J.C. Jackson's fifth consecutive game with a pick was widely celebrated last weekend and rightfully so.
To set a franchise record like that, at a position where the Patriots have employed ball hawks named Gilmore, Revis, Law and Haynes? It's a feat. No question about it. But do those interceptions -- Jackson has six total on the season -- make him worthy of consideration as a No. 1 corner?
After playing the Bills in Week 8, when Jackson allowed five catches and picked off a pass in coverage of Stefon Diggs, he was asked if he proved he could be a No. 1.
"Of course," Jackson said. "Why not?"
Allowing Diggs 84 yards on seven targets and coming up with a turnover isn't exactly proof all on its own that Jackson can be the top cover man on a contender. Neither do his five picks in five straight, impressive as they are.
But consider the breadth of work Jackson has compiled since entering the league three years ago. Because he's so adept at tracking the football -- Devin McCourty has called him the best Patriots defensive back he's seen in that regard -- he's picked off 14 passes in his career, which has helped him to the top spot in the NFL in quarterback rating allowed in both 2018 (42.0) and 2019 (37.0). In 2020, with six total interceptions, he's 10th in rating among corners with at least 400 snaps (68.8).
Sure, the obvious contention could be made, it's easier to erase lower-level targets when Stephon Gilmore is taking away No. 1 receivers on the opposite side of the field.
But consider this: When separating out Jackson's nearly 60 targets that came against No. 1 talents over the last three years -- a list of performances that includes good days against Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster, L.A.'s Mike Williams, and Baltimore's Hollywood Brown as well as not-so-good days against Diggs and a dud against Breshad Perriman of the Jets -- Jackson still carries a quarterback-rating-against figure of just 48.1.
Jackson doesn't have prototypical boundary-corner size, which could lead some to believe he's not a true top option. At 5-foot-10, he'll be giving up some length to some of the best receivers in the division in Diggs (6-feet) and Miami's DeVante Parter (6-3). But Jackson's leaping ability (35.5-inch vertical at the 2018 combine), vertical speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash) and ball skills could help him make up for what he's lacking in height. Others have used a similar formula. Six of the 10 top-graded cover corners in the league, per Pro Football Focus, including Jackson, measure less than 6-feet.
The question of whether or not Jackson is up to the challenge of being a No. 1 corner on a regular basis is a good one. Not just because he was left off the Pro Bowl ballot this year and quickly (correctly) added when his omission came to light. But the question matters because the Patriots could be without their best corner, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, starting next season.
Gilmore is scheduled to make just $7 million in base salary in 2021 after getting a $5 million advance from the Patriots before the start of this season. When the top dogs at that position are making $20 million or close to it, Gilmore is likely going to want a new contract whether it keeps him in Foxboro or takes him elsewhere.
That could swing the spotlight toward Jackson, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason and likely handed a first-round tender that would pay him in the neighborhood of $5 million ($4.6 in 2020).
For the Patriots, if they consider Jackson a legitimate No. 1 corner, that level raise -- Jackson is making $750,000 this season -- would still qualify him as one of the best bargains in football.
Based on his ability to play sticky man coverage, get his hands on the football, and stay with opposing No. 1s, he'd be more than worth it.