Thirty years ago, Malik Jackson would have been a prototypical NFL 4-3 defensive end. He’s long at 6-foot-5, and big at 290 pounds, but he’s also quick enough for his build. But as the league increasingly emphasized speed over size, and the pass over the run, defensive linemen of Jackson’s dimension and skill set began to be utilized more as three-technique defensive tackles.
But Jackson, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Eagles this week, said that he plays inside with an end’s mentality. Part of that, he said, had to do with playing alongside elite edge rushers like Von Miller and Demarcus Ware in Denver.
“I just try to emulate my game after them,” Jackson said Wednesday after the Eagles formally introduced him to Philadelphia. “So me being able to learn from them helps me because I’m a slender, faster guy inside, and I can essentially do the same thing they’re doing out there, just in a tighter box.”
Jackson played in 3-4, and 4-3 “under” schemes with the Broncos and then the Jaguars, but he may be ideally suited for Jim Schwartz’s aggressive 4-3 defense, especially as a pass rusher. He’s fast off the line, can slant and shoot gaps past interior offensive linemen, and he’s savvy enough to have counters and alternative ways to disrupt quarterbacks if his initial move is stopped.
He should benefit from playing alongside all pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, and the same could be said of Cox.
But Jackson didn’t get benched last season and wasn’t released last week just because his salary was skyrocketing. He may not agree with the assessment that his run defense was lacking, but it’s never been his strong suit.
The Eagles aren’t likely finished addressing their defensive line. They could add a bigger body inside for run downs. But Jackson, overall, is an upgrade after the Eagles declined Tim Jernigan’s option. Even if last year was a setback after his 2017 Pro Bowl season, Jackson’s film from 2018 showed that the 29-year-old should have plenty left, especially in Schwartz’s scheme.
Here’s a closer look at the player the Eagles should be getting:
Jackson has a superior get off. His quickness can surprise guards. And if they show their hands too early, he has swim, slap and overhand moves to penetrate past blockers. On this rush, Jackson (No. 97) easily wins his one-on-one and sacks Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson.
Jackson: I think I’m fast in the inside. I’m long so I’m able to get on guys a little faster, maybe use my length to stay away from them.
Jackson not only stands 6-5, but he has 34-inch arm length. On this rush vs. Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo, he used a stutter-step to slow the guard and get around him, but he also forced quarterback Carson Wentz to step up when he extended his arm. Wentz forced his throw and was intercepted.
Jackson has a bull rush and can walk some offensive linemen back into the quarterback, but he struggles against larger guards like the Eagles’ Brandon Brooks. He averaged six sacks a season from 2013-17, and had a career-high eight two seasons ago, but he finished with only 3-1/2 in 2018.
Jackson: I just want to get back to where I know I can be. Last year was very disappointing. I know who I am and what I can do and I want to show everybody else who I am. That Pro Bowl [in 2017] wasn’t a hiccup. That’s who I am. … Having Fletcher next to me will push me. Like Calais [Campbell] did.
Campbell rushed mostly from the end spot in Jacksonville, but he lined up all over. On this rush against the New York Jets, Campbell drew two blockers as Jackson twisted inside for a free pass at quarterback Sam Darnold.
Cox had arguably his best season in 2018. He recorded a career-high 10-1/2 sacks despite having to often line up next to ineffective defensive tackles.
Jackson: With Fletcher Cox next to me, it’s going to allow me to have more one-on-one rushes. He’s a force to be reckoned with. He demands double-teams. So hopefully I can come in here and do what I’m supposed to do and take the double teams off of him. Hopefully, it’ll go hand in hand.
Cox typically lines up as the three-technique (over the outside shoulder of the guard), but his abilities allow him to win almost any matchup one on one. Jackson has a similar skill set in terms of quickness, and usually lined up in the three-technique. He didn’t usually line up over or on either side of the center. But he can bounce outside, and when called upon drop and cover.
Jackson: I can do all 4 [positions]. That’s what sets me apart. I can play all four positions on the d-line and help wherever I’m needed. I’m just here to fit in. This is Fletcher’s team. Fletcher’s d-line. I’m just here to help them get back to the Super Bowl.
Jackson has played in 106 consecutive games, which is second in the NFL to only Ndamukong Suh (115) among active players. At this point in his career, he’s found ways to be disruptive when he hasn’t been able to get into the backfield.
Over the last four seasons, Jackson has 15 batted passes.
Jackson: I see myself coming in and just helping. It’s not like it was in Jacksonville for me where I have to be the guy, hoorah, do this and that. I’m coming into a team that already has leaders.
Jackson’s strengths make him a better playside run defender than a backside one. His quickness off the snap allows him to get downhill and either disrupt rushes in the backfield or make stops, as he did here on the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley.
His aggressiveness didn’t always play into the Jaguars’ scheme. There were some two-gap responsibilities and Jackson wouldn’t anchor well at times vs. zone blocking. He lost his starting spot to rookie Taven Bryan after the Week 8 loss to the Eagles.
Jackson: You got to ask the coaches. They told me I wasn’t playing the run too good. That’s all I really heard. But coming off a Pro Bowl year the year before, I don’t think that was a valid excuse.
The film supports the Jacksonville coaching staff. On this Eagles run, for instance, Jackson allowed himself to get driven by zone flow blocking and Josh Adams cut back for a long gain.
Later in that game, when the Jaguars needed a stop, Jackson again had trouble holding his ground vs. a combo block and got turned away by tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Wendell Smallwood’s 10-yard carry sealed the game.
Jackson won’t be asked to do as much against the run with the Eagles, especially if he’s used more on passing downs in the rotation. But the aggressive scheme should play to his strengths and allow him to make plays up front and in the backfield.