Finding the Fits: Justin Jackson adds juice to Chargers' backfield

Justin Jackson ran for 5,440 yards and 41 TDs in a four-year career at Northwestern. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Seventh-rounder from Northwestern has deceptive acceleration

By Rob Rang,

This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2018 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

Los Angeles Chargers' best fit: Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern, selected No. 251 overall (7th round)

With all due respect to fellow stars Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen, one could make the argument that no team was more reliant upon their starting running back last season than the Los Angeles Chargers. Melvin Gordon produced roughly 70 percent of the team's rushing yards while finishing second only to Allen in receptions.

Gordon started all 16 games for the first time in his young NFL career, registering career highs in rushing attempts (284), rushing yards (1,105), receptions (58), receiving yards (476) and tying his 2016 total of 12 combined touchdowns.

Just as impressive: After losing six fumbles over his first two seasons after being selected 15th overall by the Chargers, Gordon did not turn the ball over in 2017 despite the increased workload.

It is not surprising then that general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Anthony Lynn opted to exercise the Chargers' fifth-year option on the former Wisconsin star, assuring club control of Gordon throughout the 2019 season at a relatively modest price ($5.6 million) for a runner with his impact ability.

While the Chargers are fortunate to have found a star in Gordon, the club smartly recognized the danger in relying too much upon him, turning back to the Big Ten to find Jackson, an instinctive, slippery back with terrific vision and deceptive acceleration. He ranked among my favorite sleepers this year.

Jackson joined former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne as the only back in conference history to rush for over 1,000 yards in all four seasons of his college career. In all, Jackson rushed for a staggering 5,440 yards and 41 touchdowns for a gritty but often physically overmatched Northwestern squad. He was every bit as dangerous as a receiver, hauling in 122 passes for 858 yards and a score over his illustrious career.

Befitting his production, Jackson earned All-Big Ten accolades in each of his four seasons at Northwestern, including second-team honors after his junior and senior campaigns.

That type of consistency and reliability had to appeal to Telesco and Lynn, given that only two of the five backs currently on the Chargers' roster -- Gordon and incumbent backup Austin Ekeler (a second-year former undrafted free agent) -- have an NFL carry to their credit.

Shortly after selecting him, Telesco talked about how excited he was to find Jackson still on the board in the seventh round.

"(He was a) highly-productive Big Ten running back in both rushing and receiving," Telesco said during his club's post-draft press conference.

"His production is off the charts. (He's a) great kid, very smart, obviously at Northwestern. Drafting him in the seventh round, it was pretty exciting that Justin was there and we had a chance to draft him. We think he has a great opportunity with the way the roster is right now."

Clearly, Gordon is the main volt powering the Chargers' running game. Barring injury, that is unlikely to change this season or the next.

As such, nationally-speaking, expectations are likely pretty low for a player selected 251st overall. After all, only five more players were drafted after Jackson this year.

Throughout the first week of the Chargers' training camp, however, Jackson has proven his deceptive juice, as well, breaking a handful of big runs. That is not surprising given his track record and clean fit in offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's scheme.

Given this fact, as well as the relatively "easy" path Jackson has toward playing time, do not be surprised when this seventh-round pick not only makes the roster but produces if and when the Chargers need a jump-start in 2018.

Other thoughts on the Chargers' 2018 draft class:

This draft was mostly about defense, with the Chargers dedicating their first four selections on that side of the ball. Most expect immediate contributions from first-round safety Derwin James and second-round outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, two of the more passionate, physical defenders in the draft.

A nagging hamstring injury, however, has kept James sidelined early in training camp, threatening his chance at unseating veteran Jahleel Addai as the club's starting strong safety opposite last year's flashy rookie Desmond King. Prior to the injury, Lynn characterized James as "for the most part, having an outstanding spring" with the club asking him to play a variety of roles, similar to what he did at Florida State.

Few defensive coordinators are more capable of taking advantage of James' unique skill-set than Gus Bradley, who deserves significant credit for the success seen on that side of the ball in previous stops in Jacksonville and Seattle.

Nwosu is also challenging for significant playing time, currently working behind incumbent starter Kyle Emmanuel at outside linebacker. Nwosu is a classic edge defender, showing the toughness and strength to set the edge, as well as the burst and bend to get up-field.

As I noted in his official profile for, one of Nwosu's greatest attributes is his instincts. For a young player, he showed rare body control and awareness of passing lanes, deflecting 13 passes as an edge defender over the regular season for USC last year. Several of those tipped passes were ultimately intercepted by teammates.

The ability to spark turnovers could get Nwosu on the field sooner rather than later, a frightening thought for AFC West opponents, given that the Chargers already are one of the league's best at taking the ball away, finishing tied for sixth last year in interceptions (18).

The Chargers' 2018 draft class:

1st Round, No. 14 overall: Derwin James, S, Florida State

2nd Round, No. 48 overall: Uchenna Nwosu, OLB, Southern California

3rd Round, No. 84 overall: Justin Jones, DT, North Carolina State

4th Round, No. 119 overall: Kyzir White, S, West Virginia

5th Round, No. 155 overall: Scott Quessenberry, C, UCLA

6th Round, No. 191 overall: Dylan Cantrell, WR, Texas Tech

7th Round, No. 251 overall: Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:

Tony Brown, CB, Alabama

Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech

Detrez Newsome, RB, Western Carolina