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Film room: Checking in on Patriots rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson

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The undrafted rookie is having a tremendous season.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson has made headlines recently for his dominant play since cracking the starting lineup against the Minnesota Vikings in week 13.

After failing to log 35% of defensive snaps in the first eight games he was active, the Maryland product hasn’t fallen under 73% in the last five.

Entering the final week of the regular season, Pro Football Focus credited Jackson with a 31.3 passer rating against, best among his position in the NFL. The rookie also held PFF’s third-lowest yards per coverage snap over the previous seven weeks among corners who played at least half of their team’s defensive snaps in that stretch.

He has not allowed a single 50-yard receiving game or given up a touchdown in a single game this season, while also coming down with three interceptions.

Despite going undrafted due to question marks off the field, the 5’10”, 200 lbs Jackson has shown the potential to be an exceptional boundary corner since college.

Though he lacks the height most teams seek from the position, Jackson’s physicality, jumping ability and arm length—tied for second-longest in the secondary at 31.5”—allow him to thrive on the perimeter, particularly in press coverage.

Jackson has enough long speed and hip fluidity to stick in receivers’ hip pockets in tight coverage and rarely gets torched deep. He also consistently capitalizes on under-thrown passes.

Beyond his physical talents, Jackson’s route recognition, disciplined footwork and spatial awareness help him succeed in both tight and off-coverage.

Jackson’s most outstanding individual trait may be his ball skills, where his background as a high school wide receiver really shows. He flashed the ability to quickly locate and make a play on the football early in his Patriots career, intercepting two passes in eye-opening fashion during the preseason finale against the Giants.

Jackson’s knack for picking off passes carried over into the regular season, where he continued to earn spots on post-game highlight reels.

It was pretty clear from the jump that there would be a lot to like about J.C. Jackson.

STEEP LEARNING CURVE

Preseason turnovers are never a bad thing, but the reality is that the level of difficulty skyrockets after those four exhibition games.

Cornerback is one of the toughest positions to learn and execute at the pro-level, so it is expected that the road will be bumpy for green players. Despite his clear talent, Jackson didn’t play much early in the season due to issues that plague many rookie corners: lack of poise and poor technique.

Some areas of concern for Jackson coming out of college were not getting his head around in coverage and a tendency to get grabby with receivers when beaten off the line or stacked.

He had a nasty habit of going into panic mode and trying to subtly interfere with receivers in an effort to regain position. Not only does this run the risk of drawing a penalty, but reaching out can also slow momentum.

Jackson’s handsy habits also popped up when Jackson was beaten horizontally, lacking the lateral agility and closing speed to make up ground quickly and disrupt catches when they cross his face cleanly.

Jackson’s most glaring issues to start the season were poor hand-placement and timing in press coverage. Rather than waiting to initiate contact once receivers declared their release, he would occasionally shoot his hands too quickly or miss his target altogether, forcing himself into chase mode or drawing penalties.

Of the five penalties (four accepted) Jackson has accumulated this season on defense, a whopping three came against the Chicago Bears. Each error showed the rookie’s lack of experience and composure.

Jackson did finish his flag-filled day on a high note, once again putting his ball skills to use.

The rookie managed to stay out of the doghouse despite his heavily-penalized game in the Windy City, but it was clear he still had work to do.

WHAT ROOKIE WALL?

Since his down performance against the Bears, Jackson hasn’t been flagged for a single penalty and continues to help generate turnovers.

Jackson’s increased playing time and performance show that he has worked diligently to improve in these areas. This turnaround was on full display when the Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh in week 15 to take on the Steelers’ loaded passing attack.

An undrafted rookie shadowing stud second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster would typically be enough of a headline to incite riots throughout Pats Nation. But Jackson rose to the challenge in truly impressive fashion, holding Smith-Schuster to three catches on nine targets for 39 yards.

Stats can often be deceiving, though. Low completion percentages don’t always mean tight coverage, and vice versa. But in this case, the tape backs up the numbers.

Jackson made life miserable on Smith-Schuster for most of the night playing a heavy dose of man coverage, allowing little separation outside of good scheming or offensive breakdowns and forcing the receiver to make contested catches on accurate throws from QB Ben Roethlisberger.

The physical corner is at his best when challenged vertically on the boundary and closing in on underneath routes from off and zone. Ironically, that’s how Pittsburgh chose to target him on most occasions—with some success, to the credit of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster.

Even when he received safety help, Jackson played with patience and good understanding of his leverage and responsibilities.

There are still some drawbacks to Jackson’s game that aren’t uncommon for his position, though.

As I mentioned earlier, Jackson’s lateral burst and agility are limited, so he can be exposed if forced to redirect suddenly or when matched up against fast receivers on crossing routes.

Jackson also tends to offer easy completions on in-breaking routes from off-coverage. This is sometimes by design, as his job is to funnel receivers into the middle of the field when using Cover 3 technique.

To his credit, Jackson’s spatial awareness and football IQ—a fancy term for how quickly a player can process information and translate it to action—often put him in position to make plays on throws if when he can diagnoses concepts.

He is also still a tough obstacle from the slot—notorious for naturally offering a deeper route tree for receivers—when he is able to get his hands on receivers.

STEPHON GILMORE, MEET YOUR NEW NEIGHBOR

Jackson is far from a finished product and can still be exploited in some areas.

The timing of head turns when in-phase with a receiver and his punches in press are still a work in progress. His lack of exceptional explosiveness and lateral agility can also lead to problems against the certain players.

But ultimately, the rookie is playing confident, competitive, and smart football. In addition to his pension for helping steal the football late in games, Jackson has also shown the ability to end strong during rocky performances.

You can’t ask much more of a first-year player, regardless of where he was (or wasn’t) drafted. He has the intelligence and physical tools to have a bright future in this league. He’s also in one of the best situations in the league with a secondary full of talented veteran leadership and arguably the greatest defensive mind as his head coach.

Bill Belichick and his staff have done an excellent job putting Jackson in positions to succeed, especially against competition. In return they’ve been awarded another gem for their treasure trove of secondary defenders.