After recording 3.0 sacks in his first six games lining up opposite of Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, Jackson couldn’t even get on the field by the end of the season.
Worn down by the rigors of his NFL season, Jackson was a healthy scratch in five of San Francisco’s final six games — including all three in the postseason — as he lacked the strength necessary to compete.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Jackson said recently. “So when they sat me, I kind of had to take myself from the game and see what else is going on that I need to be doing.
“So basically, it kind of helped me in a way because instead of me being mad or sad from being taken out of the game, I figured out things that I needed to do to help myself to better myself further on.”
The Niners made those things clear to Jackson at the exit meetings with coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. All three delivered the same message that if Jackson wanted to live up to his second-round draft billing, he would need to dedicate himself more to the weight room.
Jackson came back earlier than most of his teammates this offseason and has added about 13 pounds of muscle. He has seen the results in the weight room first-hand, as he now is able to squat 415 pounds and bench press 315 pounds.
“I feel like you just got to take that and run with it,” Jackson said of the criticism. “If you take it the bad way or wrong way, it can affect you. I took that, and I ran with it and I just made sure I hit those areas in the offseason where I was failing or not doing the best job at the end of the season.”
The work has impressed the demanding Kocurek, who was pleased when Jackson committed to coming back early.
Kocurek said he no longer wonders whether Jackson will be in the weight room when he arrives for work each day.
“He really had to dig within himself this offseason and figure out, ‘What [do] I want to do now? Do I want to go take this thing to the next level, or I just want to be similar to what I was?’” Kocurek said. “He [has] really put in the work. I don’t worry about when I start that truck up in the morning, if he’s going to be here working, he’s going to be here. He’s proven that.”
Kocurek believes the blow of being benched at the end of the last season resonated with Jackson, who had always been so physically gifted at lower levels that he could thrive without putting in the work necessary to succeed in the NFL.
“I seriously doubt that he ever got told that he wasn’t good enough to be on the field,” Kocurek said. “So he’s probably always been on the field. Then toward the end of the year, when strength levels kind of went down and got deactivated, I’m sure it was a humbling experience for him. He took it the right way.”
While San Francisco bolstered the interior rush by signing Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract, the 49ers don’t have a proven outside rusher to complement Bosa.
That’s where they hope Jackson can take the next step in Year 2.
“We knew that it wasn’t going to be a finished product with Drake,” Kocurek said. “We knew that it was going to be probably take the biggest jump going into Year 2 and even going into Year 3. We should see substantial strides in his game if he puts in the work, and he’s willing to put in the work to get it done.”
Reporting by The Associated Press.