Pass Rusher Profile: Malik Jackson
Looking to expand into a three-down role, Malik Jackson has been a balanced and effective pass rusher.
Pass Rusher Profile: Malik Jackson
Our pass rusher profile series continues with a player entering the final year of his rookie deal primed to make himself known to a wider NFL audience in Wade Phillips’ one gap 3-4 defensive scheme.
Over the past two seasons Malik Jackson has proven himself to be a pivotal and versatile cog in the Denver Broncos’ defense and this season he figures to claim a full-time starting role for the first time in his career playing in the same scheme that J.J. Watt used to become the league’s most destructive player.
After struggling to find a niche as a rookie, Jackson emerged as a valuable role player in the Broncos’ run to Super Bowl defeat in 2013 and took his performance level a step further in 2014. Though he didn’t start a single game in his third season, Jackson earned an overall grade of +24.2, grading above +12.0 as both a run defender and a pass rusher, finishing behind only Cameron Wake and Michael Bennett in terms of overall grade among 4-3 defensive ends. However, to pigeon hole Jackson in one position does a disservice to his versatility for the Broncos last season.
As Jackson’s alignment breakdown illustrates he in fact rushed the most from either the 3-tech position or a 4i-tech on an inside shade of the offensive tackle as an interior pass rusher in sub-package situations and it is this versatility to line up inside that should see him sew up a starting spot as a 3-4 defensive end for the Broncos this season.
The potential to pair Jackson with the newly acquired Antonio Smith in sub-packages should give the Broncos a ferocious pass rush in obvious passing situations, having those two inside with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off the edge. Jackson’s work from that 4i-tech is particularly interesting, a number of players (like Gerald McCoy) align there almost like an extra wide 3-tech, going beyond aligning in the gap, and the likes of Jackson, Robert Ayers and Justin Tuck used it to excellent effect last season in sub-packages.
Jackson’s work predominantly as a sub-package pass rusher is the biggest question mark over his growth in the upcoming season. He rushed the passer only 62 times last season with four or fewer defensive backs on the field last season compared to 352 pass rushes with five or more defensive backs on the field. Jackson’s work as a run defender is impressive considering the low snap count but he will have to prove this season that he can translate this performance level to base defense as well if he is to realize the potential that his performances in the last two seasons hint at.
Unsurprisingly for a sub-package rusher, Jackson is somewhat of a third-down specialist but it is the extent of the bias in his production that only serves to place greater pressure on him to step up as a three-down defender this season. Rushing more than 100 times on all three downs last season, Jackson only had a pass rushing productivity above average on third downs with his work on first and second downs below par for edge defenders but above average for interior defenders. His work on third down is unlikely to disappear at this point but questions over whether he can add to that on early downs will need to be answered this season.
What gives encouragement as to Jackson’s ability to flourish as a three-down defender is his balance as a pass rusher and multitude of ways in which he wins against opposing blockers. A near perfect split of inside, outside and bullrush wins is paired with good work against centers and a willingness to go and find the quarterback when the pocket breaks with seven pressures coming in clean up and pursuit.
Broncos fans are right to have high hopes for Jackson this coming season and it will be fascinating to judge Jackson this time next year with a full season as a starter under his belt as he heads towards free agency.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.