ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer “we don’t draft All Pros, we have to make them.’’
And over the course of the next week we’ll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, some will be starters for the first time in the coming season.
But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season’s run to the Super Bowl.
Today: Defensive end/defensive tackle Malik Jackson
When Jackson arrived with the Broncos he was a player who had functioned well both at end and tackle during his time at the University of Tennessee. He consistently showed the ability to affect games in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference where most weeks it was another potential NFL draft pick across from him. He was routinely quick off the ball, usually the first out of his stance at the snap in the Volunteers' front, as well as USC before his transfer.
But he has been more than that in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s scheme. So much so, Jackson continues to force his way into the team’s thinking about how it does things and who gets to play.
And by any measure, statistical or game video, Jackson deserves even more snaps than he got this past season. Whether he actually gets them is a question, however, given both Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson are on track to return to the lineup after spending part of the 2013 season on injured reserve.
The Broncos also added DeMarcus Ware in free agency so the snaps across the defensive front will be harder to come by at times. But Del Rio loves to work situations with a variety of personnel groupings as he believes the lure of some playing time keeps everyone engaged -- “we’ve proven to them if they show us they can offer something, they’ll play,’’ Del Rio said -- as well as keep more players fresher longer during the season.
That approach doesn’t affect Ware, a member of the league’s 100-sack club in his career, but Jackson is in that situational group. But no player on the Broncos’ depth chart made the most of those snaps like Jackson did last season.
He can play the defensive left end on early downs -- the power or strongside end -- with enough physicality to hold the edge and then move down on the inside on passing downs and play with athleticism. And in doing that, consider what he did with his playing time last season.
Jackson played 591 snaps in the regular season, or 52.3 percent of the team’s total. And yet he was second on the team in sacks (six), led the team’s defensive linemen in tackles (42, seventh on the team overall) and led the team in tackles for loss (11) as well as hits on the quarterback (15), often outdistancing players who spent far more time on the field than he did.
Some of those numbers were impacted by Von Miller’s six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and the fact Miller missed the regular-season finale after suffering a torn ACL as well. Wolfe’s struggles on the field following a preseason neck injury also figured in, even before Wolfe went on injured reserve after suffering seizure-like symptoms.
But the totals also speak to Jackson’s ability to affect offenses when he’s in the lineup from wherever he is in the formation. Wolfe played a similar inside-outside role in a productive rookie season in 2012 so Del Rio does have some balancing-act work to do with two players who have filled similar roles.
The Broncos spent 66 percent of their snaps in the nickel last season and figure to be somewhere north of the 60-percent mark this season, even with the power-first NFC West rotation on the schedule. So Jackson and Wolfe figure to spend more time in the rotation as rush tackles, as it were, with Ware and Miller in the outside spots.
But Jackson’s production can’t be ignored and should be rewarded until somebody else's is better.