After trading Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers, the Patriots have a cornerback depth chart that is relatively thin. Capable. But thin.
J.C. Jackson occupies the top spot at that position and will continue to moving forward. Bill Belichick indicated as much on Wednesday after acknowledging during a press conference that Gilmore would be moving on.
"That's the way it's been," he said, "for the end of last season and this season... Do I think J.C.'s a good player? Yeah, I think J.C.'s a good player. I think he's a very good player. He's performed well for us."
Jackson is one of the latest in a long line of undrafted diamonds in the rough discovered by Belichick and his scouting staff. Signed in 2018, he has started games in each of the last three seasons, including 11 in 2020. This year he has been top dog on a defense that still plays about as much Cover 1 -- man-to-man coverage with a single safety deep -- as any team in football.
That meant that Jackson shadowed All-Pro wideout Mike Evans when Tampa Bay visited last weekend. He allowed six catches for 64 yards on six targets -- an impressive performance that helped keep the Patriots within reach of the explosive Bucs passing offense. On the season, according to Pro Football Focus, he's allowed 16 catches on 26 targets for 2017 yards. His two picks against the Jets have helped him post a 54.5 quarterback rating allowed when targeted.
Jalen Mills has been solid behind Jackson as the No. 2 on the outside. While he has at times shared time with Joejuan Williams as the boundary corner opposite Jackson, he may have solidified himself as the starter against Tampa Bay when he helped slow down wideout Chris Godwin.
"Jalen's been one of our most consistent players, he's worked very hard in the spring," Belichick said. "New system. A lot different than what they did in Philly. Played all positions in the secondary, literally every one of them. Linebacker. Nickel. Star. Safety. You name it. He's shown a lot of versatility. He's a very competitive player that has a good skill set, can do a lot of things. That was a tough matchup for him last week, I thought he really competed well against Godwin."
With Jonathan Jones (who followed Antonio Brown last weekend) in the slot, the Patriots appear to have three players upon whom they can lean in the passing game.
If it was good enough against Tom Brady, it should be good enough against most offenses the Patriots will see in 2021. The Patriots acquired rookie corner Shaun Wade before the start of the season, but he hasn't been active in four games.
"We've been pretty healthy at that position," Belichick said Wednesday. "And I'd say overall that group has played pretty well. There's always room for improvement... But overall we've played the passing game fairly well this year. Played the best passing game in the league last week. Played that competitively. I'd say there are other areas on the team that... Everything can be improved, but I'd say there's other areas that could improve more than that group."
The Patriots have played two of the least-productive passing attacks in the league through four weeks -- Miami (last in the NFL in expected points added per dropback) and the Jets (30th) -- but they have established themselves as one of the most efficient passing defenses in football. They are fourth in dropback EPA allowed and seventh in success rate allowed. They are second in quarterback rating allowed, fourth in passing yards allowed per game, sixth in passing yards per attempt, 10th in sacks and sixth in points allowed.
The issue that may arise for the Patriots would be if there were an injury to this group. On Sunday night, when Jones had to leave the field briefly due to injury, he was replaced by Justin Bethel. Brady found the special-teams ace in coverage, threw to Brown, and picked up a critical third-down conversion on the game-winning drive.
Wade may be able to fill in if needed, though he's an unknown as a boundary corner. Williams could end up seeing time, though he was made a healthy scratch prior to the Bucs game. Second-year defensive back Myles Bryant, who was active over Williams versus Tampa, would also factor into the mix at this spot.
The other issue that trading Gilmore presents is what it might mean for Jackson, who will be a free agent next offseason.
The Patriots have long had a true No. 1 cover corner on the outside, going back to 2012 when they acquired Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay via trade. Talib, Darrelle Revis, Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore... so who's next?
Jackson is in a strong bargaining position at the moment.
If the Patriots don't extend Jackson during the season, they could be starting fresh in their pursuit of a No. 1 guy next offseason. The free-agent pool appears limited on in-their-prime top options. Perhaps Tampa corner Carlton Davis would be an option, though he just suffered a lower-body injury last week that forced him to be carted to the locker room and could impact his earning potential next offseason.
Jackson is the best of the bunch, seemingly by a significant margin.
Would he be willing to do an extension with the Patriots before hitting the open market? Unlikely, unless he was promised near-top-of-the-market money. The Patriots could franchise tag him next offseason -- the tag number this year was $15 million -- and buy themselves time to find a suitable replacement in the draft or elsewhere. But once Jackson is tagged, the likely starting point for long-term negotiations thereafter would be the tag number.
It's an expensive position to try to fill, particularly for a team whose defensive philosophy requires physical and athletic man-to-man corners.
While the Patriots have done well to find diamond-in-the-rough types in the past, they may have to pay up in the near future in order to make sure they have a No. 1 secured.