Nick WagonerESPN staff writer5 minutes of reading
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After finishing his rookie season as a pregame inactive in five of the San Francisco 49ers’ last six games, defensive end Drake Jackson sat down with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek for his exit meeting.
Kocurek told Jackson where he thought he stood in the defensive line pecking order, asked Jackson how he viewed himself and asked Jackson to provide the date he would return to practice. Kocurek’s hope was that after their chat, Jackson would get back to work sooner rather than later.
The date Jackson gave was not long after the Niners’ Jan. 29 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Kocurek was satisfied with the answer, but it didn’t matter what was said if it wasn’t followed by action.
“I just told him, ‘I’m going to get to the point where I hit the start button in my truck in the morning and I’m on my way to work and [I shouldn’t have to think] “I hope Drake works hard in there,” Kocurek said. “It should just be, ‘I know he’s working hard in there.’
The 49ers used a second-round pick — No. 61 overall — on Jackson in the 2022 NFL draft with an eye toward the future. The Niners have prioritized building the defensive line under coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, but had no preconceived notions about Jackson’s rookie role. Had he won the starting job over Nick Bosa, it would have been considered a bonus.
But the Niners were well aware that fellow defensive ends Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis would be free agents after the season. At worst, the hope was that Jackson could earn valuable experience and be ready to start in Year 2.
Jackson showed promise at the start of last year — posting three sacks in the first six games — but fell off as the season wore on. The reason for that downturn? Shanahan pointed out that Jackson’s body was not ready for a long NFL season.
“Toward the end of the season, I would say my body was not the same as it started the season,” Jackson said. “I know of course it wears off, but I feel like I didn’t have enough, so I just keep working and try to have what I need for the rest of the season.”
Jackson weighed around 252 pounds for most of his rookie season and finished with 14 tackles, three sacks and an interception while averaging 20.1 snaps in 15 games. His 8.5% pass rush win rate and 3.8% pressure rate ranked well below the rest of the Niners’ regular edge defenders.
Ebukam (20.7% PRWR, 6.8% pressure rate) and Omenihu (16.4% PRWR, 7.5% pressure rate) far surpassed Jackson when it came to getting after quarterbacks. Jackson did a bit better than expected against the run, with a 27.3% run stop win rate that fell in line with the team’s other ends, but the Niners’ desire for him to add mass tape directly to their need for him to be on the field. field more and put up with a bigger workload.
“When they put me, I had to take myself away from the game and see what else is going on that I have to do,” Jackson said. “It helped me in a way because instead of being mad or upset about being taken out of the game, I found out things I needed to do to help myself improve myself further.”
Jackson’s work in the weight room has resulted in significant offseason gains. Jackson estimates he weighs around 265 pounds and wants to play in the 260 to 265 range. Perhaps more importantly, Jackson is focused on increasing his strength to better take on bigger offensive linemen. That has translated to the weight room, where Jackson is putting up numbers he’s never reached before.
Dennis Jackson, Drake’s father, has long given his son a hard time for not being able to lift more, but that teasing has slowed this offseason. Jackson bench presses 315 pounds for two or three reps and squats 415 pounds for six reps.
“Whether you’re the best in the business or trying to fight your way up as an undrafted free agent, it’s a humbling game,” Kocurek said. “Sometimes it takes a humbling experience to really see that you have to put your best foot forward and improve the things you need to improve to be the player you know you can be and imagine you are. “
To that end, Kocurek has been right by Jackson’s side throughout the offseason program, checking in on him to make sure he’s “stacking the days” instead of “letting the days stack” him.
The more he can do that, the better chance Jackson will get the first crack at becoming Bosa’s bookend. The Niners made several changes on the defensive line in the offseason, signing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $81 million deal in March. San Francisco also said goodbye to Ebukam (Indianapolis Colts), Omenihu (Kansas City Chiefs) and Willis (Las Vegas Raiders).
All of which means there’s a clear path for Jackson to a starting job on a line that also boasts Hargrave, Bosa and Arik Armstead that should provide plenty of one-on-one opportunities for whoever wins the second defensive end jobs. Jackson will have competition from free-agent additions Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, as well as returning player Kerry Hyder Jr. and rookie Robert Beal Jr.
For now, Jackson says he’s not worried about winning the starting job, but there’s no doubting what the expectations are for him.
“He’s definitely going to have a bigger role this year,” Armstead said. “We’ve had some key losses along the D-line and I’m excited for him and he has an opportunity this year. He’s worked extremely hard this offseason and put himself in the best possible position to be successful.. . year is going to be a big jump for him. I’m excited to see it, and we definitely need it.”