SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the opening moments of his first NFL practice at last weekend's San Francisco 49ers rookie minicamp, it was immediately clear defensive end Drake Jackson was in for a longer day than many of his new teammates.
As the Niners broke off into their respective position groups, only undrafted tackle Kevin Atkins joined Jackson with the defensive line. Which meant Jackson and Atkins were about to get the benefit of one-on-one tutoring from defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and assistant Darryl Tapp. It also meant the amount of rest between reps would be at Kocurek's discretion.
It didn't take long for Jackson's gas tank to run low. Not that anything was going to dampen the enthusiastic second-round pick's mood in his first in-person professional experience.
"I was just walking through the halls and I had to like call my dad," Jackson said, smiling. "I'm like, 'Man, this is crazy.' Just to be standing right here in this spot, I can't really explain it. It's a beautiful, blessed feeling to have."
That Jackson is already getting significant time with Kocurek matters given the role the Niners envision for Jackson.
Since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017, the Niners have prioritized the defensive line. When the Niners used the No. 61 pick on Jackson, it was the sixth time in the past eight years the team drafted a defensive lineman with its first pick and the fourth time in six years it had done so under Shanahan and Lynch.
While Jackson doesn't come with the lofty draft expectations of first-rounders such as Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas and Javon Kinlaw before him, his development is no less important. That's because, with Bosa in line for a lucrative contract extension and the only proven edge rusher under contract beyond 2022, the Niners want Jackson to eventually step into the role earmarked for Dee Ford when they traded for him in 2019. It hasn't often worked out with Ford, whose tenure with the team has been marked by injuries, most notably a persistent back issue.
"[Jackson] just jumps off the film in terms of his ... talent and length and his ability to turn the corner and redirect, all the things we look for and covet in a defensive end," Lynch said. "We think his best stuff is in front of him."
Bosa texted Jackson the night the Niners drafted him out of USC.
Jackson, who had to hold himself back from asking too many questions out of the gate, is eager to begin picking Bosa's brain, noting he "has the answers to the test."
Of course, Bosa would be more than happy to have a tag-team partner to divert the extra blocking attention he gets every week.
With Ford on the opposite end in 2019, the Niners' defense had a 46.8% pass rush win rate, 26 sacks, seven forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and four interceptions on 214 snaps. When Ford wasn't on the field, the Niners had a 43.8% pass rush win rate, 22 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions on 754 snaps.
Jackson is joining a loaded edge rusher group that includes Bosa, Samson Ebukam, Jordan Willis, Kemoko Turay, Kerry Hyder Jr. and Charles Omenihu. Ford is also under contract, but Lynch has said the Niners don't expect him to play for them again.
That depth should allow the Niners to bring Jackson along at his own pace but there's also plenty of opportunity to earn snaps quickly. In his final season with the Trojans, Jackson had a pressure on 15% of his pass rush attempts, the second-highest rate of any Pac-12 player with 150-plus pass rushes.
"I get along with anyone," Jackson said. "I want to see everyone win. Even if someone is over me or something like that, I want to see them win still. I can learn off of him being in instead of being mad all the time or something like that. I'd rather be positive with everything because down the road you'll get something from it."
One of Jackson's first tasks is getting into the team's conditioning program and settling on a weight that works for him. Jackson's weight fluctuated dramatically in college as he played multiple positions. He played in the 240s as a linebacker in 2021 but he had his best season in 2019 as a freshman playing at 275 pounds. In order to be more than just a situational pass-rusher from the defensive end spot, Jackson hopes to play at a "shredded" 265 pounds.
If Jackson can complement Bosa on a consistent basis, the Niners defense should only continue to ascend. Last season, no NFL team had more sacks with four or fewer pass-rushers than San Francisco's 37. That aggressive approach is a hallmark of coordinator DeMeco Ryans and Kocurek.
"I love it," Jackson said. "Every play, it's a hunt. I just want to be a part of that pack to go hunt with my boys."