Well, that was unfortunate. The Green Bay Packers’ 2019 season is over, ending in an ugly loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.
But let’s look on the bright side though: now we enter the part of the year where hope springs eternal and optimism is the flavor of the month. That’s right, it’s now officially draft season for the Packers. This year we’ll be providing breakdowns twice a week on draft prospects who could potentially interest the Packers as they look to improve on both sides of the ball to take the next step. This week we’ll be breaking down USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson.
Austin Jackson, offensive tackle, USC
Weight: 310 pounds
The first thing that becomes apparent when watching Jackson in pass protection is his natural athleticism. He is quick out of his stance and shows glimpses of long, quick, and graceful strides getting into his pass set. Jackson clearly checks all of the athletic boxes you could want from an elite NFL pass protector. He has excellent rate of force burst, exceptional muscle elasticity (twitchiness), and very good flexibility, particularly in his hips.
I came away from Austin’s film pretty convinced that he’s going to blow up the combine. Unfortunately, there are several technical flaws in his game that I believe are going to severely hamper his ability to be even an average pass blocker until they’re ironed out. The first of these is his footwork during his kick step. Despite having excellent natural lateral agility and flexibility, Jackson tends to have poor economy of movement, with a tendency to take short, jerky steps in the middle portion of his kick step, forcing himself to take elongated steps later and opening himself up to quick jab steps inside and counter moves once he starts to overextend himself. Possibly as a consequence of his poor footwork, Jackson has a particularly bad habit of hitching perpendicularly to the line of scrimmage far too early, giving pass rushers a flattened pass rush arc and an easier path to the quarterback. While Jackson was generally able to recover and keep his quarterback clean at the college level, this habit will likely lead to many pressures and sacks in the NFL.
While Jackson’s footwork leaves something to be desired, his truly fatal flaw is the lack of of an explosive first punch. While Jackson is obviously very strong and athletic, he seems to struggle rapidly translating force from his legs and hips into his arms. As a result, his punch is relatively slow and weak and this leaves him exposed to pass rush moves that rely on defeating an initial punch such as swipes and cross chops. Almost all of the sacks and quarterback hits that Jackson gave up were a result of having his punch defeated and the defender blowing by him as he attempted to recover. If college players are able to exploit him this way, it’s a pretty sure bet that technicians with excellent hand skills such as Za’Darius and Preston Smith will absolutely steal his lunch money at the next level.
Even so, I would almost be willing to overlook these problems if I saw him improve these areas year over year, but his game tape looked virtually unchanged between his sophomore and junior years. David Bahktiari had excellent natural lateral movement but a choppy kickstep when he came into college. While he still hadn’t perfected his footwork by the end of his junior year, he had made significant improvement and you could project that he’d continue improve at an NFL level. You can’t make that same kind of projection with Jackson, which presents the risk that he may never realize his potential as a pass protector.
On situations were he blocks man up, Jackson fires quickly off the ball and is very good at rolling his hips through contact to generate additional force and leverage. After initial contact, Jackson continues to drive his legs and utilizes his excellent base strength to drive linemen off the ball. It is not uncommon to see Jackson driving linemen five to eight yards down field. The one gripe you can make about Jackson’s man blocking is that he occasionally comes off the ball high. Even in situations where he doesn’t necessarily have the best leverage however, Jackson is still capable of moving defenders off the point of attack.
Where Jackson really shines as a run blocker though, is when he has an opportunity to use his absolutely elite movement skills. Jackson is an excellent reach blocker, and is able to consistently utilize his exceptional lateral agility to get to the outside of tight ends, linebackers, or wide ends to seal off stretch or pitch plays.
As good of a reach blocker as he is, the best part of Jackson’s run blocking game is when he’s asked to get to the second level. Jackson has incredible acceleration off the line, and is often able to get up to linebackers before they’re able to really diagnose the play. Jackson also has a keen understanding of the leverage required on particular running plays and attacks linebackers from angles that hamper their ability to take proper angles to attack the ball carrier. Once Jackson latched onto a linebacker, he was impossible to disengage from. In the four games I watched, there were no instances where a linebacker managed to shed Jackson once he got his hands on them. In fact, there was only one instance where a linebacker even managed to avoid Jackson. Needless to say, Jackson almost always blew up the linebacker and drove them several yards up the field after contact.
All of this is to say that coming into the NFL Jackson is likely to start as a plus run blocker in man concepts and and excellent run blocker in zone concepts.
So where does that leave Jackson? It’s likely that he starts as an above average to good run blocker and a below average pass protector. Jackson has upside in both aspects to become an elite All-Pro, but there appears to be significant risk that he may not reach that upside as a pass protector. If I were the Packers GM (and thank your lucky stars I’m not), I would rate Jackson as a high second round pick.
That being said, there are likely several GMs out there with more risk tolerance than me who will see Jackson’s elite athleticism and will think that their coaching staffs will be able to clean up his technique as soon as they get him in the building. I tend to think that’s it’s likely that Jackson will need at least two years to become an above average pass protector and that if he reaches his potential it won’t be until his second contract. If I’m Brian Gutekunst I’m probably not willing to risk some of the last years of Aaron Rodgers’ career on a player who may not be able to hold up in protection until after Rodgers is done playing. I would expect that Austin Jackson goes in the top half of the first round, and that might be best for the Packers.
Editor’s Note: Please welcome Ken McKain back to the APC staff. Ken will be analyzing numerous prospects over the next several months heading into the 2020 NFL Draft.