Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s secondary.
Name: J.C. Jackson
Jersey number: 27
Opening day age: 24
Size: 5-foot-10, 200 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 RFA)
What is his experience? Before entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2018, Jackson had a turbulent college career. He started at the University of Florida but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in his first game as a freshman, not returning to the school the following year after being arrested and charged with four felonies related to an armed robbery. Jackson was eventually acquitted, and continued his career at Riverside City College before spending the 2016 and 2017 seasons as a starting cornerback at Maryland.
Despite the success he had as a Terrapin, he did not hear his name called during the draft and instead joined the league as a free agency pickup by the Patriots. Despite his status, however, Jackson carved out a role on the team’s roster following impressive performances over the spring and summer. Since then, he went on to appear in 29 regular season games and four playoff contests for New England — mostly as a second/third perimeter cornerback — and proved himself a competitive and physical defender.
Jackson also played a role in the Patriots winning Super Bowl 53 during his rookie season, and helped them field the top scoring defense in football one year later.
What did his 2019 season look like? Jackson’s first year in New England was already impressive, especially considering that he went undrafted, but the youngster successfully elevated his game to another level in 2019 by making the famous second-year jump: he established himself as a fixture within the best secondary in all of football, and carved out a starting role as the top outside cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore by the end of the season and with veteran cornerback Jason McCourty dealing with a major groin injury.
When all was said and done, Jackson had appeared in all 16 of the Patriots’ regular season contests as well as their lone playoff game. Along the way, he was on the field for a combined 738 of a possible 1,070 defensive snaps (69%) — third most among the team’s defensive backs behind only Devin McCourty and the aforementioned Stephon Gilmore, and sixth most on the team overall. As impressive as his playing time share was, Jackson justified seeing a high number of snaps due to his impressive performance.
Of the 57 passes thrown his way, only 22 were completed for a combined 208 yards. Jackson also did not surrender even a single touchdown, while registering five interceptions — tied for fourth most in the league — as well as six pass breakups. He also finished the year with three quarterback pressures (two hits and one hurry) and proved himself a solid defender in run support. On top of it all, he made an impact in the kicking game as well and increased his special teams playing time significantly compared to his rookie campaign.
Jackson was on the field for 104 of a possible 474 special teams snaps (21.9%), mostly as a member of the Patriots’ punt return units. While he did not register any tackles in the game’s third phase, he was able to block a punt in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills that ended up in the arms of Matthew Slater and was returned for a touchdown — one of numerous high-impact plays made by the cornerback throughout the 2019 season.
If there is one blemish on Jackson’s résumé from his second year as a pro, it is his comparatively high number of penalties: all in all, he was flagged seven times — tied with wide receiver Julian Edelman for most on the team — and cost New England’s defense a combined 74 yards worth of field position. Still, the positive clearly outshines the negative when it comes to Jackson’s performance over the course of the season.
What is his projected role? Jackson may be flying under the radar outside of New England, but he will continue to serve as a core member of the team’s secondary in 2020: whether as the number two or the number three perimeter cornerback, the 24-year-old will provide a physical presence on the outside. As such, he is again projected to be on the field for at least two-thirds of the Patriots’ defensive action again no matter if the team employs man or zone concepts.
What is his special teams value? While Jackson’s presence on the team was primarily felt on defense, he was able to carve out a role in the kicking game as well: he has seen regular action in 2019 as an outside defender and part-time rusher on punt return units. His special teams value does not extend much farther than that, however, even though the Patriots have give him some occasional snaps on kick return units as well.
Does he have positional versatility? Besides his ability to perform in the kicking game, Jackson has shown adequate versatility on the defensive side of the ball as well: while mostly aligned on the outside, he also regularly moved into the slot in 2019 when the Patriots were in man-to-man looks. As a result, he spent 19.2% (142 snaps) of his playing time inside the formation. That said, Jackson’s primary value still lies on the perimeter.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of his three-year undrafted rookie contract, Jackson will be on New England’s books with a salary cap hit of just $753,334 — a number currently not qualifying for the top-51 stipulation (meaning that he does currently not count against the cap). Given his performance and role on the defense since 2018, this makes Jackson one of the biggest bargains on the Patriots’ roster.
What is his roster outlook? With Stephon Gilmore as the Patriots’ clear number one cornerback, Jackson will enter preparations for the 2020 campaign in a competition with Jason McCourty and Joejuan Williams for the number two role and starting gig opposite the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. McCourty may have the experience and Williams the draft pedigree, but Jackson’s development since entering the league should again help him carve out a prominent role in New England’s defensive backfield.