jernigan, 26, are determined to resurrect their careers and both are in contract years. As for Jackson, he remains quite capable of messing things up, said Eagles left guard Isaac Seumalo.