J.C. Jackson leads the NFL in interceptions since entering the league in 2018.
He's changed his Instagram handle to Mr. INT. He missed two days of practice last week, felt like he was at death's door, then played one of the best games of his career. He had Bill Belichick, of all people, cracking jokes at the podium after the fact.
"Yeah, I talked to him about that," Belichick said with a smile. "I hope that’s not a sign of things to come, to think that we don’t have to practice and then go out there and be a star of the game."
What Jackson has done through three and a half years of his career is rare. But it feels as though there are pockets of the NFL universe that are reluctant to put him in the upper echelon of players at his position. There are easily-identifiable "yeah but" talking points that have followed Jackson and will continue to.
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Detractors may highlight that he's been able to thrive playing less-than assignments in man-to-man coverage with Stephon Gilmore mirroring No. 1s for the first three years of Jackson's career. Others may point out that Jackson has only picked off quarterbacks this year whose careers are marked by the pungent stench of Jets ineptitude: Zach Wilson (2), Mike White (1) and Sam Darnold (2).
Even the way in which opposing quarterbacks have treated Jackson this season would suggest they aren't afraid of New England's new No. 1 cover man.
Of the league's 75 corners with at least 200 coverage snaps this season, Jackson has seen more passes come his way (59) than all but two, per Pro Football Focus: Indy's Kenny Moore (65) and Baltimore's Anthony Averett (62).
But if Jackson doesn't pose the kind of avoid-at-all-costs threat that some of the game's best corners have carried, targeting him is still generally a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.
He's second among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps this year in terms of quarterback rating allowed (49.8); last season, he was fifth (62.7). In 2018 (42.0) and 2019 (37.0), he led all of football. Reminder: A quarterback would finish a season with a 39.6 rating if he did nothing but throw incompletions all year.
After sifting through all of the targets thrown Jackson's way since his rookie season, if you were to separate out all of the throws he covered against wideouts who would be considered "No. 1s" -- everyone from DeAndre Hopkins to Stefon Diggs to CeeDee Lamb to Mike Evans and others -- he's still an elite performer.
His numbers in those situations: 104 targets, 50 catches, 747 yards, three touchdowns, eight interceptions, 49.6 rating.
"J.C. Jackson, he's up there," former Patriots and Colts corner Darius Butler told us on the "Next Pats" podcast last month. "I would say maybe right after the top, top tier guys. The Jalen Ramseys and those type of guys. He's up there.
"He's proved it year in and year out. He didn't come in as the biggest household name. But you watch his film, you see his ball production year in and year out, he wins matchups week in and week out. J.C. Jackson could easily be in that Tier 1 type of cornerback, the Xavien Howards and Jalen Ramseys of the world, he's right there in that caliber of player."
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Belichick was asked on Wednesday if Jackson had an "exceptional" trait that allowed him to make as many plays on the football as he has over the course of his career. Hard to put together 22 picks over three-and-a-half seasons -- tied with Hall-of-Fame corner Mike Haynes for the most through a player's first four seasons in Patriots history -- and chalk it up to little more than "right place, right time."
"I think his ball skills and anticipation are pretty good. High-end," Belichick said.
"It's everything. It’s when to look, picking up the ball. A lot of times his back’s to the ball when it leaves the quarterback’s hands, like the interception he had against the Jets. Plays like that, where a receiver comes out of his break and you’re a defender trying to cover the receiver, and then find the ball, be able to catch it, get his feet down in bounds. Plays like that. That was a pretty good play. He tracks the ball well in the deep part of the field. Anticipates well."
It's the kind of thing that may be hard to decipher on film, but it's the kind of thing that Devin McCourty has seen Jackson do from the moment he arrived as an undrafted rookie out of Maryland in 2018. Back then, after Jackson had a pick to help beat the Vikings, McCourty praised the rookie's rare tools.
"He makes plays in practice that you guys haven't seen in the game," McCourty said at the time, "but our whole secondary is like, '[Expletive.] There he goes again.' One-handed catches. Great ball-skills. Like today; it's a long throw, it looks like the guy might have a step. As soon as J.C. turns his head, he locates the ball as well as anybody I've seen that we have at corner."
The Patriots have had some good ones since McCourty arrived, fans may recall, including Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore -- all of whom were very well paid once getting through their rookie deals.
What's waiting for Jackson on the other side of his? Something big, partly because the argument that Jackson is a "product of the system" doesn't carry much weight. He's played in one of the league's most man-to-man heavy defenses since he broke into the league. Can't scheme up all that much to hide a player when he's asked to track a given target and shut him down.
Has it always been pretty? Nope. Just a few weeks ago, in Houston, he was on the scene for a 67-yard catch-and-run touchdown to a practice-squad call-up named Chris Moore. He was in coverage for two scores at MetLife Stadium last year when following Denzel Mims and Breshad Perriman.
Perhaps those momentary lapses led the Patriots to place only a second-round tender on Jackson as a restricted free agent last year. And perhaps those momentary lapses prevented a team from being willing to give up only a second-rounder and a new contract for Jackson's services.
"I was shocked," Butler said when he saw Jackson receive only a second-round tender. "I guess teams aren't seeing what I'm seeing."
But what Jackson has done against top-end wideouts this year -- including 64 yards to Evans on 10 targets, 23 yards to Brandin Cooks on five targets, 23 yards to Amari Cooper on four targets -- on top of his career résumé should get him paid. Then when accounting for the fact that it's a weak free-agent class at the position, Jackson could be one of the richest corners in football in the not-too-distant future.
"The franchise tag is projected to be between $17 and $17.5 million for the cornerback position," PFF's contract expert Brad Spielberger told Next Pats this week. "His camp would probably want to work around that number and try to get a multi-year deal maybe for just underneath that to avoid getting the franchise tag. But there are going to be teams that step up.
"I think the storyline of the season, too, is that so many good teams are struggling to add cornerbacks. Tampa Bay, they've been signing guys left and right. There are a handful of contenders that are trying to add corners week in and week out. The scarcity could drive the value. I would not be surprised if he does get $17, maybe $17.5 million per year."
That wouldn't put Jackson in Ramsey territory ($20 million per year), but it would get him close. At the moment, the only corners in the NFL making more than that average annual figure are Ramsey, Baltimore's Marlon Humphrey ($19.5 million) and New Orleans' Marshon Lattimore ($19.4 million). I was told by one AFC executive earlier this offseason that it would come as little surprise if Jackson ended up in the range of Buffalo's Tre'Davious White ($17.25 million per year) on his next contract.
Should the Patriots make that kind of deal? If they want to stick with their recent history, with what they've done since they traded for Talib mid-season in 2012, and ensure they have a No. 1 corner on their roster for the foreseeable future? They should.
But if they want to play it by ear, land a young corner in the draft -- or in undrafted free agency where they've found Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Malcolm Butler -- and try to develop him into a No. 1, then the franchise tag would make sense. In that scenario, by the time Jackson gets to unrestricted free agency in 2023, maybe the up-and-comer is ready to step into the top role.
But times may be changing, too.
As the passing game has come to dominate the NFL, teams have realized that having an elite corner can make a massive impact. Thus, corner contracts have grown exponentially. Would the Patriots be willing to try to piece together their secondary for lower-priced players?
They've recently invested in Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise and Kyle Van Noy up front. They used three picks to get Christian Barmore (they traded two fourths to move up and take the 'Bama product in the second round), and Dont'a Hightower remains one of their highest-paid players. With the rest of the league looking to spend in the secondary, would the Patriots zig and lean on their front to help less-talented coverage players?
They may be on that track already. They're playing more zone coverage lately -- about 70 percent the last three weeks versus about 40 percent through the first six weeks of 2021 -- and relying on their skill up front to bother opposing quarterbacks.
Whether the Patriots decide to keep Jackson or not, he's getting paid somewhere this offseason. The market rewards those who provide that which is rare, and what Jackson has done to this point in his career is exactly that.