This is the time of year where I’m reminded of the great con-artist “Count” Victor Lustig. He’s the man who scammed Al Capone and sold the Eiffel Tower not once, but twice.
Think of Lustig as the agent, the Eiffel Tower as the player, and the top people in the French scrap metal industry as the general managers and owners. It’s not always the case, but too often we see big cash thrown around on a promise that is never fulfilled.
For Malik Jackson, you could argue it was near impossible for him to live up to his 2016 price tag. It was seen as the worst deal of the off-season by Football Outsiders; a real Eiffel Tower, that one. Not because Jackson wasn’t valued by their analytics, but the contract (5-year, $85.5M, $42M guaranteed) threw up a red flag regarding their cost-benefit analysis formula. They weren’t wrong. Jackson was good in Jacksonville, but he was up against some heavy hitters to be compared against.
In short, the evaluation never matched the valuation. It’s understandable that the Jaguars would want to get out from under his large cap number. It’s understandable that the Philadelphia Eagles would pounce at adding a reliable contributor at a more reasonable price. Looking at the talent around his new price, the Eagles have certainly done that.
How does that ranking fair against his positional competition in terms of his on-field production? Quite well actually, if you understand his role and value rushing the passing over stopping the run (spoiler: I do and so does the market).
Pro Football Focus has given Jackson at least a 69.9 pass rush grade in each of the last five seasons. He’s been top 10 in their pass rush productivity for three straight years. Among interior defensive lineman taking at least 50% of the snaps he’s ranked 3rd, 7th and 5th from 2016-2018. That’s where his strength lies, as Benjamin Solak pointed out in his film evaluation of Jackson.
Along with his 32.5 career sacks, there’s an added benefit to Jackson even when his initial move is stuffed. He’s recorded the 2nd most passes defended since 2015 (15). This matches his film. When he’s not getting home, or when he’s doubled, Jackson does well to track the quarterback and shoot his hands at their release. I marked “hands in the passing lane” on 11 of the 117 pass rush snaps I charted (9.4%).
Speaking of charting, those 117 snaps spanned 4 games that I selected to get a feel for Jackson’s play style and potential impact.
Through 4 Games Charted...— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 12, 2019
15% Pressure Rate, 32% Double Teams, 87% 3/4/4i Alignment.
Expect him to work a lot as a 3t/4i in passing situations. In running situations will likely share time & Cox would play at 1t when they're both in. Better playside than backside vs run.
Beyond the pass rushing aspect, there’s another factor in play that justifies his current valuation. His track record of staying healthy. The best ability is availability, or so the saying goes.
3 most important non-physical skills related things teams consider when paying top $ for UFA’s : Age, durability, football character. Remember that as we move along and ask yourself why some guys remain on the market/don’t get the $ you thought they would. #nfl— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) March 12, 2019
The 29-year old Jackson has played in more regular season games (121) than all other defensive tackles since 2012. His consecutive game played streak of 106 games is an underrated aspect of free agency with teams highly valuing players that can stay on the field.
PFF echoed this sentiment heading in to the free agency period.
“Durability and high-floor pass-rush ability is sought after but rarely found in the NFL. Playing over 400 pass-rush snaps in each of the past six seasons and looking good doing it, Jackson brings what every team is looking for right now.” – Austin Gayle
The downside to Jackson comes in the run game. Last year he ranked 51st of 55 in PFF’s run defense grade. The worst of it comes when he has backside responsibilities and gets caught in the wash. The better part of his game is working vertically on the playside, acting as a disruptor. His usage will need to be limited in running down situations, but that role can be adequately filled by less sought after commodities. It will also keep him fresh.
Staying fresh will be a boost not just for Jackson, but for the entire defensive line. Last year injuries to Timmy Jernigan, Haloti Ngata, and Derek Barnett forced the ingrained unit to play to excess while they searched for other answers to plug in.
Fletcher Cox had his best season as a pro in spite of this and a career-high 10.5 sacks partially due to the increased snaps. That number looks great, but near 80% of the snaps is sub-optimal. There were moments in game where the entire line needed air but the rotation wasn’t deep enough. They’re big men carrying a lot of weight; it happens. Bringing him back down to 60-70% is ideal and would keep him at maximum, scary efficiency.
Jackson will be a big piece in solving that issue. I can say that with confidence because Jackson isn’t a flash-in-the-pan one-year-wonder that teams fall in love with this time of year. He’s a proven, reliable piece with a clear role.
While Jackson’s agent, much like “Count” Lustig, may have wooed the Jaguars by being “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream”, that same March charm didn’t lead to the Eagles’ buying the Eiffel Tower. The Eagles paid the right price for the right player. The Count would be appalled.