Randall Gay. Malcolm Butler. Jonathan Jones. And now, J.C. Jackson. The list of rookie free agent cornerbacks making a significant impact on the New England Patriots’ defense is a long one, and Jackson the latest member of the group to develop from draft day afterthought to legitimate starting-caliber defender.
Following an impressive performance during his first training camp and preseason as a Patriot in 2018, the Maryland product went on to not just make the team’s 53-man roster but to carve out a regular role as an outside cornerback. Since then, Jackson has appeared in 29 regular season games and four playoff contests for New England and has established himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in the game today.
However, he seems to be well aware that past accomplishments have little actual meaning when it comes to the challenges that lie ahead.
“Each year is different. No matter what the stats say from last season, each season you’ve got to prove yourself,” said the 24-year-old during a media conference call on Monday. “You’ve got to earn the roster. Like Bill says, ‘You’ve got to earn it here and I won’t give you anything.’ My stats from last year don’t mean anything. I just come to work with my head down, and I just come in ready to work and get better.”
Jackson has done just that this summer. A physical and competitive defender, he has been one of New England’s best performers in training camp, and appears to be on his way to once again carve out a prominent role alongside fellow top-level cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and fellow former undrafted free agent Jonathan Jones — a role that is not an unfamiliar one to the third-year man after he filled it in both 2018 and 2019.
Last year, Jackson become the team’s number two starting corner alongside Gilmore when McCourty’s season was effectively cut short by a groin injury. Jackson appeared in all 17 of the Patriots’ games and 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.
Jackson justified his high playing time share by playing some impressive football.
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 and proved himself a solid defender in run support. On top of it all, he made an impact in the kicking game as well. In short, his 2019 season was another step in the right direction.
Jackson’s development over his first two seasons and heading into Year Three was also mentioned by Bill Belichick on Monday.
“J.C. continues to improve,” said the Patriots’ head coach. “I think his understanding of the defense and his ability to play different spots within the defense has grown, and that gives us some flexibility on a number of levels. He’s had a good camp, been out there every day, he’s taken a lot of reps, he’s in good condition, his techniques and fundamentals are pretty good. He continues to make plays for us on the field and expand the things that he can do to provide, as I said, more versatility and for him to create either bigger or sometimes different roles for himself or for his teammates. He’s done a good job for us.”
Belichick’s praise may not be unprecedented — just yesterday he pointed out quarterback Cam Newton’s competitive nature — but it still is a reflection of Jackson’s growth since 2018, and how the team views him. Entering the final season of his rookie contract, Jackson is therefore not just a candidate to see regular snaps yet again but also to position himself to maybe receive the first-round restricted free agency tender next offseason.
Right now, however, the regular season is on the horizon, and it presents another chance for Jackson to build on his first two seasons. It seems as if he is well on his way, at least when judged by his own statements.
“The game has slowed down for me a lot compared to my first two seasons,” he said on Monday about his third NFL training camp. “And I’ll play in or outside, wherever the team needs me to be. I can cover anything, like getting out on an island. Intermediate routes, deep balls, I got a lot more deep balls last year and in my first year, and I just took advantage of my opportunities when it came my way. But I can cover anything.”
Despite the offseason departures of Patrick Chung (opt-out) and Duron Harmon (trade), the Patriots are projected to field one of the league’s elite defensive backfields yet again. Having Jackson as a starting-caliber player in the fold is a big reason why.