His signing was one that pre-empted free agency in 2019, an addition heralded as the perfect fit to a defensive line in the process of undergoing a facelift. Veteran tackle Malik Jackson was the right guy at the right time to provide Fletcher Cox the kind of next-door mate to unlock all kinds of possibilities as the Eagles planned to collapse offensive line and pass protections from the inside out.
At age 29, Jackson was durable – he had played in 107 consecutive games entering 2019 — and he was productive and a big, strong addition to the interior of Jim Schwartz's defense. A leader in the locker room, respected around the league, Jackson was a positive addition to the team in a multitude of ways.
And then the regular season happened. And Jackson lasted all of one game before suffering a season-ending foot injury in the opener against Washington. His was the first in a year-long spate of injuries that rattled the roster.
Jackson worked all season in the shadows and was also visible as he stayed with the team and consulted with the defensive linemen and coaches on game plans and ways to win at the line of scrimmage. He didn't sulk. He didn't slink away. Jackson did his part rehabbing his injury, sticking around the team, helping in any way that he could.
Now the focus is on 2020. What Jackson could have been is a past tense for this football team. The Eagles are looking forward to a healthy, determined and ready-to-play Malik Jackson for the season ahead. And as the conversations rage about who the Eagles might target in free agency and then in the NFL Draft, there is also this: The team is going to get some help as those players who spent large chunks of last season on Injured Reserve are now healthy and raring to go for this season.
How much, then, does having Jackson in the plans mean for the Eagles?
Potentially, it's quite a bit. Jackson still has a lot of football left in his 30-year-old body. He was diligent in his foot rehab and Jackson is hungry to get back on the field. He knows the defensive scheme. He's seen Cox for a full season and understands how his skill set works so well with Cox's. The thought of the two of them together, and healthy, is one that changes the complexion of a defense that scrambled for most of the season at defensive tackle.
Certainly, though, there is still the unknown. How much did nearly the entire year away from the field impact Jackson? As impressive as his durability is, there are also a lot of games played in there. Is Jackson's injury just one of those "freak" things or is there a concern that, at age 30, it could be a sign of things to come?
These are some of the questions the Eagles need to consider as they address defensive tackle, an ultra-important position that is below the radar for some fans right now. It shouldn't be. The Eagles have Cox and they have Jackson, along with Anthony Rush and Bruce Hector, signed for 2020. Tim Jernigan and Hassan Ridgeway are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in three weeks.
There is some work to do at defensive tackle.
Everyone is rooting for Jackson to make it all the way back and to become the inside force the Eagles projected him to be when he was cut by Jacksonville and landed in Philadelphia's laps one year ago. He's a class guy, an upbeat presence and he loves the game of football. Having him in a productive role would mean a lot for this football team in many ways.
Just how much of the positional needs are solved with Jackson's return? That's the biggest question of all as the Eagles put the finishing touches on their plans for free agency and the draft. Philadelphia has to be better along the defensive line, inside and on the edge. A healthy, springy Jackson beating up guards and centers with Cox at his side changes the entire defense. Dominating up front helps the Eagles on the back end.
It's a new year and it's a new Jackson. He has a fresh start. The Eagles would love Jackson to show up in the spring and the summer and play like the guy they signed last March. In the meantime, they're going to add to defensive tackle because, as we learned last season when it looked like the Eagles were loaded like never before with quality talent and depth at DT, you just can never have enough good tackles on a roster.