FOXBORO, Mass. — Without knowledge of how Bill Belichick decided to untraditionally divvy out numbers to his rookies in the spring, it would have appeared an unnourished guard was starting at cornerback for the New England Patriots in June organized team activities.
JC Jackson, an undrafted rookie free agent sporting No. 65, was starting across from undisputed No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore in Patriots OTAs — New England’s first alotted time to practice in the spring.
Looking back, it should have been obvious Jackson wasn’t just your standard rookie free agent.
Jason McCourty was nursing an ankle injury at the time, but Jackson was in the No. 2 spot over Eric Rowe and other players who traditionally should have been higher than a UDFA on the depth chart. The Patriots clearly wanted to see how Jackson would respond in the starting defense.
“It was a surprise to me coming in undrafted, underdog, getting first-team reps with the ones,” Jackson said. “That meant a lot to me, but at the end of the day, you just gotta keep grinding. Nothing is guaranteed, especially here.”
And Jackson certainly was more highly regarded than your typical rookie free agent.
Undrafted players typically fall into three different categories. The first and most common is those who simply aren’t good enough to be drafted. The second is players who are good enough to be drafted but are either older than typical prospects or played against lesser competition in smaller schools. Jackson falls into the third category: players teams don’t trust based on extenuating circumstances.
Jackson was charged with armed robbery early in his college career at Florida. He was found not guilty, spent a season at Riverside City College then transferred to the University of Maryland.
“He’s a first-round talent,” University of South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson, who recruited Jackson to Florida, told NESN.com. “He can run. He’s a first-round talent. We wanted to get him here at South Carolina, but the SEC has strict rules with guys who have been arrested once they were in college. So, they wouldn’t allow him in.
“But DJ Durkin was the head coach at Maryland, who he worked with (at Florida). I thought it was a good place for him to go with those guys. He’s a talented dude. (Former Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves) was a top-11 pick, and (Jackson) was as athletic as Vernon, faster, bigger. So, yeah, I thought he would be a first-rounder.”
But after the arrest and two transfers, Jackson’s NFL draft dreams were dashed. Thirty-two NFL teams passed on him and his name wasn’t called after 256 picks. So, the Patriots came calling to make Jackson a priority free-agent signing.
If the Patriots had used their final draft pick on Jackson, he would have received a $69,000 signing bonus. Instead, he got $10,000.
“I feel like a lot of people doubted me,” Jackson said. “I still think about that to this day, like, ‘Man, so many people doubted me, man.’ So, I just work hard. I just grind to let everything play out. You won’t ever see me get down or nothing like that. I just keep grinding. Just keep grinding.”
Jackson made a strong first impression on many of his teammates. Gilmore told Robinson that Jackson is the most athletic cornerback he’s ever played across.
“And that’s something to say from someone who’s pretty damn athletic himself,” Robinson said.
Gilmore has most notably played across from Aaron Williams, Ronald Darby and Malcolm Butler.
“I saw it in OTAs,” Gilmore said. “I saw he was hungry and his ball skills. He can run with everybody, willing to learn and work hard every day.”
McCourty saw it from the practice field sidelines during those OTAs and minicamp practices.
“He played really well all throughout OTAs,” McCourty said. “I didn’t do much in OTAs, and I was just watching him, talking to him, (Keion Crossen), Duke (Dawson), just trying to help in whatever way I could.
“And I remember getting to training camp, we were probably a few days in, and we were on the sidelines, and I said to him, ‘Man, how the hell didn’t you get drafted? Like, what the hell did you do?’ So, early on, you saw with him that he was poised to be able to go into this league and play. I tell him all the time if he does what he’s supposed to do, things are going to keep rolling in the right direction for him.”
Wide receiver Chris Hogan was only slightly later to the party, noticing Jackson wasn’t a typical undrafted rookie during training camp. But he came around.
“I would say when the pads came on. His skill set was there,” Hogan said. “You could tell he was a good athlete in the offseason and stuff, but I’d say when we put the pads on and he was able to be a little more physical and you could just tell.
“I’ve been around a lot of guys and a lot of corners, and you can just kind of tell this kid definitely gets it. His physical attributes, it’s all there. He’s able to do a lot of good things on the field and play a lot of different types of receivers — big guys, fast guys and he’s a gifted athlete. It’s no surprise what he’s been able to do this year.”
The Patriots keep at least one undrafted rookie every year, but Jackson had an uphill battle to make the team since they usually roster just five cornerbacks. He beat out 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz for a spot. He joined Gilmore, McCourty, Rowe, Jonathan Jones and Crossen as the Patriots chose to keep six cornerbacks on their 53-man roster. Dawson, a 2018 second-round pick who once was teammates with Jackson at Florida, was placed on injured reserve before the season began. Dawson eventually was activated but hasn’t played a single snap.
Jackson played sparingly through the first 12 weeks of the season until his first start Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings. He let up just 22 catches on 42 targets for 262 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions over the entire 2018 season. That was good for a 42 passer rating, best among all NFL cornerbacks.
Jackson wasn’t perfect. He led the Patriots in penalties with nine for 102 yards, three of which came in the AFC Championship Game. That was his worst game of the season, when he struggled in a tough matchup with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, allowing four catches on seven targets for 89 yards with a touchdown.
But Robinson was right. Jackson proved this season he’s a first-round talent. The Patriots beat the system and found another steal. And if his strong play continues, he’ll probably be lining up across from Gilmore for the foreseeable future.
Many will compare Jackson to Butler, another Patriots undrafted find, but it’s not apt. No one knew who Butler was before he signed with the Patriots or made the game-clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX. Jackson was a known commodity, an All-American, a four-start recruit. But only the Patriots gave him a chance.
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