With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, 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 Michael Jackson.
Name: Michael Jackson Sr.
Jersey number: 35
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-1, 210 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 RFA)
What is his experience? Jackson’s experience at the professional level is rather limited considering that he only arrived in the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick in 2019, and started his career as a Dallas Cowboys practice squad cornerback before serving in a backup/emergency capacity on the Detroit Lions’ active roster. He later joined the Patriots via trade and filled a similar role — moving between the practice squad and depth status. Between those three stints, Jackson has appeared in a grand total of two games.
While he does not possess a lot of in-game experience at the NFL level, Jackson does have plenty of football on his résumé stemming from his four years at the University of Miami. Jackson started his career with the Hurricanes primarily as a special teamer and depth cornerback before being promoted to a starting job on the defensive perimeter in 2017. Over his final two years at the school, he went on to start 23 of a possible 26 contests. In total, Jackson played in 51 games and registered four interceptions.
What did his 2020 season look like? After being active for just one game during the Lions’ 2019 season, they decided to move on from Jackson as part of their early-training camp roster cuts to get under the 80-man roster threshold. While the team did announce his release early on August 9, the move never made it onto the league’s official transactions wire: instead of getting cut, the Lions ended up trading Jackson to the Patriots in exchange for a conditional seventh-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft.
With Jackson arriving in New England relatively late during the preparation process, he was in an unfavorable position competing for a roster spot. While he did have some positive moments in training camp and showed his physicality time and again, he was ultimately unable to make the 53-man roster and was released on cutdown day. Jackson then had to wait more than three weeks to sign his next contract: he remained on the open market for 25 days before returning to the Patriots via a practice squad deal.
The former fifth-round draft pick spent almost the entire rest of the 2020 season on New England’s developmental roster, but was signed to the active team ahead of the season finale versus the New York Jets — and not just that. Jackson also played his first snaps as a Patriots. He was on the field for four snaps as a perimeter cornerback and while not targeted by Jets quarterback Sam Darnold did still show up on the stat sheet: Jackson registered one tackle in the passing game; it was the first of his NFL career.
What is his projected role? As was the case when the Patriots acquired Jackson via trade last summer, he again will be part of a cornerback group this season that appears set at the top both on the outside and in the slot. While the third-year man has some experience in both areas, he projects as a perimeter cornerback in New England’s system based on how the team used him during his lone in-game appearance in 2020. While not yet used in a regular capacity, his physicality and length project well in the team’s press-man scheme.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Jackson started his career at Miami primarily in the kicking game — and he was used in the game’s third phase upon his arrival in the NFL as well: his lone two regular season snaps in Detroit came on punt return and kickoff coverage, while the Cowboys used him on all four coverage teams during the 2019 preseason. The Patriots did not give him any looks in the return game last season, but his experience suggests that he might get some in Year 2 in Foxborough.
Does he have positional versatility? Based on his strengths (physicality, size) and weaknesses (footwork, short-area quickness), Jackson projects more favorably on the perimeter than the inside of the formation. That said, he does have some experience playing in the slot as well from his time in Dallas: most of his defensive action during the 2019 preseason came on the inside. New England is not expected to use him that way, though, given its own depth in the slot and how Jackson was employed in 2020.
What is his salary cap situation? When the Patriots promoted Jackson to the active roster in January, they signed him to what was effectively a one-game-plus-one-year deal. As a result of this, he remained under contract through 2021 as well. That said, the majority of his $800,000 salary cap hit is currently not counting against New England’s books. Under the NFL’s Top-51 rule only his $5,000 signing bonus proration is counted against the cap until he either gains Top-51 status or makes the active roster, practice squad or gets placed on injured reserve.
What is his roster outlook? Even though Jackson showed some promise during last year’s training camp, he will be facing an uphill climb to make the roster with some higher-profile perimeter cornerbacks ahead of him on the depth chart: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills are all roster locks, while Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant have more experience in the system. Gilmore’s status — he might be a trade candidate if his contract situation cannot be resolved — might change all of this, but for now Jackson might have to beat out at least one of Williams or Bryant to make the team. It’s possible, but it will not be easy if 2020 serves as an indicator of his potential in the system.