In 2014, the Dallas Cowboys struck gold with Zack Martin.
The rookie guard from Notre Dame was everything he was advertised to be, and more, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in his first season.
Rookies Martin, Cleveland’s Joel Bitonio, Jacksonville’s Brandon Linder and Carolina’s Trai Turner all were ranked among the NFL leaders at guard in pass blocking efficiency by the analytic website Pro Football Focus.
But right behind that group was Raiders rookie left guard Gabe Jackson. And, based on the progress he made his first year in the league, some believe that Jackson could be headed toward Pro Bowl or All-Pro status over the next two to three seasons.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson ranked 14th in the NFL in pass-blocking efficiency among guards – supposedly a weakness coming out of Mississippi State. Surprisingly, he struggled the first half of the season as a run blocker, but came on strong the second half of the season, compiling an impressive plus grade by PFF over the final seven games.
“We’re excited to see how he builds on his rookie season and progresses in 2015,” noted an analyst for PFF. “It should help blocking between (left tackle) Donald Penn and (center) Rodney Hudson, two players who have been better than average at their positions.”
Jackson, who is 6-foot-3 and 336 pounds, could make a big leap forward in a stronger offensive line now led by new offensive line coach Mike Tice and anchored in the middle by Hudson, whom the Raiders believe could be a free-agent pickup of great impact. The Raiders want to run the ball much more effectively this season, and Jackson should be a key to unlocking that goal.
“Jackson had a fine rookie season and is a road grader who should be a fixture on the line for years,” wrote Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, who recently listed Jackson among the team's 10 most important players on the 2015 roster. “He’s nothing fancy, but he doesn’t have to be fancy.”
Jackson, the son of a football coach, told reporters last season that it was a tough learning experience during the initial games of 2014. But as he learned and became more comfortable and confident, he started dishing out more punishment to defenders. His on-field mean streak became more apparent.
“I don’t know how to explain it other than when I line up against someone, it’s like they’re trying to take something away from me,” Jackson told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. “It’s a weird feeling, like I’m being threatened.”
Former Raiders defensive tackle Antonio Smith even compared him to former Dallas Cowboys guard Larry Allen, now a Hall of Famer, who retired after the 2007 season.
“He’s aggressive,” Smith told McDonald. “He’s strong as an ox, and he’s got a punch that reminds me of Larry Allen’s punch. If he catches you with it, you have to readjust your whole rush scheme.”
Tice, who worked with Jackson throughout this spring, calls Jackson “a rising star.”
It will be interesting to see if his second season ends with a Pro Bowl invitation.