The New England Patriots’ scouting department has had its misses over the years, but there is no denying the team is as good as any in football at identifying and acquiring talent on the undrafted rookie market. That is especially true at the cornerback position.
While Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler stands out, he is just one of the free agent cornerbacks the Patriots have added to their team through the years. Randall Gay helped New England win a championship, as did Jonathan Jones. Justin Coleman and Kenny Moore also entered the league via New England before having solid careers elsewhere.
The Patriots’ latest UDFA find at the position is J.C. Jackson.
After not hearing his name called during the 2018 NFL Draft, Jackson joined a deep cornerback group led by veterans Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and the aforementioned Jonathan Jones. Despite his lack of experience and draft status, Jackson not only made the team but proved himself an impressive addition to the group.
Three seasons later, he is a starter-level cornerback and one of the best ballhawks in the game today. Just look at it from this perspective: over the last two seasons, no player in the NFL has intercepted as many passes as Jackson.
Naturally, the 25-year-old is quite confident in his abilities to perform at an adequate level — and not just that: Jackson told NFL Network’s Mike Giardi that he is a legit number one cornerback.
“Of course I am,” Jackson said. “I would never settle for less. I would never say I’m No. 2, No. 3. I’m No. 1.”
Entering a contract year after being tendered at the second-round level in restricted free agency, Jackson is out to prove himself as one of the premier corners in football. His development since joining the Patriots as an under-the-radar free agent speaks for itself, as does his tape as a physical perimeter defender with a knack for making the big play. Seventeen career interceptions and three fumble recoveries are proof of that.
His abilities to play at that high a level came as a surprise, even to Jackson himself.
“I didn’t know I was going to be this good of a player until I got to the NFL, until I got the opportunity,” he said.
“I knew to get to the next level, I would have to put more work in. I just had to do a little more because everybody in the NFL is good, everybody’s fast. I mean, everybody’s getting paid to do their jobs, so I knew I had to do a little more, a little more grind, a little more film studying. I had to work hard. I had to just work a little harder.”
Of course, the right amount of motivation doesn’t hurt either. Jackson finds his in the fact that he was not among the 256 players selected in the 2018 draft despite what was a productive albeit controversial college career: Jackson was arrested in 2015 and stood trial for four counts of armed robbery, but was acquitted of all of the charges. He later left the University of Florida for one-year stints at Riverside City College and Maryland.
Jackson started twelve games in his lone season with the Terrapins and led the team in interceptions (sound familiar?) but he still did not get drafted. That was all the fuel he needed.
“Yeah, of course it motivated me,” Jackson said about his journey to the NFL. “I came in, I felt like I was just a nobody, so I had to earn my respect. I had to believe in the process, believe in myself. I had to bet on myself.”
Bet on himself he did, and his decision has literally paid off so far. Not only has Jackson earned an estimated $1.8 million three years into his pro career, he also is set to receive another $3.4 million as part of his second-round tender. And then, once he is set to enter unrestricted free agency, he will quickly and significantly add to those numbers.
Is he worried, though, that he has not gotten an extension by the Patriots yet? Not at all.
“I didn’t get no extension. So what? Who cares? I know it’s coming,” he told Giardi. “I just love the game, man. The money is going to come. I just love playing football.”
Projected as a starter yet again heading into the 2021 season, Jackson will be in a prime position to prove himself as a cornerback worthy of a big-time investment either by the Patriots or another club.
For the time being, however, he will continue to add to the legacy of undrafted cornerbacks in New England.