To the shock of the masses, Howie Roseman’s first and strongest move during “free agency” — which hasn’t actually started yet, of course — was acquiring a pass-rusher.
The front four is the unit Philadelphia values above all others. But 2018 was a bit of a down year — injury exposed a lack of depth, and marquee players like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham saw their snap count go up and efficacy decrease.
Philadelphia was already projected to have third highest cap hit on DL (DT + EDGE) in 2019 -- though with Jernigan leaving and Graham staying, they only go up a couple million.— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) March 1, 2019
This is the price of an elite front four. Philly doesn't care more about any other positional group pic.twitter.com/6NMHmf3eql
Accordingly, we expected to the Eagles make move at both DT and EDGE across the course of free agency. EDGE was pre-empted by the Brandon Graham extension, but the DT spot next to Cox remained vacant as the Eagles elected to move on from Timmy Jernigan.
And that’s an important note: the Eagles were supposed to have Timmy Jernigan here. Next to Fletch, making $11M per year, ripping it up. Now cut and with his pro future in jeopardy following a non-football injury, the Eagles have replaced Jernigan’s impact and contract with Malik Jackson. That’s how this move should be viewed: a recovery from the unfortunate loss of Cox’s running mate. Plug and replace.
Not a replacement of the lost Michael Bennett, who was traded to New England for a Day 3 pick swap.
On paper, the 6’5 and 290 pounds Jackson may look more like Bennett (6’4, 275 pounds) than he does Jernigan (6’2, 300 pounds) — but their usage is entirely different. While Bennett enjoyed his fair share of interior rushes with the Eagles, he often slanted inside from a 5- or 4-technique; with Jackson, the Eagles will line him up in the more traditional 3-technique, and occasionally a 4i-technique. He’ll have different responsibilities against the run, and have different roles in subpackages, as compared to Bennett.
Jackson can offer the same ability to win on interior slants that Bennett often found success with for Philadelphia — winning on slants was a big part of his game in Jacksonville, and while Philadelphia doesn’t employ nearly the number of slants that the Jaguars did, they would be smart to incorporate more of those opportunities for Jackson to maximize his rush effectiveness.
That’s the best Bennett/Jackson comparison you’re gonna get, in terms of usage and effect on a front four. Both should be heavily utilize as the twist or wrap player on stunts, as they have nice flexibility, good quickness, and especially in Jackson’s case, great hand usage and timing to use blockers’ poor balance against them on the rush.
Jackson and Brandon Graham are both successful players rushing from both the inside and out on games. I’d particularly focus on packages with the two of them, and using those games to help open up Fletcher Cox on one-on-one rushes.
As a pure interior rusher, Jackson offers a lot. His primary method of attack is typically a swipe/swim or arm-over rush that maximizes his length and is made possibly by his nice bend for his size. Jackson excels at flattening angles to the quarterback once he gets an alleyway, so developed hand usage and good off-ball quickness help him generate really quick pressures.
That’s what you want to see out of your interior rushers: rapid, no-nonsense pressures that will become turnovers, throwaways, and clean-up sacks for other players just as often as they’ll become sacks.
Because he’s a long player and a bit upright off of the ball, Jackson’s rush moves aren’t always effective, and he can too easily surrender his chest and get washed. That said, I can’t emphasize enough: Jackson’s ability to get a foot in the dirt and turn his rush path into the quarterback is really special. That’s DE-like at 290 pounds, and it helps him finish plays that other DTs would not be able to capitalize on.
But Jackson’s length does help him as a bull-rusher, as he does well to recognize when he’s getting a soft set and dial up the power. Jackson’s mental processing is another strong trait: he’s quick to ID play-action and diagnose misdirection runs as a run defender. But when he’s pass-rushing, he calls on his power rush at the right times, and his change-up proves effective in again, generating that quick and pocket-breaking pressure.
All-in-all, Jackson’s pass-rushing arsenal is worth more than a $10M APY figure and is likely superior to what Timmy Jernigan was offering during his last healthy season in 2018. Of course, Jernigan was younger, but Jackson will immediately fill and likely exceed the role the Eagles needed: an interior rusher who can win one-on-ones next to Fletcher Cox. The ability to slant and twist outside is just cherries, man.
But it isn’t all roses: Jackson’s run defense is a significant question mark on his eval and could prove a liability in Philadelphia.
The Eagles don’t ask much from their defensive linemen in the running game — they want them to focus on penetration, which will fit Jackson’s strong suit. However, Jackson has a questionable motor and effort as a run defender, and is far too willing to play upright and get washed left and right. Against zone flow particularly, Jackson’s tape really stands out as disappointing.
Jackson often fails to get anchored against double teams by dropping his hips; does not bring power downhill against zone flow away to fill as a backside defender; does not try to anchor against down blocks when a cutback is coming. It’s concerning to see a trench player so opposed to playing through contact against typical running plays.
If the Eagles want to use Jackson more as a rotational player, emphasized on passing downs, they still have work to do on their defensive tackle room. Jackson is a better pass rusher than any rookie would be, and likely anyone else on the market besides Ndamukong Suh — but the Eagles will want to add another body (likely more of a 1-technique, with 310+ size) to take some reps at the nose and provide more staunch defense against the run.