How Can Patriots Replace J.C. Jackson If Cornerback Leaves In Free Agency?

Jackson and the Patriots reportedly are nearing a breakup


Mar 4, 2022

One of the New England Patriots’ best and most important defensive players seems destined to sign elsewhere this offseason.

The Patriots are not expected to place the franchise tag on star cornerback J.C. Jackson, according to a report Friday from NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport. The Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian confirmed that report, adding that New England has been “reticent to commit significant long-term money to their top cornerback.”

“(It) comes down to this: The team doesn’t feel Jackson is worth the price of the one-year franchise tag ($17.3 million guaranteed next season) or what it would take to secure him on a multi-year deal,” Guregian wrote. “… It’s possible that if Jackson doesn’t get the money he’s looking for on the market, the two sides could revisit talks. But that doesn’t seem likely at this stage.”

These reports also indicate head coach Bill Belichick doesn’t believe he can get an ample return by tagging and then trading Jackson. If he leaves in free agency, the Patriots likely will receive a third-round compensatory draft pick in 2023.

Other outlets had previously reported that a franchise tag for Jackson was unlikely.

Is Jackson peak Stephon Gilmore, capable of automatically erasing the opponent’s No. 1 pass-catcher on a weekly basis? No. At least, he has not proven to be thus far in his career, notably struggling in matchups with division rival Stefon Diggs. That could be why the Patriots reportedly are hesitant to pay him an elite-level salary.

But when it comes to disrupting passes and generating turnovers, few NFL players can match Jackson’s production. The 26-year-old leads the league in interceptions (25) since he debuted as an undrafted rookie in 2018, and he ranked second in picks (eight) and first in passes defended (23) this season, earning him Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors for the first time. He’s one of the NFL’s premier ball hawks and likely will be paid as such, especially in a free agent class that’s light on top-tier cornerback talent.

How would the Patriots replace Jackson if he does depart? At this point, that’s anyone’s guess. After already trading Gilmore amid a contract dispute last October, New England’s depth at the position is perilously thin, with no obviously ascending starters in the pipeline.

Losing Jackson would shoot cornerback — a position of need regardless — to the top of the Patriots’ offseason priority list. Let’s take a closer look at their options:

The following Patriots cornerbacks are under contract for the 2022 season:

Jalen Mills
Jonathan Jones
Myles Bryant
Joejuan Williams
Shaun Wade
Justin Bethel

Mills was a solid starter in his first Patriots season, though the transition to him from Gilmore prompted New England to utilize more zone coverage than usual. He was sorely missed in the playoff loss to Buffalo, which he missed after testing positive for COVID-19. Jones reportedly is recovering well from the shoulder injury that ended his season in Week 6 and should again be the Patriots’ top option in the slot.

But none of the other holdovers would be a desirable replacement for Jackson, a starting outside corner for the last two seasons. Williams, a 2019 second-round pick, has been a major disappointment, getting benched in each of his two career starts. Wade once was considered a premier prospect and still could have a future in New England, but he played just 18 total snaps as a rookie.

For multiple late-season games, the Patriots chose to elevate D’Angelo Ross from the practice squad and sit both Williams and Wade as healthy scratches. Ross then was not offered a future contract after the season.

Bryant plays a different position from Jackson as a slot/safety hybrid, and Bethel is a special teams standout who rarely plays outside of the kicking game.

In all likelihood, Jackson’s successor is not on New England’s current roster.

As mentioned, this is not a banner crop of cornerbacks. Jackson is the headliner. Behind him are Tampa Bay’s Carlton Davis and Gilmore, neither of whom seems like a realistic option for New England. (Davis reportedly is expected to receive the franchise tag, and Gilmore likely isn’t itching for a reunion after his messy exit from Foxboro.)

There will be some solid, more affordable veterans available, however. Kansas City’s Charvarius Ward is one to watch. Listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, he’s an experienced man-coverage player and has been one of the league’s best tacklers in recent years — two traits New England typically covets.

Other notable free agents include Steven Nelson, Casey Heyward Jr., Darious Williams and D.J. Reed, though Williams and Reed (both 5-foot-9) don’t boast New England’s preferred measurables for outside corners. Rasul Douglas, Mike Hughes, Donte Jackson and Eli Apple also are among the impending UFAs.

Not dedicating $17 million to Jackson would give the Patriots more flexibility to address their cornerback need while also filling holes at other positions of need, like linebacker and wide receiver.

Unlike the lackluster veteran market, this is considered a strong year for cornerback prospects. And if Jackson leaves, the Patriots should strongly consider targeting one in the early rounds. They currently own the 21st overall pick in the first round and No. 53 overall in the second.

Potential targets in that range include Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, Washington’s Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie, Clemson’s Andrew Booth, Florida’s Kaiir Elam and Auburn’s Roger McCreary. Cornerbacks will take the field at the NFL Scouting Combine on Sunday. Booth has been a popular mock draft pick for New England.

The Patriots have done a fantastic job of finding undrafted cornerbacks — Jackson, Jones and Malcolm Butler all entered the league as UDFAs — but have a long history of draft whiffs at the position. Since 2016, they’ve used Day 2 picks on Williams, Duke Dawson and Cyrus Jones, and all three flopped.

Thumbnail photo via Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports Images
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