As far as feel-good stories in sports go, one of the sub-genres of the underdog story that undeniably generates the most warm, fuzzy feelings is betting on yourself. Even if you just take some widely-beloved players that’ve donned a New England Patriots uniform relatively recently, there’s plenty of dudes that’ve looked themselves in the mirror, said “I may be down bad, but I know what I can do”, and then parlayed that into a Super Bowl title, Pro Bowl honors, a massive brand-spanking-new contract, or all of the above.
The GOAT bet on himself when he let his Patriots contract expire and took a historically pathetic franchise to their second Super Bowl.
Darrelle Revis bet on himself when he unexpectedly found himself in unrestricted free agency for the first time in 2014 and signed a 1-year deal with the team he famously despised during his “Revis Island” heyday with the Jets, knowing that teaming up with the Patriots was his best shot at Super Bowl immortality and a fat new contract, not necessarily in that order.
Randy Moss wanted to be a Patriot badly enough that he was willing to light $20 million in base salary from his Raiders contract on fire just to be in New England and play on a $2.5 million base salary in 2007 and make the trade work.
You get the idea.
Most of those guys, though, at least got to call their own shot, to varying extents, when it came to how they’d re-establish themselves. All those guys have great stories, but it’s one thing to roll the dice as an established Hall-of-Fame-trajectory superstar looking for legendary status. It’s another thing to only really have one shot at making it in the NFL altogether, and despite both being contractually under team control and statistically unlikely to even make an NFL roster, parlay that one shot into finally arriving as one of the NFL’s finest defensive players, period, full stop.
Which brings us to the newly minted Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro cornerback that’s been keeping half of New England up sweating through our flannel jammies at night for the past several weeks, J.C. Jackson. As you probably remember, Jackson arrived in NE by way of signing a three-year, undrafted free agent contract back in 2018, and not only found a way to hang on the roster in his rookie year in a loaded CB room featuring the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, and second-round rookie and de facto roster lock Duke Dawson, he ended up starting five games and playing in a whopping 13 regular-season contests, not to mention logging more than a few snaps as a scout-team wide receiver. After playing in all 3 playoff games that season — the 2018 campaign ended quite nicely, if you recall — Jackson had done all he could to lock up his roster spot for 2019.
Without going full 8 Mile on you guys, Jackson made the most of his only real shot in the NFL, and for the next couple seasons, he was still splitting time at outside corner (mostly with the aforementioned Jason McCourty), but steadily gaining ground on the starting job and becoming sort of a local best-kept-secret player at the same time. By the end of the 2019 season, Jackson had out-snapped JMac 681-474 and despite only starting six games, he still tied for the third-most interceptions in the NFL and checked in as Pro Football Focus’s seventh-best man coverage cornerback.
It’s worth noting that from 2018-20, JC Jackson was still operating under the terms of his undrafted free agent rookie deal, which, for most of us, $1.72 million over three years would be good work if you can get it, but for comparison purposes, Jason McCourty was making about $5 million annually in the same timeframe. Not only that, the Patriots didn’t really have much, if any, motivation to pay JC a dime more, because much like Malcolm Butler before him, Jackson was bound for restricted free agency after his contract expired.
Meaning that despite his 2020 campaign being a smashing success by any measure — he tied for the second-most interceptions in the league with nine and PFF ranked him the NFL’s 16th-best cornerback regardless of playing outside or in the slot — all the Patriots had to do to retain Jackson’s services for the 2021 season, instead of paying the market price, was hit him with a second-round tender that’d pay him a scootch over $3 million.
For what it’s worth, anecdotally, at this point Jackson had reached that status where any Patriots fan worth their Brady jersey knew exactly how good he was, and yet it seemed like aside from the fans of teams that dared test him and found out how that usually goes the hard way, he didn’t really get a ton of national love. Sure, PFF consistently sang his praises, and his borderline-scary nose for the football when opponents dared to sling it deep became a sort-of-popular trivia point, but whether the Patriots’ middling record in the 2020 season dampened some enthusiasm or he only tended to make the Sportscenter highlights when he got repeatedly barbecued by Buffalo Bills All-World receiver Stefon Diggs, 2020 J.C. Jackson’s performance certainly was promising and commendable, but it also wasn’t exactly convincing most people he was worthy of succeeding Stephon Gilmore in the illustrious two-decade line of Patriots shutdown corners.
So TL;DR, JC’s 2021 campaign would be played for a $3.38 million salary, and then, assuming he could match the lofty standards we just outlined above, he’d finally be eligible to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time. No pressure, right?
He didn’t match his 2020 performance, so much as he took his ‘20 level of play, and then went out to the playground and played tether-ball with it.
Pick your accolade, and JC Jackson earned every bit of it. You already know: a Pro Bowl nod, second Team All-Pro, the second-most interceptions in the NFL with eight (and 17-game season be damned, that’s still a pick every other game, roughly), the most passes defended in the entire NFL, PFF accolades galore, an AFC Defensive Player of the Month award, serious buzz in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, and finally, one of the most savagely factual burns I’ve ever heard:
I was NOT prepared to push play on today’s Ringer NFL Show and in the DPOY convo, they drop the fatality— Goose (@GooseOnBass) December 13, 2021
“JC Jackson is what Cowboys fans think Trevon Diggs is”
Still, though, even after all that, it’s understandable for even the most diehard of fans to hear that Jackson (allegedly) wants Jalen Ramsey money, and (also allegedly) wants north of $20 million a year, and think “.....Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?”:
JC Jackson info— Mike Giardi (@MikeGiardi) March 5, 2022
- Tag unlikely, which is to JC's benefit.
- If it's not Jalen Ramsey money, don't want to talk.
- Leaking tag intel gives teams a chance to say we don't want to compete in FA for him, maybe tag and trade if compensation agreed to.
- Still likes Pats but $$ matters
Obviously, as it played out on Tuesday afternoon, the Patriots elected to not use the franchise tag at all, meaning Jackson will hit unrestricted free agency next week just like anyone else that didn’t get tagged or extended/re-signed. And if after everything we just talked about, a Jalen Ramsey-sized bag, or perhaps even more, sounds unreasonable to you, perhaps a glance at the company that he’s played himself into and what they make would change your mind?
By any objective measure, J.C. Jackson absolutely deserves a payday that either meets or exceeds Ramsey’s 5-year/$100,000,000.00 deal. Just like the quarterback position, if you’re in that — and we don’t use the E-word lightly — elite tier of players at any position, if for some reason your team allows you to hit free agency, you will set the market. That’s how it goes in a sport with a perpetually-exploding salary cap, Covid-19 year notwithstanding. And Jackson has absolutely parlayed every opportunity he’s gotten into sitting at that table of the NFL’s very best.
Still not convinced? How about this “well when you put it THAT way, it sounds obvious!” note from Pats Pulpit alumnus Greg Knopping:
J.C. Jackson was incredibly efficient at creating extra possessions for the Patriots - while also keeping points off the board.— Greg Knopping (@Knopping) March 8, 2022
That’s incredibly valuable.
Patriots had 13 games decided by one possession in the last 2 years. Jackson accounted for 20 takeaways alone.
That’s obviously simplifying the math/impact.— Greg Knopping (@Knopping) March 8, 2022
Maybe J.C. isn’t worth whatever he ultimately gets. I’m sure the secondary will be fine long term. But thinking Belichick can use a draft pick and find a bargain free agent while not seeing a regression to the 2022 defense is insane.
As things are looking right now, the odds of J.C. Jackson re-signing with New England are looking pretty bleak, if not dead in the water. Even the Patriots’ oft-mentioned strategy of letting players go out and find their market value, then give Belichick & friends a chance to counter seems unlikely in this case, because, well, shutdown corners get paid Jalen Ramsey/Marlon Humphrey/Marshon Lattimore/etc. money for a reason. If Jackson seriously wants an average annual value of $20+ million a year, he’ll almost certainly get it.
Just don’t let anyone, Patriots fan or otherwise, tell you he’s a flash in the pan and doesn’t deserve a Ramsey-size bag. Any way you slice it, whether it’s the stats, the tape, the career trajectory, you name it, J.C. Jackson has absolutely, unequivocally earned it.