Secret Superstar: Lawrence Jackson, Detroit Lions

| April 16, 2011

It wasn’t so long ago that the Detroit Lions were the laughing stock of the NFL. A winless season, drafting first round receivers for fun, and, of course, Matt Millen.

Eventually though, if you keep at it you’re luck is going to turn around. So, with the introduction of Jim Schwartz and a new way of doing things, the Lions began to rebuild. Year one brought wins, and year two brought competitiveness and further improvement. And what was at the heart of this?

An invigorated defensive line.

The 2010 off season captured imaginations with the selection of Ndamukong Suh in the draft, but lets not forget about the trade for Corey Williams and the free agent pick-up of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Those players joined Cliff Avril in a starting line that would go on to make quarterbacks’ lives miserable, getting up field as quick as a hiccup.

But they weren’t the only ones making an impression, there was another – the Lions’ Secret Superstar, Lawrence Jackson.
 

Old Coach, No Chance

When Pete Carroll took over in Seattle you thought things could be looking up for Jackson. ‘LoJack’ had been a four year starter under Carroll at USC, starting 51 of 52 games and earning two first team All-Pac 10 honors. Surely, if anyone knew what Jackson was capable of and could get the best out of him, it would be his college coach.
 
It wasn’t as if Jackson had never shown potential in the NFL. Granted, his rookie season was rough, picking up just 17 quarterback disruptions, but in year two he hinted at the talent that made him a first round pick for the Seahawks. In Week 2 against San Francisco, he picked up two sacks and a pressure in limited action and throughout the year he looked like a competent run defender. His 22 total pressures didn’t set the world on fire, but it was an improvement (in less playing time) than his debut season.
 
With some demonstrable improvement and his old college coach coming in, LJ would surely get at a chance to prove himself heading into the magical year three of his NFL career. Wrong. In a somewhat surprising move, the former Trojan was traded away for just a 6th round pick.
 
If that wasn’t a message that Jackson wasn’t cut out for the NFL, then what would be?
 

New Town, New Chance

While we can only imagine Jackson’s disappointment, he still had a job to do for Detroit. His new problem was being buried on the depth chart. Buried behind Avril. Buried behind Vanden Boch. Even buried behind Turk McBride.
 
It was no surprise that he saw little action in the first half of the season. In Weeks 1-9, he got on the field for a massive 49 snaps. Not exactly the kind of sample size you could really assess a performance on. The guy who had impressed so much in college was all of a sudden a forgotten man.
 
Fortunately though, fate can sometimes lend a helping hand and an opportunity presented itself when Avril had to miss the trip to Buffalo. The man discarded by Seattle responded by picking up a sack and a pressure, but it was work in run defense that really stood out. Time and again he got the better of Mansfield Wrotto and Jackson finished the day with five defensive stops.
 
Quite the effort on only 31 snaps, and to show it wasn’t a flash in the pan he got to the quarterback twice against Dallas a week later. We could go and praise each individual game for the rest of the season (minus the week 16 encounter with Miami) as Jackson really started to find his feet in Detroit. Particular highlights include a pair of three-QB-disruption days against Green Bay and Tampa Bay, and five in the finale against Minnesota.
 
Not earth-shattering numbers, but as part of a rotation his consistent production was valuable over the final eight weeks of the season. What’s more, Jackson more than held up in run support and finished 28th among 4-3 defensive ends in stops – remarkable in that everyone who finished higher played at least 200 more defensive snaps.
 

It would be wrong to assume that a strong finish to the season means Jackson is destined to completely fulfill his draft stock. He has still yet to get more than 25 total quarterback disruptions in a season, and for the time being his position on the depth chart makes playing time hard to come by. But the talent that got him drafted so high is starting to shine through. Bryant McKinnie found this out while being beaten for a sack and two pressures to close the season, and more tackles could be about to find out next year.
 
Then the secret will be well and truly out of the bag.
 
 

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