The Patriots find themselves in a familiar situation with a pending free agent star this offseason.
Based on the precedent set by Bill Belichick, Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson is understandably antsy heading into his first NFL free agency.
Earlier this week, Jackson told NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry, “I guess they feel like they don’t need me. I guess I can’t be that important to them. I know I am, but they’re not showing me.”
With Jackson turning 27 years old next season, the second-team All-Pro is at almost the exact juncture in his career that former Pats corners Asante Samuel and Malcolm Butler were when Belichick let them walk.
At age 26, Samuel played the 2007 season on the franchise tag, earned first-team All-Pro, and yet Belichick let him go the following offseason after a fallout during Super Bowl week.
Similarly, a 27-year-old Butler played out the final season on his deal and was infamously benched in Super Bowl 52, then got his big payday from Tennessee while Belichick paid free-agent corner, Stephon Gilmore, a top-of-market deal instead of the Pats’ Super Bowl hero.
The Pats’ head coach paid top-dollar for Gilmore and Darrelle Revis, but those two were former first-round picks with elite athletic profiles. In Revis’s case, he also had the pro resume and signed a short-term deal.
Although it may feel like the writing is on the wall, our message to Mr. INT right now is to be patient.
Belichick and the Patriots don’t begin setting the table or negotiating with free agents, including their own, until the NFL scouting combine, which begins next week in Indianapolis.
This week, a league source close to another prominent Patriots free agent told CLNS Media there was “nothing to report at all” on negotiations with the Patriots and added, “way too early for them.” Like Jackson, this pending Pats free-agent also hasn’t been in touch with the team.
Plus, when it comes to players who could receive the franchise tag, that window just opened on February 22 and ends March 8, and Belichick is never early to that party.
The Patriots last used the franchise tag on stud guard Joe Thuney in the 2020 offseason, with a final decision made hours before the tag deadline and as a shock to Thuney and his reps (there were no discussions with Thuney’s camp about the franchise tag until it happened).
If Jackson and Patriots fans are worried that we are headed down the Butler-Samuel path, a team source tells CLNS Media that the hope internally is that Jackson stays a Patriot long-term.
As Jackson confirmed to NBC Sports Boston, the Patriots first approached the star cornerback about a contract extension during the 2021 season, which is a huge sign they want to keep him.
At these very early stages of the offseason, Belichick is operating at his usual pace and has already opened negotiations with Jackson in a way he didn’t with Butler and Samuel.
Things could go either way, and Jackson is far from the first Patriots free agent to get restless with Belichick’s handling of free agency.
Still, things are going as expected for the Patriots, and there’s no need to hit the panic button yet.
Without further ado, let’s empty the Patriots mailbag as we head towards combine week in Indy:
Should the Pats decide to tag and trade JC what might he bring for a return?
— Anthony Santagati (@AJSJR40) February 23, 2022
Looking at the recent history of tag-and-trades, the Patriots could get a nice haul for Jackson if they decide to go in that direction. Here are a few recent examples:
- SEA trades Frank Clark and a 2019 third-round pick to KC for 2019 first-round pick, 2019 third-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick
- KC trades Dee Ford to the 49ers for a 2020 second-round pick
- HOU trades Jadeveon Clowney to SEA for 2020 third-round pick, Jacob Martin, and Barkevious Mingo
- JAX trades Yannick Ngakoue to Vikings for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick
Based on those trades and Jackson’s value, the Patriots should receive at least a second-round pick plus another mid-round asset in return, while a first-rounder isn’t out of the question.
What free agent receivers do you like if the pats focus on defense in the draft?
— Uncle Pete (@jennings19_pete) February 23, 2022
If the Patriots want to make a splash at wide receiver in free agency, don’t rule out a run at Mike Williams. Targeting Williams would be reminiscent of signing Gilmore in 2017, a former top-ten pick with ideal traits that the Patriots covet in an X receiver (size, ability to win backside 1-on-1, red zone). Unlike in the draft, Williams is already producing 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL, so he doesn’t need to develop in the sense that N’Keal Harry did. Plus, they could make the cap work in the short term on a back-loaded multi-year deal. With everyone looking at J.C. Jackson and the trade market or draft for wide receivers, it would be very Belichickian to turn in the opposite direction. Here’s my plan on how to get this done without killing the cap:
– Sign WR Mike Williams to backloaded four-year deal (keeps cap hit lower in 2022)
– Trade WR Nelson Agholor & WR N’Keal Harry for a cap savings of $10.3 million
– Draft a speed receiver in the third round to replace Agholor (NDSU’s Christian Watson)
– Leaves Pats with X – Williams (1-on-1), Z – Watson/Bourne, slot – Bourne/Meyers, Y – Henry
If the Patriots could find trade partners for Agholor and Harry, they’d probably break even cap-wise and still have money left over to keep J.C. Jackson. Plus, they could use their first two draft picks on defense.
What would you do to address LB?
— ????? ????? ????? ?????¹² (@rahul_stuff) February 23, 2022
From this perspective, the Patriots aren’t that far away at linebacker. Nowadays, you are basing out of nickel, so you play with two off-ball linebackers. You don’t need waves of depth. Although the contract value must be right, I’d start by retaining Ja’Whaun Bentley as the early-down MIKE. His ability to play downhill, set the defense, and take on blocks will allow them to play a better athlete next to him to do the rangy stuff. I’d draft a day-two linebacker like Christian Harris, Quay Walker, or Chad Muma while hoping that Josh Uche, Cameron McGrone, and Raekwon McMillan would emerge. Ideally, Bentley’s role is reduced to run defense only, meaning we’ll see a lot of Walker-Uche or Muma-McGrone to give them more sideline-to-sideline speed.
Is Chandler Jones Coming back a Reality??
— Thomas Palazzi (@thomas_palazzi) February 23, 2022
Honestly, I’m not sure what ESPN was thinking when they predicted a reunion with Chandler Jones. First of all, Jones is still playing at a pretty high level, and his salary projections are north of $12 million per year. I don’t see Belichick using substantial cap dollars on another EDGE with Matthew Judon and their young edge rushers returning. Plus, there’s some redundancy there with Judon and Jones, who are both rush linebackers that want to run the arc and not necessarily set the edge. Is Belichick going to play with two of those as bookend EDGEs? Doubtful. The reunions always happen when a player comes back at a reduced cost after cashing out elsewhere (see: Kyle Van Noy). That’s not happening with Jones.
Will the Pats go after Jarvis Landry if he's available? Is he a good fit? Thank you!
— Ana Lia (@Talrain79) February 23, 2022
I’d be all in on Landry for the Patriots three years ago. Now, he’s 29 and coming off a year where he played through a knee injury. At this stage of his career, Landry isn’t an upgrade over Jakobi Meyers or Kendrick Bourne and will probably claim some money on brand value alone. I’m out on all the aging wideouts coming off injuries, including Allen Robinson. The goal should be to get a premier pass-catcher who can grow with Mac Jones and be here for the long haul. No one-year fixes, please.
We keep hearing about restructuring contracts of current players in order to create cap for this year. How and why does that benefit the players who would restructure? Also besides an immediate monetary need for the team is it more less a kicking the can down the road approach?
— Jeff Scanlon (@jscancoach) February 23, 2022
The benefit for the player is getting non-guaranteed money immediately when the team converts it into a guaranteed bonus. The benefit for the team is immediate cap relief, but the converted bonus is then prorated over the remaining years of the contract, thus increasing the players’ cap hits in future seasons. In other words, kicking the can down the road, as you said. Other than good cap management to avoid a cap crunch, the only way a team can lower a players’ cap hit this season without increasing it in future seasons is with a contract extension or void years (which eventually hit the cap as dead money if the contract voids).
Attached is a cap savings table for the Patriots. Did not use void years in any conversions or extensions. Bottom line – Patriots have several ways to create cap space. This is a list of possibilities. I do NOT think all will happen. pic.twitter.com/lCqxFS0jwK
— Miguel Benzan Patriots Cap Space equals 4,896,056 (@patscap) February 23, 2022
Our good friend Miguel Benzan (aka @Patscap) has an excellent chart showing how the Patriots can create cap space.
I hear a lot of chatter about the need for "a true number 1 receiver". What exactly are the skills a number 1 needs to have, and how would a receiver like that have impacted the passing game last season? Did the offense struggle with specific coverages? (etc.)
— Lukerino (@Lukerino18) February 23, 2022
Great question. When the phrase “number one receiver” is thrown out there, many people think about a traditional outside receiver who creates big plays—for example, Randy Moss. However, I’m not in the camp that thinks it needs to be an X. The Patriots have also had number one receivers at tight end (Gronk) and in the slot (Edelman/Welker/Branch/Brown). The current Super Bowl MVP and OPOY is a z/slot (Cooper Kupp). As long as the Pats get a dynamic go-to weapon for Mac who changes how defenses play them coverage-wise, it doesn’t matter where that player lines up or how they win.
Every time I've wanted the pats to take a WR in the first round, they've taken a d-lineman instead (starting with
new HOF inductee Richard Seymour instead of David Terrell!) If they were to take a D-lineman at 21, who do you think it would be and how would he change the D?
— Henry Litman (@henrylitman) February 23, 2022
I’m going back and forth on this one, but more in the sense of defensive line versus cornerback. Do you load up in the secondary or commit high-end assets to the D-Line? When I watch the last two games against the Bills, New England’s inability to control the line of scrimmage on early downs stands out more than the issues in the backend. Ideally, the Pats would play Buffalo with six DBs and two-high shells to clog passing lanes, especially against early-down RPOs. Unfortunately, you cannot play dime without a dominant D-Line that allows you to stop the run down a player in the box and apply pressure with four. If you beef up the line, you don’t necessarily need dominant cover talent since you can play with the numbers advantage in coverage. I lean towards the D-Line, and Georgia’s Jordan Davis, who would help them control the line of scrimmage and get Buffalo into obvious passing situations more often. Then, you can bring on situational pass rushers on third down. Don’t sleep on Davis as a pass rusher. He’s going to occupy multiple blockers to free-up others for one-on-ones, and if the O-Line single blocks him, good luck anchoring his bull rush.
Is there a chance that Bourne blows up in year 2 and becomes the WR1 we need. Or is it just not there.
— Brian Wheeler (@2ACore) February 23, 2022
Internally, the Patriots are extremely high on Bourne due to his energy and explosiveness. As he becomes more familiar with the offense, Bourne’s role will continue to expand. He didn’t get the ball more because he was still making mental errors late in the season. If he cleans that up, he could pass Meyers as the primary Z. Still, Bourne isn’t a true number one. They’ll need to address that need with an external addition.
How would you rate the likelihood of a scheme shift on defense? We've seen them switch between 3 and 4 man fronts before and I know we still "2 gap" with 4 man tho I don't appreciate the nuance enough but a 4 man front would seemingly allow us to play lighter LBs more
— Boom80517 (@boom80517) February 23, 2022
I wouldn’t get too caught up in defensive fronts. The Pats are a multiple front scheme, using some traditionally even front looks last season, and aren’t always two-gapping, especially out of their single-high shells. There are a lot of nuances there. With that said, it becomes more of a factor when discussing the types of defensive linemen they’re bringing in since you want to fill each role along the line. For example, Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt is a terrific prospect who might be in play at 21. However, his best role as a penetrating three-technique (in the B-Gap) overlaps with Christian Barmore’s ideal usage. You could move them each out a tick to a 4i technique (over the OTs inside shoulder). But then having a true block-eating nose tackle becomes an even bigger priority. Barmore and Wyatt would be an excellent tandem. Still, you have to think about how to get them both on the field together in the best possible way.