Every team needs able pass-rushers. In 2021, the Cincinnati Bengals invested in Trey Hendrickson via free agency, while also drafting Joseph Ossai, Cam Sample and Wyatt Hubert in the draft.
Unfortunately, Ossai and Hubert missed the entire season with injuries, while 2020 defensive lineman, Khalid Kareem, flashed in very limited opportunities. So, while it seems like the Bengals may not need to use a premium pick on an edge rusher in this year’s draft, there might be exceptions.
One such example may be USC’s Drake Jackson. There’s going to be a lot of organizational effort in seeing the project through, but if cared for correctly, a high-end defender could be in the making here.
Age: 20 (Turns 21 before NFL Draft)
Position: EDGE/Outside Linebacker
Projected Round: Mid-Round 2-Early Round 3 range
Jackson opted to not travel far for college football, going from Centennial High School in Corona, California to USC. While the Trojans used him as an “outside linebacker” in his three seasons there, he was used as a disruptor and pass-rusher often.
Jackson logged 25 tackles-for-loss and 12.5 sacks in his USC career, which says something given the coaching and program issues, as well as the 2020-shortened season in the COVID-19 pandemic year.
“Potential” is an operative word with Jackson as it goes with pro teams. There’s a highly-athletic profile, a young age and metrics that show ascension. But, it’s going to take an ideal situation and organizational patience to see Jackson hit his ceiling.
Athleticism and speed are two of Jackson’s biggest assets. Because of his lower weight at the position, he can get around corners with ease and cause problems for big offensive tackles.
“Bend” is also a term that is used often with Jackson, as he exhibits the trait that some of the league’s best rushers also possess. Jackson’s ability to dip under the punches of offensive linemen and cause problems really stand out on tape.
He also has good length to go with the athleticism. It benefits him in his repertoire of pass-rush moves.
Being so young, he also seems to be an ascending player. He had an 82.2 overall PFF score in 2021, with an 87.7 pass-rush grade. These scores were about 10 points higher from the year prior, showcasing his growing comfort as a big-time pass-rush threat.
let my team take a chance on guys who can do this pic.twitter.com/8bFCaZxBWO— Seth Galina (@pff_seth) April 6, 2022
Oddly enough, some of the strengths translate to his weaker areas. While there is a lot of clay to mold with Jackson, he’s raw and needs time to develop in his quest to become an effective NFL pass-rusher.
There’s also the questions and issues with his weight fluctuation. In college he played anywhere from the 230s to the 250s, as USC (with its myriad of problems in recent years) figured out how to best use him.
The consensus opinion is that he’ll need to continue bulking up as a pro, which shouldn’t be a huge problem, given his young age. On top of that though, Jackson will probably need to go to a near-perfect situation, in terms of scheme and a forward-thinking defensive coordinator.
The good news is that the areas that need refinement are ones that he should be able to largely fix—it just will need time and organizational patience.
In re-watching some clips of Jackson and going back in my mind’s eye of watching some 2021 USC games, a word that describes the young defender is “disruptive”. Whether he’s logging a sack, forcing a bad throw from a pressure, or just getting into the head of an opposing offensive coordinator because of his sheer athleticism, the Pac-12 had to always account for No. 99.
Initially in the NFL, Jackson would likely be a rotational, niche pass-rusher in specialty packages. The athleticism will allow him to see early snaps, but counting on him for heavy work as a rookie seems to not be in the cards.
Still, with proper development and patience, Jackson could become a valuable member of a defense. In Cincinnati’s case, Jackson provides a different profile than their past and current rushers who fit into traditional molds.
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