The newest series for the CA Charting Project, the free agent profiles are our attempt to best understand why the Colts front office decided to sign whom they did during free agency. Hopefully, through these profiles, fans and analysts alike can understand who these free agents are, what they bring to the team and what role we can expect them to play in 2014.
As with all of the components of the CACP, we would love your feedback on what you’d like to see examined and explained, whether it be specific players, statistical charting or schemes. Don’t hesitate to comment via the comments or Twitter.
The Colts’ inside linebacking crew was a meager group in 2013. That’s not meant to be an insult, merely an observation.
Jerrell Freeman was a mainstay, as he’s been since the 2012 preseason, but the rest of the group was filled with miscast, injury-prone and untrusted figures. Pat Angerer was the only linebacker other than Freeman to play more than 500 snaps, and he was hampered by injury all season, limiting his effectiveness. The other options included Kavell Conner (whom the coaches refused to trust for some reason), Kelvin Sheppard (whose effectiveness could be most graciously labeled as ‘bearable’), former Army lieutenant Josh McNary and Mario Harvey.
Enter D’Qwell Jackson.
The former Cleveland Brown has been a recognizable name since 2008, when he led the NFL in tackles. Jackson was highly rated going into the draft in 2006, and was drafted 34th overall by the Browns. Jackson had some successful years in Cleveland, despite never making a Pro Bowl. While he did have some injury issues that caused him to miss over a season and a half in 2009 and 2010, he returned with a vengeance in 2011, thriving in the Browns’ 4-3 and setting career highs in tackles with 158.
Now 30, Jackson is coming off of two poor seasons with Cleveland, which caused the team to release him to avoid paying him a $4.1 million roster bonus. All reports paint Jackson as a team leader and key part of the Cleveland locker room, but the front office apparently could not fathom paying the aging linebacker after seeing him decline in recent years.
Can a change of scenery, teammates and coaching staff revitalize Jackson? I have my doubts, but let’s take a look at Jackson, both through statistics and film for our first free agent film review of the offseason.
To understand Jackson’s use in Cleveland and his potential use in Indianapolis, let’s take a look at the snap counts* for each of the current linebackers on the roster.
*In order to fully comprehend how the Colts were using their linebackers at the end of the season, I’ve included the postseason for the 2013 Colts. Obviously, Jackson has no postseason games to add on.
The first thing to stand out with Jackson is that he, along with Jerrell Freeman, is the clear starter in 2014. He, like Freeman, was used as a three-down linebacker in Cleveland, and is known for his ability to stay on the field and drop back into coverage. The Colts now have two inside linebackers that can play every down.
Jackson has more experience than anybody on the roster in every facet of being an inside linebacker, and it showed in 2013. It’s remarkable how similarly Freeman and Jackson were used on their respective teams, however, and it will be interesting to see how the Colts utilize the two in 2014. Will both play three downs, or will one be more regularly rotated out for an up-and-coming linebacker like Josh McNary, whom the Colts clearly see as a pass-rushing threat from the ILB position?
We’ll assume for now that Jackson will be a regular three-down linebacker, aside from occasional rest periods to keep the veteran fresh.
Continuing with our statistical visualizations, we now take a look at how each of the inside linebackers on the team fared in varying advanced statistics in 2013.
While Jackson didn’t fare well by Pro Football Focus’ grades, his numbers have to be kept in context as well. Sheppard’s -12.2, remember, came in 428 snaps, versus 1160 for Jackson. But, the bottom line is that Sheppard had very real deficiencies in 2013, despite his reputation.
The other advanced numbers give us a look into what Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses were in 2013. Jackson was a very sound tackler, with the best Tackle Efficiency numbers of the group (save Harvey, who didn’t miss a single tackle in admittedly limited time). Jackson missed just seven tackles in 2013, according to PFF, and finished fifth among starting ILBs in Tackle Efficiency.
Jackson was notably strong in pass coverage, especially compared to the Colts’ other linebackers. Jackson’s yards allowed per cover snap were markedly better than each of the other linebackers (other than Sheppard, whose low numbers are more a function of a low sample size than skill in coverage). Jackson’s tackling while in coverage was notable as well, he missed just two tackles against the pass all year.
But, Jackson’s work against the run was spotty. His run stop percentage was awful, worse than every other linebacker on the roster, and fourth-worst among all starters in 2013. But Jackson racked up a fair amount of tackles, and was a reliable tackler, so his low stop percentage hints at something else: an inability to penetrate and get tackles near the line of scrimmage. These hints would materialize into noticeable characteristics on film.
Jackson’s Pass Rush Productivity numbers are low, but that may be a scheme issue more than anything else. The three main Colts ILBs from late last season all have significantly above average rates, and Freeman’s 21.7 was second-best among starting ILBs last year. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and Chuck Pagano did an exceptional job of scheming their linebackers free, and Jackson should be able to take advantage of that in 2014.
The first thing that stands out to me on tape is Jackson’s lack of speed. Maybe this is because he’s aging, maybe it’s because Jackson was never a player with great speed, but for a linebacker who is supposed to be good at dropping back into coverage, his range across the field is very limited.
Really, a coverage linebacker should be able to get out to Finley after he is slowed by three other defensive players, but Jackson is too slow to get to him, and his tackle attempt just propels Finley forward more than anything else.
Now, the lack of speed doesn’t always keep Jackson from making a play on the ball carrier. Later in the game he would use his sound tackling skills to stop Finley about nine yards short of the first down on a quick screen to the other side of the field.
Jackson’s speed still isn’t anything special, Finley still does gain 11 yards on the play, but he knows the situation and he reads the quarterback the whole way. Once he is sure Rodgers is throwing the ball, he plants and attacks. His instincts will allow him to be in correct position most of the time, which is good because his lack of speed won’t allow him to correct his mistake if he guesses wrong.
You can beat Jackson on short quick passes if you have speed, but Jackson does a good job when asked to drop deep in coverage. In this particular example, he reads Tom Brady the entire way, putting himself in great position to make a play on the ball.
This was Jackson’s only interception of the year, but he was in position to make three others that bounced off his hands. But it should be noted that he only has eight picks in seven years, so he isn’t going to be a consistent playmaker.
Jackson played mostly zone coverage, but he did show an ability to turn and run in man coverage. Again, he doesn’t have top speed, and faster tight ends or backs could beat him, but Cleveland wisely kept him out of those scenarios.
The real downside for Jackson, however, is against the run. Jackson would often attack the line of scrimmage early on running plays, but then not have the strength to disengage and stop the runner, allowing himself to get blocked out of plays quickly.
Take this six-yard run by Jonathan Dwyer last season. Jackson attacks the line of scrimmage right away, but tight end Matt Spaeth (#87) knocks him right out of the hole, giving space enough for Dwyer to get the first down.
This would be fine if it was a rare occurrence. But this is something that happened regularly for Jackson.
Later in the same quarter, Jackson would get blocked out of the hole by tight end Heath Miller, allowing Leveon Bell to run for seven yards.
When Jackson did make tackles against the run, it was often in cleanup mode, getting a player down after another player had caused the back to re-direct in the backfield or after the back had already gained four or more yards. As I watched him, I just kept thinking that he looked out of place as a 3-4 linebacker. He simply couldn’t take on blockers head on and still be expected to make a play, which is something all of the Colts’ linebackers have struggled with in the last two years, save (at times) Kavell Conner.
Jackson isn’t going to be a playmaker, he doesn’t have the speed to do that. At best, the Colts will likely get a player who is reliable as a tackler and versatile to take on different roles in Pagano’s defense. If he slows down at all, it’s possible that Jackson could be a real liability, especially in run defense. I still hold that there were better options available, and Jackson is a stop-gap solution more than anything, but Jackson’s experience and veteran leadership will be welcome to the team and his coverage will be a massive upgrade over Pat Angerer, Kelvin Sheppard and Kavell Conner.