One of the more intriguing players to suit up for the Broncos’ defense in recent years, Malik Jackson has a similarly interesting case for long-term employment in Denver.
Aside from Von Miller, finding a performer who’s made more flash plays on that unit the past two seasons than Jackson is difficult, but whether he’s a cornerstone talent like Miller on that defense is a layered case and depends largely on how Jackson is used in his contract year.
The Broncos have opted to unleash their hybrid performer in spurts during the past two seasons, and the results give the former fifth-round pick in 2012 an obvious case for an integral role in this season’s defense.
Jackson’s performance is hard to question, and the former Tennessee and USC cog’s eventual second contract will be one of the interesting test cases for Pro Football Focus.
Jackson managed a strange feat that will make him valuable if/when he hits free agency next March: he managed to be a top-12 player at both defensive tackle and defensive end in successive seasons on PFF’s advanced metrics without the team undergoing a scheme change.
From his six sacks in 2013 playing primarily as a 4-3 3-technique tackle to his three last season in an off-the-bench role spelling DeMarcus Ware and 2012 draft class companion Derek Wolfe at end, Jackson was rated as the 12th- and third-best player (subscription required) at his respective positions despite playing just 52.7 and 52.3% of Denver’s snaps in those campaigns. His 578 snaps last year ranked just 30th among 4-3 defensive ends, more than 400 behind Cameron Jordan‘s position-leading total.
Although Gary Kubiak‘s stated desire to play Jackson plenty due to the flashy plays the new coach has seen on film, the Broncos clearly prefer Jackson as an off-the-bench performer despite the success at each juncture, creating a junction point in his career coming up. Will clearing the 60-snap plateau for the first time in a game deprive him of the energy with which he plays and hamper his ascent?
Denver will now use a 3-4 scheme after Wade Phillips‘ arrival, and this would seemingly benefit the 6-foot-5, 284-pound tweener of sorts, with it requiring a bigger defensive end that can stop the run. With Ware relocating to outside linebacker opposite Miller in this set, it opens up a void for a pass-rusher up front, since Wolfe hasn’t shown much in that department since his rookie season. Jackson could also be used inside in passing-down scenarios this season when Miller and Ware potentially return to three-point stances on the edges, strengthening his case for a hefty second contract.
While Wolfe, who also is a career 4-3 end who will stay up front in a 3-4 alignment this season, excels against the run, Jackson’s showcased a knack for altering both ball-advancement methods. PFF bestowed its third-best run-stoppage grade (for a 4-3 end) upon Jackson last season, and the 25-year-old was the eighth-best pass-rusher in that grouping. Only Michael Bennett was a better multi-dimensional 4-3 end last season, while just J.J. Watt and Sheldon Richardson received higher against-the-pass and against-the-run grades than Jackson.
If Jackson can keep playing at or near the level he’s shown as a second- and third-year player, the Broncos may not be able to afford his fifth.
Demaryius Thomas remains in limbo with the franchise tag looming for his sixth season. If the Broncos do not come to terms on an extension for their Pro Bowl wideout by July 15, the last day franchise players can sign long-term deals, they must reach an accord with Miller to avoid a future without one of them. Unless Miller, who is playing this season on his fifth-year option, receives what would be a monstrous extension in the next nine-plus months, he’ll be in the franchise tag-or-free agency boat with Thomas.
One of them almost certainly will be franchised in 2016, leaving players like Jackson, 2013 tackles leader Danny Trevathan and Wolfe as clear lower-tier priorities despite lengthy statuses in and around the starting lineup. Deadlines generally induce action, and Denver’s re-signed its franchise players in 2012 (Matt Prater) and 2013 (Ryan Clady), which provides hope for a Thomas accord. That would provide some much-needed clarity for the Broncos’ future salary cap situation.
There’s also the matter of Peyton Manning‘s $21.5MM cap figure for 2016 that remains tethered to the Broncos’ plans. Should the 39-year-old quarterback retire, that obviously frees up a lot of money. But whether GM John Elway wants to entrust his team to a still-unknown commodity in Brock Osweiler — also a 2016 free agent despite scant on-field work as Manning’s lanky apprentice — and the low salary that should be attached to him is questionable, meaning potential re-ups for players like Jackson and Trevathan aren’t necessarily improved by a Manning departure after this season.
Plus, with the Broncos opting to splurge on its 2014 free agent class, a move that did yield four Pro Bowlers, instead of second contracts for the bulk of its talented 2011 draft/UDFA contingent (save for Chris Harris, who signed a team-friendly five-year, $42MM deal in December), an interesting build-from-outside methodology has emerged under Elway.
The Broncos largely opted to do the same thing in 2013, with a big free agent balance sheet and a sizable, albeit less-talented, cadre of homegrown players leaving. The second-contract gridlock that’s forthcoming will be an even bigger test for Elway, as Miller and Thomas are top-5 players at their positions.
Miller and, barring a restructure that is certainly in play, Ware could make more than $25MM between them next year. This depends on whether or not Miller is franchised. The Broncos also traded up to take Shane Ray in the first round this year. But Denver hasn’t shied away from bolstering strengths, with Harris re-signing despite Aqib Talib‘s big-money pact and Bradley Roby‘s first-round selection occurring months before.
With a good year, Jackson can aim high, possibly using Pernell McPhee‘s five-year, $38.7MM deal with the Bears as a benchmark. Despite McPhee primarily playing linebacker, his size, versatility and usage rate make him a comparable player, and Jackson probably has a more consistent resume.
If 3-4 defensive end is Jackson’s future, he could find himself on the Jason Hatcher/Desmond Bryant tier that includes an average income of $6.8MM per year. With another production leap in a starting role, it’s not out of the realm of possibility the advanced metrics darling could find himself on the fringe of the class that Jordan, Corey Liuget and Jurrell Casey occupy, with Casey’s $9MM/year serving as that group’s floor.
If that kind of salary demand becomes realistic, the Broncos’ issues with Thomas and Miller will get in the way of making Jackson a long-term part of their defense.
The Broncos not reaching a deal with Demaryius Thomas — as they failed to do last summer with he and Julius Thomas, who bolted for a huge Jaguars offer as a result — would cloud their future with Jackson, now their best defensive lineman and possibly by a large margin. So a future with a long-term deal for their consistent receiver, and a subsequent Miller franchise tag, would be a positive scenario for keeping Jackson in Denver.
Otherwise, with no young depth behind Wolfe and Jackson, the Broncos may have to start over on their defensive front’s edges — as they did at tight end this year, with an inferior talent in Owen Daniels — if these dominoes don’t fall their way.
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