The 49ers invested a lot in Drake Jackson, making him their top pick in last year’s draft. They did so clearly in the belief that he could be much more than the edge rusher too often miscast in an off-ball role at USC.
Jackson provided plenty of evidence to suggest he will soon vindicate that assessment during his rookie season. There were frequent flashes of the pass-rush upside that convinced them to select him with the 61st overall pick in the second round.
However, concern was raised by the way in which Jackson faded down the stretch. He was inactive for two of the final three games of the regular season, and did not feature at all in the playoffs.
Pointing to problems with his conditioning, Kyle Shanahan said of Jackson back in February: “We had a decent group of rushers and as the year went out and towards the end, it got too long for him, and his body wasn’t quite ready for what we needed.”
Despite Jackson being reduced to the role of spectator in the postseason, the 49ers appear set to depend heavily on him in 2023.
The 49ers added veteran depth at edge in Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. In the draft, they waited until the fifth round to select Robert Beal Jr. Yet there were no additions likely to compete with Jackson for the starting role across from Nick Bosa following the exits of Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis.
New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks indicated Jackson needed to add weight to handle an expanded role. Jackson has done so, and the former Cardinals coach is relishing the prospect of eliciting a year-two leap from a pass rusher with all the physical gifts to blossom into a productive edge rusher at the highest level.
How likely is that 2023 ascension? The tape from his first year offered several clues.
The 49ers want their defensive ends to do two things, rush the passer and set the edge against the run. Their desire for that pair of demands to be met is behind their wish for Jackson to add mass.
While Jackson did display plenty of promise rushing the passer, his play against the run was too inconsistent. When Shanahan referenced Jackson’s body not being quite ready, that is in part a reference to the former Trojan’s struggles in holding up against the run.
Too often in his rookie season, Jackson was moved off the ball by run blocks with relative ease. Tight ends found success in generating push against Jackson and in sealing him off.
Easy to see going back over his 2022 film why the 49ers felt Drake Jackson needed to add more weight to his frame. Will aid him big time against the run.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 31, 2023
Did make some plays vs. run, but was also regularly moved off the ball, sometimes by TEs. pic.twitter.com/mAOyye7GoX
That is not to say Jackson was incapable of making plays against the run in 2022. On the play below against the Falcons, he holds his ground against a two-tight end double team before quickly disengaging from the block to reel in the ball-carrier after one tight end attempted to climb to the second level.
In the interest of fairness, here's Drake Jackson holding his ground against a 2TE double before disengaging and making a run stop for a short gain. pic.twitter.com/wiFhCE6lch— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 31, 2023
Yet, such plays were too infrequent and, with his slightly undersized frame meaning Jackson could also be effectively chipped by tight ends when rushing the passer, other more experienced options were more appealing to the Niners during the stretch run and the postseason.
That extra weight should also help him on plays where he's chipped. pic.twitter.com/0cx4NQMPiR— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 31, 2023
With those more experienced alternatives removed from the equation and Jackson up to 265 pounds from his playing weight of 252 last season, it’s time for the 49ers to trust him to hold his own against the run. And more regularly harness the pass-rush potential that was abundantly clear in 2022.
Jackson’s numbers from 2022 – three sacks, six quarterback hits – don’t hint at much to get excited about.
But displays of the skill set that convinced the Niners to select him in the second round were regular in his rookie campaign. It’s just that they came in spurts, with his opportunities for more impressive production limited. Jackson played just 33 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
Those demonstrations saw Jackson showcase several intriguing traits.
He did not run the 40 in pre-draft testing, but Jackson tested extremely well in drills that are barometers of the explosiveness the 49ers covet when looking for defensive linemen. Jackson’s broad jump was in the 94th percentile for defensive ends, while his vertical jump was in the 86th.
His performance in those drills translated into Jackson exhibiting an impressive get-off in pass-rushing situations. Jackson proved himself to be a pass rusher who can transform speed off the snap into power that can trouble opposing tackles.
Doing just that in the Week 10 win over the Chargers, Jackson got his inside hand into the pads of Jamaree Salyer to drive him back towards Justin Herbert, who was still able to complete a superb downfield throw despite Jackson’s rush taking away his room to step into the pass.
Perfect touch on this without being able to step fully into the throw because of Drake Jackson's push off the edge. pic.twitter.com/2dOUix5tHT— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) November 15, 2022
Jackson was rewarded for gaining significant ground with his first two steps on a critical play in a game with another AFC West opponent late in the season when the Niners visited the Raiders.
Kerry Hyder made what was low key one of the biggest plays of stretch run for the 49ers last season.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 17, 2023
Also worth noting Drake Jackson's get-off. Gains ground very quickly, that's what the 49ers value most in edge rushers, and Jackson gets rewarded for his explosiveness here. pic.twitter.com/lPWIprWWy9
Despite an excellent get-off, Jackson wasn’t able to beat the right tackle around the edge, yet the depth of his rush meant he was in excellent position to intercept Jarrett Stidham’s pass after Kerry Hyder batted the ball in the air.
The ability to produce that explosive get-off will be key to Jackson’s potential success as a pass rusher in 2023 and beyond. Last year, though, the most intriguing element of Jackson’s play in that area was his hand usage.
Relying regularly on both the swipe and the rip move and having joy with both, Jackson won consistently with well-executed plans of attack.
A particularly well-refined approach came on a play that resulted in a near-interception by Talanoa Hufanga in Seattle.
Typically excellent work in zone from Warner, getting depth to squeeze the window. Hufanga does a great job of reading the routes and the eyes of the QB to trigger downhill and nearly make the pick.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) December 20, 2022
Drake Jackson winning his rush vs. Cross with clever hand work & rip move pic.twitter.com/yYWMRrhSFm
Jackson stops his feet early in the rush, but strikes left tackle Charles Cross with a powerful punch with his inside arm. The force of that strike knocks Cross backwards and allows Jackson to use the same arm to chop away Cross’ outside arm. Having disengaged from Cross’ initial block, Jackson turns to the rip to help him turn the corner and flatten to Geno Smith, who just gets the ball off before he can register a hit.
A few weeks earlier, in the blowout win over the Buccaneers, Jackson beat veteran Donovan Smith – enduring a down year – in a markedly similar fashion.
One of the most encouraging rushes of Drake Jackson's rookie year. Holds up against the TE chip, sells inside and quickly swats aside the LT's outside arm to get around the edge.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 18, 2023
After he defeats the block, he shows really nice ability to flatten to Brady as he steps up. pic.twitter.com/AzmSIcQgWL
This time holding up against a chip from tight end Cade Otton, Jackson successfully sells an inside move with a jab step before getting around Smith’s outside shoulder by pushing away his left arm after an attempted swipe. Jackson then shows off the bend that was his calling card in college to flatten to Brady as he tries to step up into the pocket.
Both of those pressures were a consequence of a patient and well-crafted approach. Yet, when Jackson pairs his hand usage with the explosiveness he has in his locker, he can deliver remarkably quick wins. Salyer found that out in the prime time game against the Chargers, Jackson easily overcoming his block with a combination of speed and a two-hand swipe.
Maintaining his burst at an increased weight will be paramount for Jackson as heads into year two. The ceiling for a player with Jackson’s bend and nuanced approach to pass rushing will be extremely high if he succeeds, with his potential impact bolstered by his impressive versatility.
The 49ers highly value edge rushers who can win inside as well as around the edge, and Jackson was given ample opportunity to display that capability as a rookie.
Injuries meant Jackson regularly played inside as a rookie, his pass-rushing prowess coming to the fore even on plays where he lined up in the B gap. That was the case in the win over the Cardinals in Mexico City, Jackson winning his rush with a two-hand swipe, with his pressure only negated by a rapid throw from the Arizona quarterback.
49ers probably won't need Drake Jackson to play inside-out as much in 2023, but he's proven he can create disruption rushing from the interior. pic.twitter.com/evkgAEXJ4T— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 28, 2023
In their previous division clash with the Rams, Jackson won to the inside, having lined up outside the right tackle. Again going to the rip move, he swiftly beat the right guard to his outside shoulder before again showing off his flexibility to flatten to Matthew Stafford. Only a Stafford check down to the back prevented a hit.
Drake Jackson easily winning his rush with a rip move and showing excellent ability to flatten his rush to Stafford despite his short drop.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) November 8, 2022
Only an absurd arm angle throw from Stafford prevents a deserved sack here. pic.twitter.com/6HQsYdCd9R
And that proficiency in winning inside and out makes Jackson a substantial threat on stunts, which showed up in some of the biggest moments of the regular season.
Jackson’s effort running a stunt with Samson Ebukam when lined up inside played an underrated role in Nick Bosa’s key red zone sack in a shutout win over the Saints. While the main contributor was the speed with which Bosa got off the snap, Jackson’s ability to use his hands to keep himself disengaged from Cesar Ruiz’s block took away any escape route for Andy Dalton.
Key Nick Bosa sack (where he maybe jumped the snap) against the Saints also featured a nice rush from Drake Jackson running a game with Ebukam— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 14, 2023
Did an impressive job of beating Cesar Ruiz to the punch, striking his pads with outside arm and then ensuring Dalton had nowhere to go. pic.twitter.com/feHQPmw7oP
On that occasion, Jackson served as the looper in the stunt, but he also created disruption when cast in the role of penetrator.
Working off the edge in a stunt with Kerry Hyder Jr. Against the Dolphins, Jackson showcased the strength to fight through the blocks of two linemen with the rip before batting down Tua Tagovailoa’s pass.
Drake Jackson was great at batting down passes as a rookie. Does so here against Miami after winning inside we the penetrator on the stunt.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 30, 2023
Have to feel such stunts will be even more effective with Javon Hargrave on the interior. pic.twitter.com/opF94t0ZLV
That ability to bat down passes was a constant feature of his rookie season, with Jackson registering eight pass breakups. He also showcased athleticism in coverage that was a factor behind his usage in that area at USC, Jackson nearly coming up with a diving interception when dropped into pass defense against the Bucs.
The 49ers are dropping their defensive lineman into coverage and they’re making athletic PBUs in space pic.twitter.com/xfqLrhKaoA— Theo Ash (@TheoAshNFL) May 21, 2023
There may be the odd zone blitz called by Wilks that requires Jackson to drop into coverage. However, much more frequent will be instances where he is asked to run stunts, and those figure to be significantly more effective if he is running them in tandem with Javon Hargrave and if Jackson’s recent talk of improved movement skills is accurate.
“I feel so much different. Oh man, I feel a lot stronger in general, and I feel I can move a little bit different now,” said Jackson when asked about his bulked up frame on Wednesday.
A 2023 leap for Jackson may be contingent on him finding the balance between the weight that will allow him to stay on the field for longer and excel against the run, and retaining his explosiveness and agility.
For all the questions about his frame, Jackson already has the most important tool for his pass-rushing success in his arsenal. Whether it’s through get-off or a well-crafted plan, Jackson can win one-on-one with great consistency.
The 49er defense will blitz more under Wilks, but the foundation of their defense is still likely to be the front and its ability to win one on ones and get home with four.
As the favorite to start alongside Bosa, Armstead and Hargrave, Jackson is primed to see a massive amount of one on ones. Even in limited snaps, his 2022 pointed to him being a player who should emphatically capitalize on such opportunities.
Provided the offseason conditioning work pays dividends, a breakout for a player the 49ers could not trust down the stretch last season should be a safe bet.