ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** What was once a mark against Malik Jackson could become his strong point. Deemed a "tweener" coming out of college, Jackson's NFL future was questioned by scouts and analysts, but his combination of strength and agility could make him a ferocious threat to opposing linemen in Wade Phillips' defense.
But the physical tools didn't mean the defensive change would come easily for him.
"First, it was hard," Jackson said in a phone interview on Monday. "I was like 'Man, I'm never going to get this stuff'. It's hard but that's just because I was in a defense for three years and that's all I've known but once I kind of took some time and they took some time and we really started learning it, it's easy."
Now it's like second nature, which is something we've heard a lot from players on the defense.
"It allows you to think fast," he added. "If it's Todd Davis or Danny Trevathan or Brandon Marshall, all they have to say is about four words and we're rolling. Or sometimes it's just one and we know what it is. I think that helps a lot."
One of the key parts about what the defense will do isn't even so much in scheme but in Phillips figuring out the best ways to utilize their individual talents to combine for something greater.
"It's not just going to the 3-4, it's really the personnel involved in the 3-4 and what you want to do with them," Phillips said in May during OTAs. "Each guy's capabilities—what they can do—you try to meld that into the defense. That's part of our learning process. It's not just the players; it's the coaches learning what the players can do. I can think of a lot of defenses but it's what our players do best, and that's what we're going to try to do."
And when you look at what Malik Jackson does best, there's a lot you can do.
Drafted in 2012 in the fifth round, Jackson first considerably cracked the rotation in 2013, starting five games. That year, he totaled six sacks, 42 combined tackles and one forced fumble. According to Pro Football Focus, he spent half of his snaps as an interior defensive end, and the other half split pretty evenly between rushing off the edge as an end and getting off the line as a nose or defensive tackle.
His effectiveness improved further in his third year, and especially so in the run game. Jackson had done well against the run in 2013 (an above average 4.1 mark from PFF) but became one of the best run-stoppers on the defense in 2014 with a 12.8 rating from PFF.
Overall, Jackson moved up the NFL's ranks as one of the best defensive ends in a 4-3 defense, balancing his pass rush with his run defense.
So for Wade Phillips, finding the way to best utilize Jackson's talents might be to do so indiscriminately along the line, to be unleashed in a way.
"I haven't been contained too much in the past few years," Jackson said, referring to whether he'd be let loose more in the new system. "...but I think in this defense in what Bill Kollar and coach Wade Phillips do, they really just play to your strengths and if you can rush, just rush all day; if you can stunt well, you're going to stunt well; or if you drop, that's going to be your job. So I think that's good that doing what people do well and being able to let them do that well and that's what I think I'll find the most. Not do whatever I want, but play within the defense but have freedom."
As for the next season, Jackson has his eyes set on becoming a more disruptive—aiming for double-digit totals in sacks and tackles for loss, but it's not just about the pass rush.
"Personal, I just really want to break double-digit sacks this year," he began. "...to break double-digit sacks and keep being stout at the run and getting a lot of TFLs, not just sacks – double-digit sacks, double-digit TFLs."
"And for the team, just really taking advantage of the people we have here and go win a championship."