The San Francisco 49ers appear primed to field one of the league’s top-ranked defenses for a second consecutive season. Expectations are high for a 49ers franchise that disappointingly lost in the NFC Championship Game last season. Several young talents must take sizable steps forward in order for that projection to become reality. EDGE Drake Jackson is an ascending defender who is in a good position to experience a breakout campaign in 2023.
Jackson was quietly productive throughout his rookie year. The No. 61 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, Jackson recorded 4.0 sacks, 16 total pressures, nine hurries, and three additional quarterback hits. Jackson was extremely efficient for a first-year contributor that played less than 30% of the 49ers’ total defensive snaps, which worked out to a mere 228 pass-rushing opportunities, per Pro Football Focus.
There are several reasons why projecting a breakout season for Jackson is straightforward. First, Jackson has the talent and skills to be a successful pass-rusher in the NFL. He is an excellent reactive athlete with high-level get-off and bend around the edge. Jackson uses speed and athleticism to pursue opposing quarterbacks and ball-carriers. Jackson’s football IQ allows him to make a living around the football.
Jackson routinely defeated opposing blockers off the ball with a fine-tuned arsenal of pass-rushing moves. Jackson plays with a physical temperament and hot motor. There were flashes of all of those tools throughout his limited playing time.
Secondly, 49ers general manager John Lynch approached free agency with Jackson’s development in mind. The 49ers allowed a trio of defensive ends in Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu, and Jordan Willis to sign elsewhere. Willis, Ebukam, and Omenihu combined to play 1,332 snaps last season. Together, they accounted for 11.5 sacks. That’s a lot of snaps and production that now needs replacing in San Francisco.
Yet Lynch didn’t make an offseason splash at the position despite those departures. The 49ers took low-cost fliers on Austin Bryant and former first-rounder Clelin Ferrell. Kerry Hyder was also re-signed. None of these players will eat much into Jackson’s expected workload. Jackson’s ceiling is significantly higher than his in-house competition.
Also, the 49ers didn’t draft a single pass-rusher despite making nine selections in the 2023 NFL Draft. San Francisco’s depth chart is currently set up for Jackson to start opposite 2022 sack leader Nick Bosa. Jackson possesses every trait necessary to serve as an appropriate running mate to Bosa.
The 49ers also have a new defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks, who is replacing new Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans. Wilks possesses a brilliant defensive mind, and he’s inheriting a defense that allowed a league-low 16.3 points per outing last season. Wilks will surround Jackson with a supporting cast that includes Bosa, Javon Hargrave, and Arik Armstead. Opposing offensive lines are stretched thin. Jackson will receive advantageous one-versus-one matchups as a result.
Jackson is set to enter the 2023 season as a full-time starter in the 49ers’ fearsome defensive front. If he continues to mature into a well-rounded defender, he’ll be well-positioned to put forth a double-digit sack season. Jackson is about to evolve into a force to be reckoned with.