Drake Jackson, one of the smartest NFL rookies I’ve met, has a good shot at Lions roster

Detroit Free Press

If you’re into NFL training camp battles and keeping track of who will make the Detroit Lions’ 53-player roster, I’ve got a name for you to watch: Drake Jackson.

If you don’t know who Jackson is, I’ve got two things to tell you. First, you’re probably not alone. Second, you’re probably not Kevin Richardson, a member of the Backstreet Boys who once introduced himself to Jackson and had an entire conversation with him — while Jackson had no idea who he was.

For the record, Jackson is an undrafted rookie center from Kentucky. And he might be the most under-the-radar player in camp who has a good chance to make the roster.

Jackson has consistently taken second-team reps behind Pro Bowler Frank Ragnow. After a week of practice, and especially after Tuesday’s first padded practice, Jackson has held his own and looked good doing it against more experienced or highly touted defensive tackles like John Penisini and Alim McNeil.

“He’s looking good,” Ragnow said Wednesday.

He’s also sounding good. In nearly two decades of covering the Lions, Jackson is one the smartest and most engaging rookies I’ve met in training camp. He almost seems to have a cheat sheet for how to go about making it in the NFL.

All right, we’ll return to the football stuff. But let’s get back to the Backstreet Boy story. After a Kentucky home win in 2019, a well-dressed man approached Jackson and introduced himself as Kevin during a postgame celebration it the private football facility.

“Usually that’s family, coaches’ family or celebrities,” Jackson said. “So I kind of narrowed it down in my head. OK, this guy must be pretty important. You could just tell by clothes he was wearing. This is a very popular guy, maybe a little bit of a pop star.”

It wasn’t until they part ways and Jackson was able to hop on social media that he realized Richardson was a Lexington native and a pop icon from the 1990s with over 1 million followers on Instagram and Twitter.

OK, back to the football stuff.

Jackson had an excellent career at Kentucky. According to Pro Football Focus, he was one of the top UDFA signings and allowed just one sack in 1,000 pass-blocking attempts.

But he likely wasn’t drafted because of his size. He’s listed at 6-feet-2 and 298 pounds. By comparison, Ragnow is 6-5 and 311 pounds.

I’ll admit I have a certain bias toward Jackson because I spoke with him last year about guard Logan Stenberg, his Wildcats teammate the Lions drafted in the fourth round. Jackson told me a hilarious story about Stenberg’s nasty Bill Laimbeer-like attitude.

I met Jackson for the first time in person this week and I found him even more engaging and observant. I always love to hear what smart rookies think about the transition to the NFL. Jim Schwartz was fond of saying rookies are so turned around they struggle to find the bathroom.

Jackson’s had a few missteps. He one ran out to practice and forgot his soft shoulder pads and he’s gotten lost a few times driving around Detroit. But he sounds fully prepared for the biggest challenge of the NFL and the demands of an all-consuming profession.

“Everybody talked about, ‘Hey, when you get to college it’s all football, football, football,’ ” he said. “That was a lie. It wasn’t. It was football for three or four hours a day, at most.”

Now?

“It’s football for 10, 11, 12 (hours),” he said. “When you get home, an extra one or two. That’s been the biggest change. I wouldn’t say it’s been the biggest hurdle or obstacle. But yeah, your full day is football at this level. That’s what you do.”

The smart rookies lean on veterans by asking them questions. Jackson has done this with Ragnow, but he also had enough presence of mind to know not to take up too much of Ragnow’s time.

“Frank has been super helpful,” he said. “Always willing to answer my question. He’ll watch me: ‘Hey, I think you could have done this different.’ Or, ‘Hey, that was a good block.’ And I don’t need him to critique me every time, because then I’m taking away from his mental reps to watch other stuff.

“But I do like when he sees something small, maybe something he knows the O-line coach won’t hit on just because he’s a seasoned guy. I want him to monitor me the way he wanted someone to monitor him, I guess, when he was my age. And he’s doing a great job. I told him, ‘I can’t thank you enough for the help you’re giving me.’ ”

I have to admit there’s something else that made me like Jackson: His love of cooking.

His parents own and operate Smokin’ Jax Grill, a catering business in Berea, Kentucky, where Jackson worked alongside his parents and three siblings and would start his day at 3 a.m. when they had to feed over 100 people for lunch.

But his love of cooking started much younger. Taking a cue from his mother, Candy, Jackson has learned the true art of cooking, which is the transcendent magic that happens when a cook elevates the ordinary and turns the prosaic into poetry.

Jackson’s go-to meal is a simple New York strip steak. Because he didn’t own a grill in college, he learn how to reverse sear steak by starting it in warm oven and then searing it in a cast-iron pan. He knows that roasting vegetables and adding lemon juice turn them into something special.

Jackson is off to a good start early in camp. Of course, smarts alone aren’t enough in the NFL because size definitely matters. And you have to remember that every roster-bubble player has a champion on the coaching staff.

While it’s too hard to predict final roster spots at this point, I can’t help but think Jackson’s effort and his intelligence will make it hard for coaches not to see they might have something even more special on their hands than they first realized.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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