Scouting is a frequently underrated aspect of football. I’ve spent hours poring through Steve Belichick’s text on scouting and I know that I’m just scratching the surface of it. It’s given me a lot of respect for those who do it professionally.
At its simplest, scouting tells you the basics of a player’s contribution in their (college) teams’ specific schemes. A good scheme fit is essential to achieving maximum production from the player.
A defensive lineman might be perfect for a hybrid even front scheme, but might be drafted to an odd front attack. He might be a natural 5-tech; on some teams, he’d be asked to handle playing the 3 or 1-tech, due to injury issues. Good scouting establishes good fits.
Player versatility makes the coaches’ jobs easier. Good coaching finds what their players do best and find how to fit it into the scheme. Evaluating how likely the player is to develop is as much art as it is science. Both skills are needed to excel in scouting the college ranks.
There’s always the quandary of guessing to what extent a college player’s body is going to develop. Some players gain as much as a third of their weight in college. Do they have the drive to mold it into an NFL body? The same goes for their likelihood of technique development. How well do they handle tough-love coaching? Do they have the mentality for the year-around grind of the NFL?
Malik Jackson is a case in point. Growing up in Northridge CA, he attended Birmingham high school. As a HS senior in 2007, he earned eight awards. Those awards were based on his senior year production: 103 tackles, 14.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. He originally chose to stay in-state for college. He attended the University of Southern California for his first two years.
USC never quite worked out for Jackson. He was small for the defensive line back then. He only made four tackles as a freshman in the eight games he was part of. Two of them, though, were for sacks. He added a fumble recovery. He played in all 13 games as a backup defensive lineman his sophomore year, but that only led to 18 tackles. 3.5 were sacks: he was often used as a pass rusher. He added one forced fumble and two pass deflections.
Related Story: Malik Jackson's Focus Play Hard, Get Paid
At that point, Jackson chose to move on to the University of Tennessee. It was wise for several reasons. First, he felt that he’d get better coaching at Tennessee. Second, he’d be on that SEC stage each week. Third, the scouting reports that were done on him at USC were now obsolete. He was in a different scheme with different coaches and different responsibilities. It was a better fit for him.
According to Andrew Lentz of UTSports.com, Jackson noted;
"If I didn't go to Tennessee or do what I did at Tennessee, I wouldn't really be in this position. Tennessee helped me so much in what I wanted to do. It offered me a new home to show my skills on a different stage and different level in the SEC in a top-notch environment. I just thank Coach Dooley and his staff for giving me the opportunity. I'm just happy I went there because I don't think it could've worked out any better."
Malik was awarded the First Team All-SEC in 2011 by the media and second team by the coaches.
Back in SoCal, Jackson had started college as a 6-foot-5, 245-pound hybrid player. He weighed 270 pounds by the time he was in Tennesse and 285 at the Combine. Pigeon-holed as a pass rusher, Jackson had to work hard to get his weight up when he moved from USC to Tennessee. NFL.com considered him an undersized 3-4 DE. They placed a 5.0 grade on him (career backup, with a 50-50 chance to make the roster). They considered him a developmental seventh round pick.
Related Story: Evaluating The Broncos Roster Development
The Denver Broncos saw his weight increasing, the power that was already in his punch and the wingspan of his 34-inch arms. They believed in his ability to develop as a run-stopper. They were already interested in his pass rushing skills. They took Malik in the fifth round of the 2012 draft with pick No. 132.
Denver had taken a fierce run stopper with developing inside rush skills in Derek Wolfe at pick No. 36, in round two of the same draft. Both had experience playing inside, as well as outside. I’m looking forward to watching Jackson and Wolfe handling DE this season, with Sylvester Williams up front. Having linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware outside Jackson puts him in the best of situations. Jackson’s an emerging star who’s surrounded by talent.
Malik is now up to 293 pounds and has arms like howitzers. Having arrived together, Wolfe and Jackson are enjoying being written in as the starting left and right defensive ends. Both can stuff the run. Both can attack the quarterback.
Jackson has finally been drawing attention with his level of play. On June 25th, 2015, Pete Prisco listed him as Denver’s most underrated player. It’s good to see him getting his just due.
Related Story: Darius Kilgo And 'Elite Depth'
In May of 2014, Pro Football Focus made Jackson Denver’s Secret Superstar for 2014. Jackson earned a +24.2 grade on 578 snaps that year. He played every position on the Broncos hybrid line. This is from PFF’s analysis of the 2014 Week 6 game against Jacksonville.
“On 1st-and-10 with 4:02 left in the third quarter, Jackson lined up in a wide stance off the right tackle. He kept contain on a bootleg and chased the quarterback down for a sack.“ See the GIF below.
Notice in the animated image below that he’s on the receiving end of a cut block. Denver will use more of them this year. As long as the rules are as they’re written, it’s a painful but legal block.
Notice that it doesn’t seem to even slow Jackson, who invites Robert Griffith to a turf sandwich.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware (with Shane Ray, at times) should be at OLB. Sly Williams is expected at NG. Denver will be fielding a fierce front seven. Jackson’s plan?
Related Story: Malik Jackson Adjusting To New Defensive Scheme
"Be humble and work hard," he said. "There are a thousand guys out here that look just like you or have just as much ability as you. You have to stand out from each and every one of them. I just worked hard in everything I tried to do. You just have to go out there, be your best and be you.”
So far, Malik has shown that his best is very good. His stack-and-shed work was excellent last season. Denver was dunned by several pundits for taking Jackson ‘too early’. Like Danny Trevathan and Wolfe, Jackson has blossomed in the NFL. Proper scouting, seeing the player within what he was already becoming, made the difference.
Now the Broncos have ‘Wild’ Bill Kollar to coach the defensive line. Kollar yells, screams, curses and cajoles. His players love him because he gets the best out of his charges and genuinely cares about them as people. Given the material he has to work with, the Broncos defensive line is likely to inflict maximum damage on their opposing offenses. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips believes in aggressive penetration. Jackson provides it.
Related Story: Bill Kollar: The Coach Who Wrestles Bears
In 2014 his film was often like watching him playing at a different speed than the players around him. At 293 pounds, he sometimes handled the two-gap nose guard position. Like Wolfe, Jackson has played every position on both the odd and even front DL. Versatility is Jackson’s norm.
He quickly caught on to the new system. "It allows you to think fast," Jackson noted. "If it’s Todd Davis or Danny Trevathan or Brandon Marshall, all they have to say is about four words and we’re rolling. Or sometimes it’s just one and we know what it is. I think that helps a lot."
Jackson graded at +13.9 on run defense and +12.9 for his pass rushing in 2014 by PFF. Watching his film was a pleasure. He provided 50 QB pressures on 624 snaps and was equally effective against the run.
More Broncos Stories
He’s also becoming an increasing part of the Denver community. Malik has started a football camp to benefit military families. Like David Bruton’s ‘Bruton’s Book’ program, Jackson has found a need that’s not being met. He’s approaching it with the same zeal that he brings to the field.
Unlike John Fox’s philosophy, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak prefers to accept that your younger players will make bone-headed mistakes at times. That’s offset by the development of the younger players into quality veterans. Malik has already reached that point. Now, he’ll get even better.
Follow Malik’s season on Twitter @TheMalikJackson.
In the video below, a young Malik Jackson talks about how he and the Volunteers defense approached the 2011 NCAA season—great insight into his grid-iron mindset.