CLNS Media Patriots Beat reporter Evan Lazar’s annual list takes you through the ten most important Pats for the 2021 season.
One of the top young corners in the league resides in New England in 25-year-old J.C. Jackson, who would be even higher on this list if Stephon Gilmore’s contract holdout goes awry.
In a recent poll of league executives, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler ranked Jackson as the tenth-best cornerback in the NFL after picking off the second-most passes with nine interceptions in 2020.
Furthermore, Jackson’s 62.7 passer rating into his coverage was sixth, while his completion rate allowed into his coverage was 15th among 136 qualified corners last season (54.7).
At his core, Jackson is a press-man corner who uses physicality at the line of scrimmage and throughout the route to throw off receivers’ timing as they run downfield. From there, he has receiver-like ball skills to turn and track the football, showing off a rare ability to play the ball in the air while initially having his back to the quarterback.
As the Patriots defense has evolved with Jackson, New England’s coaching staff is beginning to present him with more opportunities to ball-hawk from off-man or zone coverage.
By allowing him to play off the line, Jackson can keep his eyes on the quarterback and the receiver, allowing him to read the QB to make plays on the football more than from press-man.
Jackson runs down a deep ball from Jets quarterback Joe Flacco in an inverted cover-two scheme on this play. After starting off the line, Jackson and the deep safety to that side of the field switched responsibilities, with Devin McCourty taking the flat and Jackson replacing him in the deep half. Like a safety, Jackson cuts off the deep post route and picks off Flacco’s pass.
From a statistical perspective, Jackson is as good as any cornerback since 2019.
Over the last two seasons, the Pats CB leads the league in both interceptions (14) and passer rating allowed into his coverage (46.8).
However, the next step in Jackson’s development is proving that he is a true lockdown corner when he isn’t playing opposite of Stephon Gilmore, who typically takes the tougher matchup.
In five games without Gilmore last season, Jackson’s target-based metrics plummeted, albeit with two of those games coming against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs.
Diggs torched everyone last season, so you can’t fault Jackson as much, but his interceptions and stingy numbers when targeted seem to correlate with teams staying away from Gilmore.
Given Gilmore’s holdout, there’s a very real scenario where Jackson is New England’s number one cornerback this season. If that is the case, he’ll need to improve quickly.
Furthermore, Jackson’s value to the Patriots is even higher due to what’s behind him on the outside cornerback depth chart at the moment. Behind Jackson are many unknowns, such as 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams, free-agent addition Jalen Mills who struggled as an outside CB in Philadelphia, and practice-squader Michael Jackson.
New England, in a big way, needs Jackson’s ascension from an undrafted rookie in 2018 to the NFL’s leader in interceptions since 2019 to continue on an upward trajectory.