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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: J.C. Jackson is a near-lock to be retained

Related: Patriots free agency profile: QB Brian Hoyer

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is a restricted free agent and will only hit the open market on March 17 if not tendered at that point.

Hard facts

Name: J.C. Jackson

Position: Cornerback

Jersey number: 27

Opening day age: 25

Size: 5-foot-10, 200 pounds

Contract status: Restricted free agent

Experience

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. Regardless of 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 45 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.

He also turned into a serious playmaker for the Patriots defense: over his first three seasons in the NFL, Jackson registered 17 interceptions. He also played a valuable role on New England’s Super Bowl 53-winning squad during his rookie season, and one year later helped them field the top scoring defense in all of football. By 2020, he had fully established himself as a viable starter-level defensive back.

What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off back-to-back impressive seasons that saw him grow from undrafted free agent to starting cornerback opposite NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, expectations were again high for Jackson entering his third year in the Patriots’ system. While the defense as a whole struggled at times in 2020, and Jackson himself had some inconsistencies, he delivered another quality campaign and showed why he is one of the best young cornerbacks in football.

The third-year man made a positive impression right from the get-go. Once more serving as New England’s CB2 opposite Gilmore, Jackson registered an interception during the Patriots’ season-opening win over the Miami Dolphins. It was a sign of things to come: he went on to pick off a team-high nine passes during the year, trailing only Miami’s Xavien Howard in this category. Between Weeks 6 and 10, Jackson also set a new franchise record by registering at least one interception in five straight games.

The high number of takeaways was the most prominent part of Jackson’s 2020 season, but not its only noteworthy element. He also proved himself a durable player on a team dealing with plenty of short-term injuries all over its roster: Jackson appeared in all 16 games for the second straight season, and finished with a defensive playing time share of 83.7 percent (851 of 1,017). Only safety Devin McCourty, who played 94.5 percent of defensive snaps, was on the field more often than the Maryland product.

While usually serving as New England’s number two alongside Gilmore, Jackson saw increased action as the top cornerback during the season. Not only did Gilmore miss three games midway through the season because of a knee injury sustained in practice, the All-Pro also saw his year come to a premature end when suffering a partially torn quad during the Patriots’ Week 15 rematch against the Dolphins. Whenever Gilmore was out, the coaching staff trusted Jackson to fill his void as the number one cornerback.

The results were inconsistent. Jackson did look good at times and notched five picks with his superstar teammate out, but also showed some inconsistency when asked to contain the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs or the New York Jets’ Breshad Perriman in man-to-man coverage. As a result, his season-ending stat line was not quite as impressive as it was the year before: Jackson surrendered 34 receptions on 67 targets for 587 yards as well as five touchdowns and the aforementioned nine interceptions.

Jackson also did not see the same amount of special teams work as he did a year before: he played just seven kicking game snaps after logging 104 in 2020. That said, there also were some positive developments when comparing the two seasons. For example, one year after leading the New England defense with seven penalties — including five pass interference calls to his name — Jackson was flagged just three times. Only one of those infractions was a pass interference penalty.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? When Jackson arrived in New England three years ago, he signed a standard rookie free agent deal worth $1.72 million. While he did add some playing time bonuses as part of the NFL’s performance-based payout pool — including $559,036 for his 2019 season — his overall career earnings are therefore still nothing to write home about when compared to most of the other top cornerbacks in football.

Which teams might be in the running? The Patriots are expected to tender the restricted free agent Jackson on either the first- or the second-round level, which will possibly decrease the list of potential suitors down to zero. If teams in need of cornerback help are interested in investing, however, the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos or San Francisco 49ers might be worth keeping an eye on — all depending on the tag level, though, because neither club will likely part ways with a first-round selection to get Jackson on what would effectively be a one-year rental.

Why should he be expected back? Even though he had some ups and downs while filling in as the number one cornerback for Stephon Gilmore, Jackson again proved that he can be a starting-caliber player in the Patriots’ system. Accordingly, keeping him at a relatively cost-effective one-year tender is smart business. This is particularly true considering that the rest of the position group is not set in stone as well: Gilmore is a potential trade candidate, while Jason McCourty is headed for unrestricted free agency.

Why should he be expected to leave? There is only one scenario in which New England will not retain Jackson: if the team places a second-round tender on him as opposed to the more expensive first-round level, another club signs him to a contract offer, the Patriots decide not to match within the designated period, and Jackson leaves on a new multi-year deal. While that has happened in the past, the current salary cap uncertainty across the league plus New England’s financial potency this offseason makes this an unlikely outcome.

What is his projected free agency outcome? Given his status as a restricted free agent, Jackson should be expected back in 2021. The only true questions are at what level the Patriots opt to tender him, and how much cost will be associated with that sheet under the new salary cap. Sure, another team could come in and try to lure him away, but, as mentioned above, that is an unlikely scenario. What the future holds for New England and its rookie free agent find beyond the upcoming season is up in the air, but his 2021 fate seems predetermined already.