Secret Superstars 2014: Broncos
It was tough for a player to stay anonymous on the 2013 Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning’s record-breaking season was so impressive it had its own gravitational pull, attracting media praise to all players on his offense. And by the time the Super Bowl came with its corresponding hype, even lesser-known defenders like Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton were becoming household names.
And yet one Denver player managed to slip under the radar despite ranking near the top of our grades and emerging as one of the most versatile defensive linemen in the league. It’s time to give more recognition to Malik Jackson, the Broncos Secret Superstar.
From ‘Tweener To Starter
For many draft prospects, the “‘tweener” label has been a career death knell. It can signify a player who is a jack-of-all-positions, master of none, and such athletes often never find a fit in the NFL. That was the word that surrounded Jackson as he approached the 2012 NFL draft. He spent two seasons as a 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end at USC, and then another two as a 270-pound hybrid end/tackle at Tennessee.
He continued to add weight as he entered the draft, in hopes of establishing himself as a better defensive tackle prospect, but many scouts still didn’t see him fitting an exact NFL role. The Broncos, however, saw his versatility as a positive and selected him in the fifth round.
Jackson’s rookie season passed quietly. Denver had a deep defensive end rotation led by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, and Jackson played just 123 snaps. But it soon became apparent in the 2013 offseason that he would be in for a bigger role in his second season. Dumervil’s contract memorably ended amid a fax machine snafu, Miller was handed a six-game drug suspension, and even the departure of Justin Bannan left the Broncos a bit lighter in their defensive tackle depth. Denver needed some help up front, and Jackson was up for the task. By Week 4, he’d already eclipsed his 2012 snap total.
Then in Week 6 against the Jaguars, after Robert Ayers’ injury left the Broncos even weaker on the defensive line, Jackson played a career-high 48 snaps and posted a career-high +4.0 PFF grade. He’d officially established himself as a crucial piece of the Broncos’ defense in what would become a very productive season.
He went on to play 726 snaps in the regular season and playoffs, earning a +19.2 grade that placed him 13th among defensive tackles. He was a disruptive force against both the run and pass; his 9.3 Run Stop Percentage in the regular season was 14th at his position and his 9.2 Pass Rushing Productivity was sixth.
Versatility And Productivity
Jackson’s numbers are impressive, but it’s not just what he did last season that stands out, but where he did it from. The versatile background that made him a ‘tweener to draftniks turned him into a Swiss Army Knife against opposing offensive lines. Here’s a breakdown of where Jackson lined up last season:
|Position||Snap %||QB Pressures||Run Stops|
To see Jackson’s versatility in a nutshell, look no further than his single-handed destruction of a Jaguars drive in that aforementioned Week 6 matchup. On 1st-and-10 with 4:02 left in the third quarter, Jackson lined up in a wide stance off the right tackle. He kept contain on a bootleg and chased the quarterback down for a sack.
On the next play, the Jaguars ran power straight at him. Jackson stonewalled the pulling guard and tackled the running back for a loss. On third down, Jackson lined up inside as a nose tackle, then sped around the helpless right guard on a stunt for another sack. Three straight plays, three tackles for loss by Jackson.
At 6-foot-5 and 293 pounds, Jackson has the strength to set the edge and bully offensive tackles on the outside. And yet he still has much of the same speed he had when he was a 245-pound defensive end, making him too quick for guards and centers on the inside. In the same way that a big and fast tight end can create mismatches on offense, that’s what Jackson’s versatility brings to the Broncos defense.
Denver is very creative with its fronts to get Miller into the best situation to rush the passer, and Jackson fits perfectly into that strategy. In a Week 11 matchup against the Chiefs, with 11:49 left in the first quarter, Jackson lined up at nose tackle while Miller lurked on the edge. Kansas City slid their protection to the linebacker’s side, and Jackson quickly beat right guard Jon Asamoah inside for the sack.
Later, with 00:23 left in the second quarter, Miller hovered over the center, threatening a blitz. While Kansas City kept a guard in front of the linebacker, Jackson was left with plenty of space to operate against left tackle Branden Albert, first bullrushing him back and then beating him inside for another QB takedown. Miller’s presence frequently left Jackson in these one-on-one situations, and he often took advantage.
The Broncos may have had a tough finish to their season, but Jackson had nothing to be ashamed of down the stretch. After defensive end Derek Wolfe and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson were both lost for the season in Week 12, Jackson played a grueling 73.1% of the Broncos snaps.
His pass rush wasn’t as powerful with the increased workload (especially after Miller himself went down in Week 15), yet he still earned a +4.3 overall grade in that final stretch and was one of five Denver players to grade “in the green” in the Super Bowl. Playing in every one of the Broncos 19 games last season, Jackson earned a positive grade in all but four of them.
Denver signed DeMarcus Ware this offseason, but with Ayers and Shaun Phillips both departed in free agency, Jackson will once again be called upon often to man the trenches. He’ll line up all over the Broncos defensive front, and should continue to have success from different spots. He may have flown under the radar last season, but if the Broncos contend as they’re expected to, it’s hard to believe that this superstar will stay a secret for much longer.
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