The game of football is a series of magnified small samples, and nothing illustrates this more than the play of a cornerback, the sport’s most difficult and unforgiving job.
A touchdown allowed is viewed as cataclysmic. An interception is a game-changer.
Examine any cornerback’s best and worst plays, and it will seem as if you’re looking at two entirely different players. How could the cornerback who got burned for a 54-yard touchdown by DK Metcalf in Week 2 win Defensive Player of the Year months earlier?
How could the cornerback who finished second in the NFL with nine interceptions lose track of Breshad Perriman on a 53-yard catch and run?
The other guys get paid too. For a cornerback, whether it’s Stephon Gilmore or J.C. Jackson, the other guys have all of the advantages.
That all leads us to Jackson’s performance this season. Depending on which play of which game, Patriots fans would lead you to believe Jackson was either worthy of a $100 million contract or a spot on the bench.
So, it’s best to look at the whole of the parts and examine a player on as large of a sample size as possible to determine his skill, value and worth.
Jackson finished fourth among 78 qualified cornerbacks in passer rating allowed with a 62.7 mark this season. Put into quarterbacking terms, and that’s the equivalent of a passer worse than Ben DiNucci, Brett Rypien, John Wolford, Tyler Huntley and Case Keenum. Patriots quarterback play was poor this season, right? They had a 78.8 passer rating.
Pretty good, right?
Jackson was 51st in yards allowed per snap, 50th in snaps per target and 28th in snaps per reception as he allowed 41 catches on 75 targets for 584 yards with five touchdowns and nine interceptions (plus two recovered fumbles).
Overall, there were 871 passing touchdowns and 395 interceptions spread across the NFL this season. That’s a 2.2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio with a 4.8-percent touchdown rate and 2.2-percent interception rate.
Jackson had a 1:1.8 touchdown-to-interception ratio with a 6.7-percent touchdown rate and 12-percent interception rate. He let up a high rate of touchdowns and also intercepted a much higher rate of interceptions.
The 25-year-old also let up 10 plays of 20-plus yards. That was way up from previous seasons when he allowed just five big plays in 2019 and six in 2018 as a rookie.
It’s worth noting that’s not entirely out of the ordinary for a top-flight cornerback. Gilmore let up 10 plays of 20-plus yards in 2017 and 2019, when he won Defensive Player of the Year with the Patriots. He let up 11 in 2012, 12 in 2015 and 11 in 2016 with the Buffalo Bills before getting paid top dollar by the Patriots as a free agent.
Gilmore also allowed five or more touchdowns in 2014, 2015 and 2018. He’s never posted more than six interceptions in a season. Gilmore allowed more than 584 yards five times including his famed 2019 season. Cornerbacks are human. They’re not automatons, and covering wide receivers is an incredibly difficult job.
In the six games when Jackson was the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback with Gilmore out, he ranked 27th among 66 qualified cornerbacks in passer rating allowed, 65th in yards per snap, 65th in snaps per target and 47th in snaps per reception. He allowed 17 catches on 33 targets for 346 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions in those five games going against Stefon Diggs (twice), Breshad Perriman (twice) and Marquise Brown. He let up five plays of 20 or more yards.
Diggs had nine catches on 13 targets for 171 yards with two touchdowns against Jackson in those two games. Jackson also picked off a pass intended for Diggs. Bills quarterback Josh Allen had a 117.5 passer rating while targeting Diggs on the season. Jackson couldn’t handle him, but really, no one could this season.
Jackson had a Week 17 performance that summed up his season pretty well. He allowed two catches on four targets for 63 yards with an interception. He let up a big play. He made a bigger play. Overall, Jackson was valuable and a net positive in the Patriots’ win over the Jets despite allowing a 53-yard catch and run to Perriman (that would have gone for fewer yards if not for better effort from Joejuan Williams and a better angle from rookie safety Myles Bryant).
So, what does all of this mean for Jackson, who will be a restricted free agent after the season? He’s still only 25 years old, is on the upswing of his career, and while he’s not necessarily an “elite” cornerback yet, he is a very good defender who can be a team’s best cornerback. He might need to concentrate on rediscovering a balance between playing smart and trying to make plays, however. He didn’t allow a touchdown in his first two seasons, though he wasn’t forcing as many turnovers. Interceptions can be game-changers. But allowing a big touchdown is just as bad.
This season, Jackson was more Marcus Peters or Xavien Howard than Gilmore or Jalen Ramsey. In previous seasons, while taking on teams’ No. 2 or 3 receivers he was much better.
He’ll likely be paid a lot at some point. That might not happen this offseason since another team would also need to send a first-round pick to the Patriots to sign him away. If Jackson doesn’t get an offer as a restricted free agent, then he’ll either need to sign his one-year tender with the Patriots or agree to a long-term extension in New England.