Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year are in need of a new contract. Among them is cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: J.C. Jackson
Jersey number: 27
Opening day age: 26
Size: 5-foot-10, 200 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? Before entering the NFL as an undrafted 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 his history and lack of draft status, Jackson carved out a role on the Patriots’ roster following an impressive performance during his first ever training camp. Since then, he went on to appear in a combined 67 regular season and playoff contests for New England and developed into one of the league’s best cornerbacks and a serious big-play machine: no player in the NFL has intercepted as many passes since 2018 as Jackson; the former UFA has picked off 25 throws during his four-year career.
Jackson stared his time with the Patriots as a rotational nickel cornerback, and helped the team win a Super Bowl in his first season. While still used in package-specific role in Year 2, he was elevated to a starting spot late during the year and never looked back: by 2020, Jackson was the starting perimeter corner opposite reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore; by 2021, he was New England’s number one player at the position and constantly living up to his “Mr. INT” nickname.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off the best season of his career, the Patriots made sure to keep Jackson in the fold for at least one more year: the team placed the second-round tender on the restricted free agent. With no team trying to sign him to an offer sheet, he stayed put and was back for another campaign as part of New England’s starting secondary. That season saw him continue his development from former rookie free agent to one of the best young defensive backs in the league today.
Whereas Jackson had spent the last two years as the number two at his position behind Stephon Gilmore, he opened 2021 as the Patriots’ CB1: Gilmore started the season on the physically unable to perform list, leading to Jackson’s elevation to the top of the cornerback depth chart. The 26-year-old never looked back and repeatedly proved himself capable of shadowing opposing wide receivers one-on-one even without help deep or Gilmore guarding the other side of the field.
His ability to do that possibly also played a role in New England’s decision to move on from Gilmore — the veteran was traded to the Carolina Panthers in early October — and to officially hand the keys at the position over to Jackson. He responded by producing the finest season of his career, and by establishing himself as one of the better cornerbacks in football: Jackson was voted to his first ever Pro Bowl and named to the second All-Pro team, while helping the Patriots field one of the best defensive units in the league.
In total, he saw action in all 17 regular season games as well as New England’s playoff loss in Buffalo. In those games while going up against opponents’ best receivers on a regular basis, Jackson surrendered 57 catches on 112 targets for 756 yards as well as three touchdowns. He also intercepted eight passes — second most in the league behind Trevon Diggs’ 11 — to end up with a defensive quarterback rating of 51.8 (a number significantly below than of worst-rated QB in the league in 2021).
His ability to help shut down opposing aerial attacks and pick off the ball was not the only thing Jackson added to the New England defense. He also scored the first touchdown of his career in Week 9 against Gilmore and the Panthers — Jackson returned a pick thrown by quarterback Sam Darnold 88 yards for the score — and forced a fumble in Week 12 versus Tennessee. He furthermore continued to be a durable presence in the backend: Jackson was on the field for 996 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps (87.8%).
While his season did have a few ups and downs, most notable in games against the Buffalo Bills and their number one wideout, Stefon Diggs, Jackson’s value to the Patriots defense was on display throughout the year. He was a true number one cornerback and as such far outplaying the one-year deal he signed as a restricted free agent — one that paid him “only” $3.38 million in 2021.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? When Jackson arrived in New England four years ago, he signed a standard rookie free agent deal worth $1.72 million. While he did sign the one-year restricted free agency tender last offseason and added some playing time bonuses as part of the NFL’s performance-based payout system — including $501,632 for his 2020 season — his overall career earnings are still nothing to write home about when compared to most of the other top cornerbacks in football.
Which teams might be in the running? Numerous teams are in need of some serious upgrades at the cornerback position, which means that Jackson should have a healthy market if he enters free agency. Among the clubs who might be interested in obtaining his services are the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. Most of them will likely make a push for Jackson, who is the best cornerback available this year.
Why should he be expected back? Jackson is one of the best cornerbacks in football, a proven player at a valuable position, and as good a ballhawk as any player in the NFL. He is also still young — he will not turn 27 until November — and playing at a position of need for New England: the cornerback spot should be a major focus for the club regardless of Jackson’s status, but losing a defender of his caliber would leave the team pretty thin in its secondary. Nobody wants to see Jalen Mills as CB1.
Why should he be expected to leave? Money, it’s as simple as that. The Patriots could opt to keep Jackson around by using the franchise tag, but its expected price tag of $17.3 million might be too much for their liking. If he is allowed to enter the open market, New England would have to compete financially against teams in a better fiscal position: the team has limited resources available at the moment, and would probably lose most bidding wars even if Jackson is open to taking a minor hometown discount.
What is his projected free agency outcome? There is a chance the Patriots use the franchise tag to keep Jackson in the fold, but that move would be an expensive one and take up more than 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap room. In turn, he should probably be expected to be allowed to hit free agency and explore his value to other teams while always keeping an active line of communication with One Patriot Place — an approach that has served the team well through the years.
Given that the organization has a good relationship with his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, Jackson’s camp would likely give New England the ability to match any incoming offers. Will the Patriots do that, though? That depends on the offer, obviously. However, the team’s focus on finding market insufficiencies might lead to them not doing that in this scenario: Bill Belichick and company know that elite man coverage cornerbacks such as Jackson are a hot commodity in this day and age, and commanding top dollar.
In turn, the Patriots might decide to let Jackson go as part of a wider philosophical shift away from a man-based coverage scheme. New England already incorporated more zone last season, and following that trend would allow the team to soften the blow of possibly losing Jackson. Unless the team feels confident in a possible investment, the Pro Bowler wearing a different uniform in 2022 would not be a shocking development — one that would also lead to the Patriots gaining a high compensatory pick in the 2023 draft.
Will the Patriots re-sign J.C. Jackson?
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