The most important newcomer on the Eagles this season practiced for the first time Tuesday with “JACKSON” on the back of his jersey. But it wasn’t the No. 10 jersey of DeSean Jackson, the one that can be found all around Philadelphia.
This was Malik Jackson, the defensive tackle who was on the field with his new Eagles teammates for the first time since signing a three-year, $30 million contract in March. It’s his No. 97 that the Eagles are expecting to become well-known this season — and he’s planning for the team to realize it sooner rather than later.
“You have to do it out here in the middle of May,” Jackson said. “You can’t go out there in the summer and say, ‘I’m ready. This is who I am.’ I need to show these coaches who I am. I could easily be at home right now, because it’s optional. But I have to show these coaches who I am; I have to show these players who I am. My work ethic, how I learn.”
Jackson, 29, is a former Pro Bowl player and Super Bowl champion who was so well-regarded three years ago that he signed a six-year, $85.5 million contract in Jacksonville. The Jaguars cut him in a cost-saving move this offseason, and the Eagles believe Jackson can be a difference-maker playing next to Fletcher Cox.
Jackson is expected to stay on the field on third downs, which affects the Eagles’ defensive-end rotation. During the last two seasons, Brandon Graham or Michael Bennett bounced inside and the Eagles got an extra defensive end on the field. But the Eagles have not had a second pass-rushing defensive tackle like Jackson.
“He’s made $100 million guys, and it’s nice to be under him and he allows defensive linemen to go after the quarterback and get sacks,” Jackson said of playing for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
The “$100 million” line was a reference to defensive tackles who have thrived under Schwartz — including Ndamukong Suh, Albert Haynesworth, and Cox — and earned big contracts. (The Eagles were so optimistic about how Cox would look in Schwartz’s scheme that they gave him his $103 million deal before he even played a down for Schwartz.)
Jackson, who was benched in Jacksonville purportedly because he struggled against the run, will have the chance to show he can be the next standout in the scheme. Top executive Howie Roseman likes to find in free agency talented players coming off down seasons, a form of value-shopping because there is often more upside relative to the price.
It’s hard to view Jackson’s contract and think the Eagles found a discount, but when considering that he was the top free agent in 2016 and had his most productive NFL season in 2017, it’s clear why the Eagles made the investment.
The Eagles view Jackson as an upgrade in the middle of the defensive line, where Cox paired with Bennie Logan in 2016, Tim Jernigan in 2017, and then Haloti Ngata in 2018 while Jernigan was recovering from an injury. Playing next to Cox should help unleash Jackson, who had eight sacks two seasons ago. It also should help Cox.
However, there’s no way of knowing how they will work together yet because Cox is absent this spring while recovering from foot surgery. So the excitement about the Cox-Jackson pairing must wait until training camp.
“It’s my job to come in here and adjust to him,” Jackson said. “He’s been here. He’s the guy. So for me, you watch film. You see what he likes to do. You talk to the guys around here. You understand what he likes to do when he rushes.”
Jackson played next to Jernigan during practice this past week. (Jernigan re-signed with the Eagles after they declined his option and he is expected to be the No. 3 defensive tackle.) Jackson said Jernigan offers a sense of what it’s like when Cox gets off the ball and hits the gaps. But when he plays next to Cox, he’ll likely realize there are few players in the league like him.
That will be when the coaching staff has a full sense of how Jackson will look this year. Coach Doug Pederson said he’s excited to see Jackson “put the pads on and get him next to Fletcher.”
Don’t tell Jackson he needs to wait for July, though. When he signed, he said he was determined to show that he’s still a Pro Bowl-caliber player. He thinks that will begin to be apparent in OTAs — and Pederson has been impressed since the offseason program started in April.
"He’s been great,” Pederson said. “He’s just a bright spot.”
The Eagles have been aggressive this offseason trying to extend their Super Bowl window, including the addition of four former Pro Bowlers: Malik Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Howard, and Zach Brown. But Malik Jackson represented the biggest financial investment they made, and if he’s what they think (and what he says), he’ll be the most important newcomer of all this season.
“Trying to get back to that Pro Bowl level is huge,” Jackson said, “and it starts now.”