It took a while, and I mean a while, but finally, just five picks before the 256th and final pick of the the 2018 NFL draft, Justin Jackson came off the board to the Los Angeles Chargers. Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher fell further than many anticipated, but that won’t really matter moving forward. Late-round picks make teams all the time, though it’s still improbable and difficult.
Jackson enters a running back situation in LA that’s conducive to him making the team, though. Melvin Gordon is the returning starter, and will stay there. Behind him, Austin Ekeler should be the backup after rushing for 260 yards, notching 279 yards receiving and scoring five total touchdowns for the Chargers last season. After those two, however, the running back depth is thin.
Derek Watt is on the roster as a fullback, and the rest of the running backs have no real NFL experience. As a seventh-round pick, Jackson is working against it, but, if the Chargers want to keep three running backs, he should have a great shot to make the team. At the minimum, he could very plausibly make the practice squad, after which another team could scoop him up, like Austin Carr a season ago.
Jackson will have to contribute on special teams early on, which is something he didn’t do a whole lot late in his Northwestern career. Being versatile — showing the ability to pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield — will be important in showing the coaching staff he deserves a role on the team. One of the knocks on Jackson is that his slight frame will prevent him from being an effective pass-blocker as a third-down back, so he’ll have to dispel that notion.
What could help his chances in the numbers game at the bottom of the roster is Melvin Gordon’s injury history — he missed time in each of his first two seasons, though he played all 16 games a season ago. An injury to Gordon or Ekeler during the summer or preseason would help Jackson tremendously in making the final 53, though that’s not something you want to root for or bank on.
The preseason will present a great opportunity for Jackson, especially as a running back. LA won’t want to risk an injury to Gordon by giving him a ton of carries, so Jackson should see a lot of work, which he’ll have to make the most of.
The Chargers are a good landing spot for JJBC, in more ways than simply the weather. There are only two proven backs on the roster, and head coach Anthony Lynn is a former running backs coach who understands the importance and value of good running back play. Given Jackson’s historic production in Evanston, he should be able to slot into the No. 3 running back slot with a good camp and preseason.
Said Chargers GM Tom Telesco in a recent Chicago Tribune story: “I told Justin Jackson, sorry you had to wait for so long. You had over 5,000 yards in the Big Ten rushing and 100 catches and he had to wait until the seventh round to get picked. That’s just the way the NFL is sometimes. But he’s going to get a great opportunity to make a football team.”