Almost exactly one year ago, on December 9, 2017, a post popped up on J.C. Jackson’s Instagram account titled simply “NEW CHAPTER...” The accompanying picture featured a text by the defensive back announcing his decision to forgo his final year of college eligibility to try his luck in the NFL. After two seasons as the Maryland Terrapins’ top cornerback, Jackson was on to the next challenge: making it in the pros.
Most of his résumé entering the draft process was solid. The former high school All-American had the best year of his college career in 2017 and recorded a team-high three interceptions as a physical press-man cornerback that had a knack for locating the football in the air. However, it also included one black mark: Jackson was essentially dismissed from the University of Florida after being arrested in connection with an armed robbery.
He ultimately was acquitted on all four felony charges he faced, but still transferred from Florida to Riverside Community College. After spending the 2015 season playing in the Orange Empire Conference, Jackson returned to playing Division 1 football the following year: he joined Maryland and quickly established himself as a core member of the Terrapins’ defense, starting 23 of the team’s 24 games over the next two years.
Nevertheless, Jackson did not hear his name called on draft day and instead had to enter the league as a rookie free agent. Two weeks after the draft, he finally signed his first professional contract, a three-year undrafted deal with the New England Patriots. But despite his status as a draft day afterthought, Jackson was able to earn regular practice reps with the top defensive unit as early as spring workouts.
“J.C.’s worked really hard and made a lot of improvement this year, going all the way back to the spring,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recently said about the 23-year old. In spring, he laid the foundation for a solid training camp and preseason, which in turn helped him make New England’s 53-man roster as a depth cornerback. “Coming in as an undrafted player [he] just has really worked his way all the way up to earning a spot on the roster and then earning play time,” Belichick said.
Since surviving cutdowns, Jackson has seen his role grow considerably. After being a healthy scratch the first two weeks of the regular season, the cornerback played his first snaps during the Patriots’ week three loss in Detroit. While the game itself ended in defeat, it served as the next step in Jackson’s development into a defensive contributor. Over the following weeks he would see more opportunities to prove his value to the team.
Along the way, Jackson registered his first two career interceptions — one in week four against the Miami Dolphins, one in week seven against the Chicago Bears — and established himself as a valuable nickel and dime cornerback in New England’s defense that played around a third of the team’s defensive snaps. Until week 13, that is: against the Minnesota Vikings, Jackson served as the Patriots’ number three cornerback.
Going primarily against veteran Aldrick Robinson but also Pro Bowler Adam Thielen at times, Jackson held his ground. Despite being targeted nine times by Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, the undrafted rookie allowed just 31 yards on five catches while also registering a pass breakup in the end zone. The performance was Jackson’s best of the season — but did not come as a surprise for his coaches and teammates.
“He’s just been very dependable and gotten better every day,” Belichick said after the game against Minnesota. “It’s not always perfect, but he learns from his mistakes and corrects things. It’s taken a little time for him to gain some experience, but he’s doing a good job with it. [...] Whatever your opportunities are, you have to come in and earn that and prove it to your teammates and the team and the coaching staff and everybody else.”
So far this season, Jackson appears to be doing just that. “We have fun with J.C. — he’s the guy that in practice he makes the one-handed interceptions,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said about the youngster who has given up just 12 reception this season on 24 targets. “I think we’re starting to feel it that he knows we believe in him. We know he’s talented and can play and we’ve got his back.”
“Just to see him out there executing, not just tonight, but all week in practice,” McCourty continued. “We had him in some tough situations where we were counting on him to make plays sometimes by himself with no help and he showed up. He had been doing that every time we gave him an opportunity to be out there. It’s like having a little brother out there succeeding each time he comes out there. I love having him out there.”
The confidence the team has in Jackson is not lost on him. “I knew I had to come and make plays with the team depending on me,” he said after the most active day of his professional career. And making plays he did, bringing back memories of another undrafted rookie that made a big impact right away: Malcolm Butler, who went from depth player to Super Bowl hero to Pro Bowler in the span of just his first two years in the NFL.
It is of course far too early to project a similar career trajectory for Jackson, but the early signs have been encouraging. However, the rookie himself knows that the hard work he put into getting practice reps, making the team and earning regular playing time does not stop now. “There is always something to build on each week,” Jackson said after the game against Minnesota. With the foundation already in place, this process can now lead to bigger results.