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Patriots 2022 offseason preview: J.C. Jackson’s status will determine the future at cornerback

Related: Patriots offseason preview: New England’s linebacker group might look drastically different in 2022

NFL: DEC 18 Patriots at Colts Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Only two teams are left standing in the NFL postseason tournament, but the New England Patriots are not among them. They are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium after their wild card playoff loss in Buffalo.

It projects to be an interesting one for the Patriots. The team did go 10-7 in the regular season and returned to the playoffs, but it does face plenty of questions after its late-season collapse and with numerous starters in all three phases headed towards free agency. With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position at a time.

Today, we continue with the cornerbacks.

Justin Bethel

Age: 31

Experience: 10

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Bethel has a salary cap hit of $2.03 million in 2022.

2021 review: Before the start of 2021’s free agency, the Patriots and Bethel came to an agreement on a three-year contract extension worth $6 million. With the veteran special teams ace and depth cornerback staying put, he resumed the role he held ever since his arrival in 2019.

A five-unit special teamer, Bethel ranked second on the team with 370 kicking game snaps and also recorded eight tackles as well as a forced fumble. He furthermore played 54 snaps as a cornerback — including 13 in the playoff loss to the Bills. While his defensive contributions were again limited, the 31-year-old had another solid individual campaign overall.

2022 preview: Even if fellow core special teamers Matthew Slater and Brandon King return for the 2022 season — both of them are headed for unrestricted free agency, with Slater also a candidate for retirement — Bethel should be expected to do as well. Not only is he under contract at a comparatively moderate cost, he also remains a top special teamer in the NFL today.

Myles Bryant

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Bryant has a salary cap hit of $895,000 in 2022.

2021 review: Coming off an encouraging but at times inconsistent rookie season, Bryant started his sophomore campaign on the Patriots’ practice squad. He was elevated to the game-day squad twice before officially getting added to the 53-man roster after Jonathan Jones’ season-ending shoulder injury.

The former rookie free agent remained on the active squad throughout the rest of the season, appearing in 13 of a possible 18 games as Jones’ replacement in the slot. Bryant finished the year giving up 33 receptions on 46 targets for 402 yards as well as one touchdown. He also registered an interception and forced a fumble, while being on the field for 429 of 1,135 defensive snaps.

2022 preview: Bryant faces an uncertain future even before heading into restricted free agency in 2023. The 24-year-old, after all, had some ups and downs last season and is no lock to earn a regular role again: Jonathan Jones is likely coming back, while cornerback depth in general will be a priority for New England this offseason.

It would not be a surprise if Bryant found himself in a competition for practice time and roster spots this summer, despite his prominent role in 2021.

J.C. Jackson

Age: 26

Experience: 4

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 16.

2021 review: To the surprise of nobody, the Patriots decided to keep Jackson as a restricted free agent last spring: the team placed the second-round tender on him, eventually signing him to a one-year deal through the 2021 season. That season turned into arguably Jackson’s best since arriving in the NFL in 2018.

With Stephon Gilmore starting the season on the physically unable to perform list and later getting traded to Carolina, Jackson served as New England’s CB1 throughout the year. In this role, he appeared in all 18 games and was on the field for 87.8 percent of defensive snaps. Allowing just half of the passes thrown his way to be completed, the 26-year-old ranked first on the team with eight interceptions compared to only three touchdowns surrendered.

Jackson was voted to his first Pro Bowl and named a second-team All-Pro for his efforts. Most importantly, he served as a leader for one of the most opportunistic defenses in football.

2022 preview: The Patriots have a long list of players set to enter free agency this offseason, and Jackson is right at the top. He has proven himself a capable starting cornerback and the NFL’s premier ballhawk over the last four years, and as a result will create considerable interest if entering the open market.

The question is whether or not he will actually do that. New England, after all, could decide to keep him in the fold by using the franchise tag. While costly — the tag at the cornerback position is projected at around $17.3 million — it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots go down this way to ensure that one of the best defenders in the league stays put for at least one more year.

No matter what happens, though, Jackson’s status will determine New England’s future at the cornerback position. Him either staying or leaving will have an impact on the entire group and the defense as a whole.

Jonathan Jones

Age: 28

Experience: 6

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Jones has a salary cap hit of $7.7 million in 2022.

2021 review: Jones entered the 2021 season playing his familiar role as New England’s number one slot cornerback. He was on the field for half of the team’s defensive snaps through the first six weeks of the season — registering an interception while giving up 22 completions on 34 targets — but suffered a shoulder injury in the last of those games.

Jones eventually underwent surgery and was placed on injured reserve in mid-October. He was not activated again, ending his sixth NFL season on the sidelines.

2022 preview: Jones is expected to make a full recovery from his shoulder injury and be back on the practice fields as early as spring workouts. The question is whether or not he will be on the contract at his $7.7 million cap hit at that point.

While Jones is one of the better slot defenders in the league, his cap impact is significant. The Patriots could bring it down by signing him to an extension and simultaneously lowering his $5.4 million salary, for example.

Jalen Mills

Age: 27

Experience: 6

Contract status: Under contract through the 2024 season. Mills has a salary cap hit of $6.07 million in 2022.

2021 review: A member of the Patriots’ free agency class last offseason, Mills arrived in New England via a four-year, $24 million contract. While there was some speculation about his potential role, he eventually settled into the starting cornerback spot opposite J.C. Jackson.

He was on the field for 16 of a possible 18 games, in this capacity, but was unfortunately unavailable for the playoff game in Buffalo. That was a crucial loss for New England’s defense given that Mills had played some solid football up until that point: playing 84.6 percent of defensive snaps during the regular season, he allowed just 37 of 65 passes thrown his way to be completed.

Mills did give up a team-high seven touchdowns without registering any interceptions, but he settled down over the second half of the regular season to end the year on a strong note. Unfortunately, he was moved to the Covid-19 reserve list ahead of the postseason.

2022 preview: Mills’ status as a starter-level member of New England’s secondary is not in question heading into his second year with the team. What is, on the other hand, is his role: will the Patriots keep him as a starting perimeter cornerback or rather use him differently?

Mills, after all, has a versatile skillset and considerable experience at all secondary positions. If the team adds more depth on the boundary, however, it might decide to take advantage of this and employ the 27-year-old in a less clearly-defined role.

Shaun Wade

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2024 season. Wade has a salary cap hit of $825,000 in 2022.

2021 review: Wade originally entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens, but at the end of his first training camp was traded to the Patriots. The rookie had a quiet season in New England: Wade appeared in just three games, playing a combined 11 defensive snaps.

2022 preview: While there is no guarantee that Wade will make the famous second-year jump and suddenly become a contributor for the Patriots defense, the Ohio State product will be in a much better situation in 2022. He has one season of experience with in the system under his belt already and will (likely) enjoy a full offseason with the same team for once.

Joejuan Williams

Age: 24

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Williams has a salary cap hit of $2.11 million in 2022.

2021 review: After back-to-back seasons that can only be labeled as “disappointing,” the former second-round draft pick also failed to have noticeable impact in 2021. Williams saw action in 13 of 18 games — being a healthy scratch in the other five — and was on the field for one third of defensive snaps, primarily in a reserve capacity.

Williams’ performance when called upon was once again uneven. He surrendered catches on 60 percent of passes thrown his way for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns; he also was benched on two occasions.

2022 preview: At this point in his career, there appears to be little hope that Williams will be able to turn his fortunes around in New England. Accordingly, he is no lock to remain with the team this season. The best-case outcome from the Patriots’ perspective would likely be to find a trade partner to clear his $1.4 million salary off the books; that said, a release would accomplish the same thing.