J.C. Jackson is the biggest question mark for the New England Patriots this offseason. Jackson has proven that he is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and he clearly has earned the right to be paid as one.
The ball is in the team’s court as to what they are going to do with him. Letting him walk without getting anything back other than a compensatory selection in 2023, however, would be the worst-case outcome from New England’s perspective.
Before we get started, we need to remember what has led to this point. Heading into 2020 and with Tom Brady already gone, the Patriots knew that they would have to make a decision between J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. Jackson was set to enter restricted free agency the following offseason, while Gilmore was unhappy with his contract situation.
The solution the Patriots had was to give Gilmore a cash advance, dropping his 2021 salary to only $7.5 million. With Jackson, they decided to do nothing in 2020. So, knowing that they had no chance to win the Super Bowl that year did not prompt them to make any decisions about two of their best defensive players; they just kicked the can down the road to 2021.
Now that it was 2021, surely the Patriots would figure out the situation at one of the most important positions in football. No way they’d do nothing and think that would be fine. What’s that? That’s exactly what they did? Yikes.
Jackson received a second-round RFA tender, which no other team would match, so he played the 2021 season on a one-year deal with the Patriots making no offers serious enough to keep him. Gilmore, meanwhile, made it clear that he would not be playing on his low salary, and the Patriots refused to make a serious offer to keep him either. Instead of moving him at the draft, or trading him during training camp, they held on until mid-season, and then traded him for a sixth-round pick in 2023.
Assuming the Panthers don’t resign him, they are going to get better compensation for him leaving as a free agent than the Patriots did for trading him. It might very well have been the worst asset management of Bill Belichick’s Patriots career.
That brings us to the situation in which the Patriots currently find themselves. The thought by most people at the time was that they would have to choose between Jackson and Gilmore. Now, however, it looks that they might enter 2022 without either on the roster, and possibly getting almost nothing in return for them.
The Patriots have four options with Jackson:
1.) Franchise-tag him and have him play under the tag (of course there’s no guarantee he will agree to that).
2.) Franchise-tag and trade him.
3.) Sign him to a contract extension.
4.) Let him walk in free agency.
Based on Jackson’s recent statements, no progress towards an extension has yet been made. While it could still happen with two weeks to go until the start of free agency, I’m going to take that possibility off the table for the time being, and only look at the three other potential outcomes — two of which involve the franchise tag.
The franchise tag can be tricky, because, although I think everyone would agree that the $17.3 million salary would be well worth it for a player of Jackson’s caliber, the full amount is also charged directly to the cap. With limited cap space available, a move like that would make it difficult for the Patriots to do much else this offseason.
Some would argue that it would be worth it, since Jackson is the most important piece that the Patriots have to decide on this offseason anyway. Of course, this would just be them kicking the can down the road for another year, and have to deal with this problem again next year. However, by then, their number one cornerback possibly won’t be named Jalen Mills.
The other two outcomes both involve losing Jackson, but the tag-and-trade option is clearly the more preferable option. It would mean that another team would have to be willing to pay Jackson at the top of the market in 2023, but he would probably still be worth at least a second-round pick. ESPN’s Mike Reiss is projecting that it would be unlikely that the Patriots would franchise Jackson unless they can find a tag and trade partner.
The problem is, that team is going to have to give him a solid offer no matter what, so giving up the extra pick is probably not worth it: they would probably win the bidding war with New England anyway. Of course, the Patriots would love to get something for him, but I’m having a hard time believing why a team would want to do a tag and trade instead of just trying to get him in free agency.
That brings us to the final option, which is simply letting him walk in free agency. Jackson wants to be paid at the top of the market, and he most certainly will be this offseason. The Patriots cannot do what they have done with other free agents like Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty, and let them test free agency and try to convince them to stay. They simply won’t be able to outbid the market or make a competitive offer even if Jackson is willing to give a hometown discount.
If the Patriots let him walk, the best compensation they could possibly get back would be a third-round pick in 2023. That’s assuming that they don’t sign any other high-priced free agents themselves, which, although unlikely, could happen. This outcome would be the worst case for New England: you do not simply allow your best defensive player, and one of the most important players on your team, to walk away for nothing at the age of 26.
The bottom line is very simple: The Patriots have a chance to go from one of the best secondaries in football to one of the worst in the span of two short years. They had the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, and the player who has the most interceptions since 2018, and they might both be gone with the Patriots getting next to nothing in return.
Losing two of the top 10 corners in the league in less than a calendar year and getting next to nothing in return would be highly dubious management. In New England, however, fans would simply shake their heads but still trust the Patriots to be back to being a great team soon enough. This time, though, I would not be sold.
In the end, only time will tell what will happen. I would prefer Jackson doesn’t leave at all, but the Patriots need to at least get something back for him if they are going to let him walk. I have no idea how they are going to replace him if they do, but at least they would have some real assets to try to do it with this time around — unlike after they parted ways with Stephon Gilmore.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.