After serving as the New England Patriots’ number two cornerback alongside Stephon Gilmore for the better part of the previous two seasons, J.C. Jackson took the next step in his development in 2021. With Gilmore first on the non-football injury list, and later traded to the Carolina Panthers, Jackson took over as the Patriots’ CB1.
He has not looked back since, further establishing himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in football and the NFL’s premier ball-hawk. Currently, Jackson is ranked second in the league behind only the Dallas Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs in interceptions: he has picked off seven passes so far this year, bringing his career total to 24 — the highest number in the NFL since his arrival as a rookie free agent in 2018.
Jackson’s spectacular play will earn the pending unrestricted free agent a major payday next offseason, either from the Patriots or another team. Regardless of what happens with the 26-year-old, his status as a cornerstone on New England’s top-ranked defense cannot be denied.
It also has led to some spectacular play. So, with the Patriots on their bye and the Pro Bowl fan vote underway, let’s recognize Jackson by taking a look back at his seven picks so far this year.
7. Right place, right time
First things first, there is no such thing as a bad interception (except when your name is Marlon McCree). But one has to take the No. 7 spot on our list, so we will go with his pick against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Why? Because it has more to do with Jackson being in the right place at the right time and benefitting from an opponent’s mistake: Ryan threw the pass high, it was tipped by his intended target, and New England’s CB1 took advantage. It was a very good play by him, but as the rest of the list will show it was a little less spectacular than others.
6. Tip Drill No. 2
Speaking of “right place, right time,” Jackson’s fourth-quarter interception against the Tennessee Titans also falls into this category. Two things stand out about it: 1.) teammate Devin McCourty made the initial play on the ball, and 2.) Jackson showed some impressive reactionary skills to make the pick.
The interception also was the smart thing to do in this situation. While he could have just knocked the ball down on this fourth-down play, his decision to grab the ball helped the Patriots gain 18 yards of field position: a touchback placed the ball at the 20-yard line; a knockdown on fourth down would have placed it back at the original line of scrimmage, the New England 2.
5. Making the rookie pay
Jackson is an incredibly alert player, and his second interception of Week 2 against New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson is a good example of that. Not only did he cover Wilson’s intended target, Elijah Moore, well throughout his route, he also turned the ball around quickly to be in position to make the play.
The interception ended a promising Jets drive at a time in the game when it was still close. New England ended up winning 25-6, with Jackson catching two picks.
4. Mr. TD
Jackson’s pick-six against Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold was a big play on multiple levels. Not only did it end a potentially scoring drive in the red zone and result in a possible 14-point swing, it also ended with the first touchdown of Jackson’s career.
The play itself was another example of him being alert. While not the most difficult catch, he was in a good position in New England’s zone coverage to end up with the football in his arms: Jackson had his eyes on Darnold at the right time to make the pick; he then proceeded to out-sprint speedy wide receiver Robby Anderson for the goal linie.
3. Both feet in bounds
We have now reached the part of the list where every play has a strong case to be named the top interception of Jackson’s season so far. At No. 3 we have one of his picks against the Jets, even though this one came in the rematch at Gillette Stadium.
Picking off New York quarterback Mike White may not be the most impressive accomplishment of Jackson’s career, but the way he did it was simply gorgeous. He got inside position against wide receiver Elijah Moore and turned his head around quickly to make the grab — and not just that: Jackson also was able to keep both of his feet in bounds.
2. Tip Drill No. 1
Jackson’s first interception in Week 2 against the Jets was nothing short of an outstanding play by all involved. First, he got his hands on a Zach Wilson pass intended for wide receiver Corey Davis to knock the ball into the air. This allowed Devin McCourty to make a play for it: the safety out-leapt Davis and was able to knock the football back to Jackson for the INT.
Not enough can be said about Jackson’s spatial awareness. He reached out for a pass thrown behind him, got turned around in the process of doing so, and while falling down still kept his eyes on the ball to come down with the pick. A tremendous play.
1. Inside position
Two words describe the No. 1 interception on our list: textbook execution. While the end zone grab against Sam Darnold might not have been the best catch among Jackson’s seven interceptions so far this year, the play as a whole was simply perfect by the cornerback.
Aligning in the slot against D.J. Moore, Jackson quickly got his hands on Carolina’s number one wide receiver after his release. He then played him tight through his route to get inside leverage and put himself in the best position to make a play for the ball. Jackson then quickly was able to get his head around before high-pointing the ball in the air. He could not have played this any better, and was rewarded with an interception.
Ultimately, though, every single one of Jackson’s interception was impressive in his own right — and reflective of his status as a true CB1 in the NFL. He has a very good feel for opponents and incredibly awareness to make them pay in case they are not on-point with their execution. The Patriots defense sure is lucky to have a player of this quality in its ranks, and his status this offseason will be one of the biggest storylines for the team.