The New England Patriots have nearly 20 players set to hit free agency when the NFL league year opens March 16. As that date approaches, we’re taking a closer look at each one. Next up: cornerback J.C. Jackson.
2021 SEASON REVIEW
Elevated to No. 1 cornerback status with Stephon Gilmore first injured, then traded, Jackson solidified his status as one of the NFL’s top cover men. He led the league with 23 passes defended, ranked second with eight interceptions, posted the fourth-lowest passer rating against (minimum 100 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus) and was PFF’s seventh-highest-graded corner, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors for the first time.
Doubts still linger, however, about whether Jackson is capable of erasing the opponent’s top wideout on a weekly basis, as Gilmore did at the peak of his powers. Jackson had a tough time against Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs in Week 16 and played his worst arguably game of the season in New England’s playoff loss, allowing 45- and 38-yard completions and showing questionable effort as a run defender.
Still, Jackson is the biggest name on the Patriots’ lengthy list of impending free agents, and how they handle his situation will shape how they can approach the rest of the offseason.
CASE FOR RE-SIGNING
Jackson is a very good cornerback, and the talent gap between him and any of the Patriots’ potential internal replacements is gargantuan. With neither Joejuan Williams nor Shaun Wade showing future starting potential this season and New England ignoring cornerbacks in the 2021 draft, there is a dearth of promising young talent in the pipeline (though Wade theoretically could improve in 2022).
The Patriots need to improve their depth at corner regardless this offseason, but letting Jackson walk would mean essentially starting over at the position. His expected price tag, though, complicates matters.
Jackson, who played on a $3.384 million restricted free agent tender this season, would be the best cornerback available if he hits the market next month. As such, he’d likely command a more lucrative contract than the Patriots would be willing or able to pay, and he wouldn’t have much incentive to re-sign with New England on a more reasonable deal before seeing what he can get elsewhere.
That makes Jackson a prime candidate for the franchise tag, which would lock him up for next season at a price tag of about $17.3 million. That’s still a hefty expense, but tagging Jackson and then grabbing a corner in the early rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft would put the Patriots on much stronger footing, even if Jackson winds up leaving after next season.
Throughout the Bill Belichick era, New England — which typically prefers man coverage to zone — rarely has operated without at least one high-end cornerback, flowing in recent years from Aqib Talib to Darrelle Revis to Malcolm Butler to Gilmore and, finally, to Jackson.
CASE AGAINST RE-SIGNING
Unlike last offseason, the Patriots aren’t flush with salary cap space, and the price to re-sign or franchise Jackson could make it difficult for them to address other areas of need, like linebacker and wide receiver.
This is not an especially impressive crop of free agent cornerbacks — Jackson, Gilmore and Tampa Bay’s Carlton Davis are the expected headliners — but New England could opt to save money and take its chances with a lower-level signing or rookie in Jackson’s spot. That would be a dangerous strategy given how pass-focused the NFL has become, but a number of Super Bowl contenders this season operated without big-money cornerbacks, including the runner-up Cincinnati Bengals.
The Patriots also could pursue a tag-and-trade strategy, franchising Jackson and then looking to flip him for a draft pick or player before the season.
New England has shown a willingness to shell out serious money for cornerbacks in recent years (Gilmore being the prime example) but rarely pays up to keep its own upper-echelon free agents.