After losing Randy Gregory in free agency, the Cowboys have a need at EDGE. Today we look at a prospect that may not be getting enough attention in USC’s Drake Jackson.
Name: Drake Jackson
Weight: 254 pounds
Combine Results: 36.5” vertical jump, 127” broad jump
Drake Jackson’s story is a bit personal for me. Coming out of high school, Jackson was a 4-star recruit and the third-ranked EDGE in his class. As signing day approached, Jackson was reportedly choosing between USC and my own alma mater, Arizona State. In the 11th hour, it seemed as if the Sun Devils had stolen him right out from USC’s own backyard, but Jackson had a last-second change of heart and stayed close to home. It was a crushingly narrow recruiting loss for Arizona State.
For me, watching what Jackson did next for the Trojans, it hurt even more. Jackson took on a huge role right away, becoming USC’s first true freshman to start a season opener in 12 years. Jackson finished his freshman year with 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, both figures leading the team. Statistically, this ended up being his best year, but the context matters.
USC only played six games in Jackson’s sophomore season due to COVID-19, and Jackson was also adjusting to a new playing weight after shedding 20 pounds due to a drastically different scheme. This impacted his play, but Jackson finished on a strong note. Heading into the 2021 season, many expected Jackson to compete with fellow Pac 12 EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux for the top pick in the draft. That obviously didn’t happen; Jackson had a solid year but USC struggled all year, firing their head coach just two games in and then losing six of their last seven contests. The poor overall year for USC has distracted from what Jackson can be at the next level.
Burst: Jackson has incredible burst, and his explosive first step has probably been more responsible for his pass rush wins than any other trait. There are plenty of instances where Jackson gets to the quarterback solely because he gets off the line quicker than anyone else. Jackson backed this up in the explosion drills at the combine - the only drills he participated in - where he finished seventh in the vertical jump and third in the broad jump among EDGEs.
Footwork: Jackson is a very natural mover and his footwork is largely responsible for that. He’s very intentional with his foot placement and has exceptional bend to get around tackles, which he pairs nicely with his top-end burst. Jackson is also very good at reducing inside when tackles beat him to the edge, although that didn’t happen very often in college.
Hand Technique: Jackson is very active with his hands and he makes good use of his ideal length, often getting full extension of his 34” arms to create separation between him and the opposing lineman. Jackson looked to pack a more powerful punch in his freshman year, before he dropped weight, and doesn’t seem to have done as good a job at converting speed to power in order to make up for that.
Pass Rush Moves: The best way to describe Jackson’s pass rush moves is inconsistent. There are times where he throws out a move or two and looks unstoppable, but Jackson doesn’t keep that up long enough to become as dominant as he’s clearly capable of. That also makes it difficult to gauge how deep his pass rush repertoire is and how comfortable he is with each move.
Lateral Agility: Effortless. When Jackson has to change directions or move along the line of scrimmage, he just does it so smoothly. While he skipped the agility drills at the combine, Jackson did each of them at his pro day; his 4.28 short shuttle and 7.09 3-cone drill each would’ve placed in the 83rd percentile or higher at the combine.
Athleticism: Jackson plays with top-flight athleticism. It was difficult to fully appreciate it at the combine since Jackson didn’t participate in much, but USC clocked him at a 4.5 40-yard dash following Jackson’s sophomore year. That would’ve been third among EDGEs at the combine this year. The comparison in relative athletic scores between Jackson and Khalil Mack offers a great idea of the kind of athlete Jackson is. Obviously, Jackson isn’t as polished as Mack was coming out, but the athletic profiles are very similar.
Run Defense: This is easily Jackson’s biggest weakness. When tasked with being the primary edge-setter, Jackson just doesn’t have the strength and technical refinement to get the job done. He’s also very inconsistent as a tackler. Jackson’s lateral agility and athleticism offer promise to develop in this area, though.
Processing: Much of Jackson’s game can be summed as inconsistent, which speaks partially to his football IQ. Jackson needs to get better at using his pass rush moves and cycling between them, for one. But on the other hand, Jackson’s ability to start as a true freshman and then not lose a step during a scheme change the following year is a testament to his overall processing.
Intangibles: Jackson doesn’t always play with the same tenacity every play, although it’s hard to know how much of that is due to his below-average strength. He was admittedly in a weird spot with the head coach being on the hot seat each of Jackson’s three years there, but Jackson nevertheless didn’t blossom into a leader or strong locker room presence. On the flip side, he never caused any problems in that area either.
Simply put, USC didn’t do any favors for Jackson during his time in Los Angeles. The weight change and shift in scheme disrupted his growth in a key year from freshman to sophomore seasons, and the overall decisions made by a head coach and defensive coordinator who felt the heat on their seats weighed more towards trying to keep their jobs as opposed to developing their players. This can be seen with most of the current USC roster, as well.
With Jackson, though, it’s very easy to see his overwhelming talent shining through. Jackson has a great athletic profile and some really positive traits to build on. At the next level, he’s best as a situational edge rusher who needs to build his strength back up and fine-tune his techniques in run support.
That’s one reason why Jackson would be a great fit in Dallas. With Dante Fowler, Chauncey Golston, and Dorance Armstrong already in town, Jackson won’t need to play right away. Furthermore, the presence of Dan Quinn would allow Jackson to be directly mentored by one of the best. If Jackson can capitalize on his potential and reach his considerably high ceiling, he could become a dominant edge rusher and arguably end up the best at his position in this class. With a likely draft pick coming somewhere on the second day of the draft, Jackson offers huge upside at a relatively low cost.