With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Name: J.C. Jackson
Jersey number: 27
Opening day age: 25
Size: 5-foot-10, 200 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
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 a combined 49 regular season playoff games 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. Along the way, he also established himself as one of the best ballhawks in the entire league. Since arriving in New England in 2018, Jackson has intercepted a total of 17 passes — only the Miami Dolphins’ Xavien Howard (18) has picked off more throws over the last three years.
What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off an impressive first two seasons, especially considering his status as a former undrafted free agent, Jackson continued to play some strong football as a starting cornerback in New England’s secondary. While usually serving as the top perimeter option opposite reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, he also saw considerable action as the team’s CB1: when Gilmore missed time due to knee and quad injuries, the coaches trusted him to take over the top role.
In this capacity, Jackson appeared in all 16 of the Patriots’ games during the 2020 season and was on the field for a combined 851 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps. His playing time share of 83.7 percent was not just the second highest on the team behind only Devin McCourty’s 94.5 percent, but also the highest of his young career. Jackson justified this high a number of snaps by once again playing some strong one-on-one coverage and by making big plays on a consistent basis.
Of the 67 passes thrown his way, only 34 were completed for a combined 587 yards. Jackson also registered 40 tackles — 32 against the pass and 8 against the run — as well as 6 pass breakups and 3 fumble recoveries, including one of them on special teams. The one number that stood out about his 2020 season, though, was his interceptions: Jackson ranked second in the league behind only the aforementioned Xavien Howard, with 9 picks. Along the way, he registered an INT in a franchise-record five straight games.
Jackson also showed some strides in what was arguably the weakest aspect of his game over his first two years in the NFL. After getting flagged a combined 17 times in 2018 and 2019 for a combined loss of 176 yards — having the dubious honor of ranking first on the team in both categories during that time — Jackson was penalized just three times in 2020, costing his team 12 yards. Only one of these penalties was a defensive pass interference call, down from five the previous season.
For as well as Jackson played at times, he was not perfect. He surrendered 5 touchdowns on the year, for example, after having given up just a single score between his 2018 and 2019 campaigns. He 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. All in all, however, Jackson had another solid season and played on a high level even with the rest of the defense facing some major questions throughout the year.
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. Projected as the number two perimeter cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore, the 25-year-old will provide a physical presence on the outside. As such, he should again be on the field for a vast majority of the Patriots’ defensive snaps no matter if the team employs man or zone coverage 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 — at least early on during his career. After seeing regular action in 2018 and 2019 as an outside defender and part-time rusher on punt return units, he played only seven total snaps in the game’s third phase last year: with his role on defense growing, and him effectively taking over the CB1 role down the stretch, he did not see any special teams playing time after Week 2.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots see Jackson as a perimeter cornerback, and they are employing him as such. That being said, he has shown some adequate versatility as well: while mostly aligned on the outside, he also moved into the slot from time to time over the last three years when the Patriots were in man-to-man looks. Last season, he spent 16.9 percent of his playing time (144 snaps) inside the formation as a slot or box defender. That said, Jackson’s primary value still lies on the perimeter.
What is his salary cap situation? Before the start of free agency, the Patriots placed a second-round tender on Jackson to prevent him from hitting the open market. He is therefore spending the 2020 season on what is essentially a non-guaranteed one-year deal at a value of $3.384 million. In case of release or, more likely, trade, New England would clear Jackson’s entire cap hit off their books.
What is his roster outlook? Based on his uncertain future and contract situation beyond the 2021 season, Jackson — just like Stephon Gilmore — appears to be a potential trade candidate. At the moment, however, he is signed and unless his status changes he is a lock to make the team. The former rookie free agent may have had some ups and downs in a more prominent role last year, but he is still a starting-caliber cornerback and as such a valuable member of the Patriots’ defense.