Danny O’Neil, a staff reporter with the Seattle Times who covers the Seattle Seahawks (and regularly contributes to the Times’ Seahawks blog), wrote a piece in Thursday’s paper citing sub-par performances in 2008 by some Seahawks players – Lofa Tatupu, Julius Jones, and Lawrence Jackson, to be specific – and wrote about how they plan to put the past behind them and perform on a higher level next season. Although you can’t argue that this particular trio did not fail to impress last year, it brings up more talk about defensive end Lawrence Jackson, who was unable to make an immediate impact and has many Seattle fans questioning his abilities.
As noted by O’Neil, Jackson finished last season with two sacks; not quite the statistical impact fans are looking for from a starting defensive end. However, it was his rookie season, and I believe it is far too early to declare Jackson a first round “bust”. Jackson, quoted in O’Neil’s article:
"“It may not have been up to some people’s expectations – especially not my own,” Jackson said. “But to go out there and fight for my teammates, that was the most important thing.”“It’s something I felt that will only make me a better football player,” Jackson said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to take a couple of steps back before you go forward. It was all part of it.”"
While I can’t argue that Jackson’s 2008 showing was less-than-expected, it is realistic to still expect big things from the USC product in the future. Several other rookie defensive ends – some drafted much higher than Jackson – failed to impress as well last season, offering insignificant sack totals and not having much of an impact on the field. The table I’ve created below shows the defensive ends drafted in the first- and second-rounds of the 2008 draft, and none of their rookie-season statistics are anything to brag about.
Even St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, who was selected second overall, didn’t post staggering numbers, achieving only four sacks while starting every regular season game. This is not an excuse for Jackson’s subpar rookie season, but just more proof that rookie defensive ends tend to struggle in their rookie seasons to post big numbers. It is far too early to pronounce any of these players busts, and the same applies to Jackson.
In his article, O’Neil also provided a very interesting statistic: Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney only collected 2.5 sacks his rookie year in 1999, but is now viewed as a premier pass rusher (when healthy, at least) in a league deprived of those capable. This gave me incentive to research more, identifying the best defensive ends currently playing and highlighting their early statistics. I’ve done so in the table below, showing rookie- and second-year statistics tallied by the top defensive ends in the NFL (including all six 2009 Pro Bowl defensive ends).
This chart may be skewed a little, because each player encountered a different set of circumstances during their first few seasons. However, it does show that (with the exception of a few of the elite pass rushers) many of the best struggled to make a great impact early in their careers. Lawrence Jackson, who started 14 games last season, will be given every opportunity to prove himself in the next couple of years. Even former first overall pick Mario Williams, who was playing underneath the shadow of Reggie Bush, failed to perform at a high level as a rookie before developing into one of the premier defensive ends around the league.
To continue my defensive of Lawrence Jackson, I’m going to refer to a radio interview from a few weeks back. I had meant to mention it before, but it never became relevant in any of my postings until now. In an interview on the Mitch In The Morning show on KJR (late February), Lawrence Jackson revealed that he had been playing injured most of last season, slowed by a bothersome foot injury sustained in the season-opener against the Buffalo Bills. This may sound like an excuse to some, but I think it may have had a great impact on his ability to perform at a high level. At the very least, we need to give this guy a chance to prove himself as a healthy, veteran player. To hear the audio from the interview, visit Mitch On Demand at KJR.com.
Fans have every right to hold athletes accountable for subpar performance, especially in a premier league such as NFL, but sometimes too much uninformed criticism can be unreasonable. By all means, criticize Jackson if he doesn’t live up to his first-round status in the future, but we should hold back for now. He was a great college player who struggled to make immediate adjustments at the next level, which is very typical of any rookie player. Barring any injuries, I believe that Lawrence Jackson will bounce back from 2008 and develop into a solid player in this league. He may not make annual Pro Bowl appearances, but he should have more of an impact in future seasons.
Hopefully I’m right in my opinion, and we can look forward to Lawrence Jackson having a long, successful career in Seattle.