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Island Retreat? — Jackson’s Return to Patriots Open to Question

Has the 26-year-old defensive back played his last game with the New England Patriots?

Since the October departure of Stephon Gilmore, cornerback J.C. Jackson clearly established himself as the New England Patriots’ top option at the position. Though proving himself as a versatile, shutdown corner, his penchant for takeaways earned him the nickname ‘Mr. INT.’

In fact, the prolific defensive back has even entertained the idea of creating his own ‘island of isolation’ when it comes to covering some of the league’s best pass catchers.

However, might Jackson’s ‘island’ be found outside New England waters starting in 2022?

According to a pair of Patriots insiders, the possibility is looking a bit more likely.

In the aftermath of a dismal end to the 2021 season, ESPN analyst, and former Patriots’ linebacker, Rob Ninkovich, offered a somewhat pessimistic take on the likelihood of the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent’s return to New England, in his most recent appearance on Chris Long’s “Green Light” podcast:

“J.C. Jackson looked like he wanted to get the heck out of there healthy and go to free agency and try to make a bunch of money. Which he will," Ninkovich said of Jackson’s performance in the Pats’ 47-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Wild Card Weekend. 

Despite a putrid showing by all three levels of the Pats’ defense, Jackson’s struggles in covering Buffalo wideout Stefon Diggs were notably pronounced. Jackson had some uncharacteristic breakdowns in coverage, especially in Cover 3 zone calls. He often failed to shed his blocks and seemed less-than interested when engaging in tackling.

Still, using a one-game performance evaluation to determine a player’s future with an organization is a slippery slope. This is a fact not lost on the Patriots’ front office, including head coach Bill Belichick. 

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Through seventeen regular season games, the 26-year-old compiled 44 solo tackles, a league-leading 23 passes-defensed and eight interceptions, with one having been returned for a touchdown. His eight interceptions this season are the second-most in the NFL, behind Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback Trevon Diggs (11). Jackson has the most interceptions since entering the NFL in 2018 as a rookie free agent out of Maryland with 25. For his efforts, Jackson was elected to his first Pro Bowl, as well as earning a selection as a second-team All-Pro.

Most notably, Jackson helped New England’s preventive unit to become among the top scoring defenses in the league. He routinely demonstrated an impressive instinct for finding the football, while keeping his targets in range and maintaining a visual on opposing quarterbacks. With each passing week, he continued to demonstrate the ability to be a formidable force at the position for many years to come.

While Jackson’s emergence as a top-level cornerback was great news for their defense, it does present something of a dilemma as the team heads into its offseason roster building for 2022. With the prolific corner set to enter free agency, the Pats must decide whether to sign him to a long-term extension, franchise tag him, or allow him to test the waters of free agency. While his price tag is almost certainly to be steep (and deservedly so), losing him may prove to be even more costly.

Jackson’s contract had been one of the greatest bargains in professional football. Having entered the league in 2018 as an undrafted free agent with New England, Jackson’s initial three-year pact carried only $60,000 in guarantees. In 2021, Jackson had a salary cap hit of $3.38 million as he played under a second-round restricted free agency tender.

While many have speculated that Jackson will be retained via the franchise tag, there are no guarantees for such a resolution. Aside from most players being averse to playing under its restriction, the franchise tag for Jackson projects at $17.28 million on a one-year deal. In light of Jackson’s struggles in the Pats’ lone playoff performance, ESPN’s Mike Reiss raised the possibility that New England may be a tad more reluctant to use the tag on Jackson. 

“After Jackson's playoff performance, it now feels like a longer-odds scenario to me that he would be tagged.” Reiss wrote in his Sunday column. 

Unsurprisingly, it is a near certainty that Jackson will command top-dollar on the open market. With the Patriots typically reluctant to sign cornerbacks to long-term, lucrative deals, many have speculated as to whether Jackson may be entering his final days in a Patriots uniform. Still, his predecessor, Gilmore, signed a five-year, $65 million deal that may be best described as mutually-beneficial for both he and the Patriots. While there is a chance that history may repeat itself, it is still too early to tell.

Wherever his future endeavors may take him, Jackson realizes that consistency in both his effort and his performance is paramount in achieving his goals. Those goals undoubtedly involve the enrichment of his game, as well as his financial portfolio. Though a scenario does exist in which the Patriots and Jackson reach agreement on a contract extension before the start of free agency on March 16, it may be more remote than originally thought. Having finished the 2021 season healthy and highly decorated with accolades, he appears destined to test the open market. 

Should his desire to maximize his earnings outweigh his desire to remain in Foxboro, J.C. Jackson may be headed for a future beyond New England.