Few teams in the NFL are as good when it comes to turning undrafted rookies into core contributors as the New England Patriots, especially at the cornerback position: from Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler in 2014, to versatile defender and key special teamer Jonathan Jones in 2016, to — just last year — standout in the making J.C. Jackson. The latter, in fact, had the best rookie season of the bunch when measured by statistical success.
One number that stands out in particular is passer rating allowed. While far from a perfect way to evaluate performance, the statistic still illustrates individual success rather well from a defensive perspective. And when it comes to Jackson, he was in a league of his own in that category last year — not just among the Patriots’ secondary or when compared to his predecessors Butler and Jones, but among all of the NFL’s cornerbacks.
As advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus recently illustrated, the Maryland product was outstanding in limiting opposing quarterbacks’ success when targeting him:
Jackson, who finished with a defensive playing time share of 44.1%, was outstanding in 2018 when looked at the season through the lens of passer rating. According to PFF’s numbers, he allowed only 22 receptions on 42 targets for a combined 262 yards as well as zero touchdowns to go along with three interceptions. Add it all up, and he clearly stands out among his qualifying brethren (those who played more than 200 snaps in coverage).
In fact, the difference between him and second-ranked Avonte Maddox — a fourth-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles last year — is bigger than that between Maddox and the 10th ranked corner. How did Jackson achieve this? He ranked seventh in the league with a forced incompletion rate of 21.4%, via PFF, and also finished the regular season with the 12th best coverage grade among all qualifying corners (82.4).
When looking beyond the numbers, Jackson did it by playing physical press-man coverage and showing outstanding ball skills — both when it comes to locating and actually catching — throughout his first year in the pros. As such, he turned into a valuable member of the Patriots’ secondary as the number two boundary cornerback alongside Stephon Gilmore and slot/move cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones.
Speaking of Gilmore, the All-Pro also made PFF’s list of the ten best corners against passer rating last year: he came in at number ten with a 71.8 rating. All in all, Gilmore ranked sixth among all cornerbacks last year by allowing just 0.72 yards per coverage snaps. Furthermore, he was outstanding as a tackler and allowed fewer than 100 yards after the catch despite playing more than 600 snaps in coverage.
All in all, the Patriots’ cornerback group seems to have a bright future ahead with Jackson having an encouraging rookie season, Gilmore being the league’s best corner in 2018, and Jones and Jason McCourty also being core contributors during the regular season and through the playoffs. Add last year’s second-round draft choice Duke Dawson and, baby, you’ve got a stew going.