The New England Patriots, who will be off until training camp starts in late July, currently have 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on August 31 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the summer, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.
Today, the series continues with one of the biggest surprises of New England’s 2018 season.
Name: J.C. Jackson
Jersey number: 27
Size: 6’1, 200 lbs.
2018 review: On May 11, the Patriots announced the signing of nine undrafted rookie free agents — only one of them would go on to make the 53-man roster, though: Maryland cornerback J.C. Jackson. Despite his draft status, him surviving cutdowns was no surprise considering his performance during spring workouts and training camp. From day one on, Jackson was competitive in coverage and a physical presence in New England’s secondary.
While this allowed him to make the team, his playing time was rather limited over the first half of the regular season. Between week one and the Patriots’ week eleven bye, Jackson was on the field for ‘only’ 16.0% of New England’s defensive snaps (110 of 689). After the bye week and through the playoffs, on the other hand, the undrafted rookie played 433 of a possible 542 snaps as the rotational second and third option at cornerback (79.9%).
Jackson earned his increased playing time and role as an essential starter alongside Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty through his terrific on-field performance: he proved himself an opportunistic defender capable of positioning himself well and outmuscling wide receivers for the football if need be. As a result, Jackson finished the 2018 season with 3 interceptions — tied for third most on the team — and 4 pass breakups.
In fact, Jackson’s rookie season was better than Malcolm Butler’s in 2014, at least from a statistical perspective. After all, the first-year man surrendered just 28 receptions on 63 passes thrown into his coverage area, for 374 yards and only a single touchdown vis-à-vis the aforementioned 4 picks. On top of his terrific coverage abilities, Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked cornerback also registered a forced fumble and 24 tackles.
All in all, Jackson exceeded expectations in 2018: not only did he make the team despite not hearing his name called on draft day, he grew into the Patriots’ number two boundary cornerback behind All-Pro Stephon Gilmore. Displaying positional versatility — Jackson went up against wide receivers and tight ends, and lined up both in the slot and on the perimeter — he proved himself to be the next undrafted find for the Patriots at the cornerback position.
2019 preview: New England already has 2018’s best cornerback on its roster in the aforementioned Gilmore, and Jackson has a realistic shot at becoming a solid running mate alongside him. After all, the second-year man proved himself a reliable option as a second/third option at the position during his rookie campaign — one he appears ready to build on if the few open offseason practices are any indication.
If Jackson can take the second-year jump, he and Gilmore would give the Patriots one of the NFL’s premier cornerback tandems — a group capable of challenging wide receivers on the outside and coming up with the big play. So what does the 23-year-old have to do to take the next step in his development? Not much, actually, beyond improving his run defense and cutting down on his team-high seven penalties.
In case Jackson is able to do all that, he should continue his journey to becoming a serviceable number two cornerback — and as such a cornerstone of the Patriots’ secondary in 2019.