The goal is having your name called; to be one of the 256 prospects in your class who have the honor of hearing or seeing your name on the screen or in person during the NFL draft is an often powerful moment that represents hard work being worth it.
But not everyone gets that moment. New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson didn’t. Jackson went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, but it didn’t mean his chances of pro success were over.
Jackson was a 4-star recruit who committed to the University of Florida. He had a promising track to start early on for the Gators, but a shoulder injury in the first game of his freshman season sidelined him for the whole year. That game ended up being the only one Jackson participated in wearing orange and blue, as he was arrested and charged with three accounts of home invasion with a deadly weapon as part of an armed robbery.
Police said Jackson led two men, one of them carrying a gun, into a Gainesville apartment. The two men robbed everyone inside, taking two video game systems and $382 in cash.
(Attorney Christopher) Brown said in his closing arguments that a crime would have happened whether Jackson was at the apartment or not. He called the evidence against Jackson circumstantial and prosecution witnesses unreliable.
Jackson was free in the sense he would not be serving any jail time, but unfortunately for his football career, he was also free (let go) from the Florida football program. After a year of JUCO ball at River City College, Jackson chose to jump back to the Power 5 by transferring to Maryland, where he was a contributor for two seasons.
After going undrafted in 2018, Jackson signed with the Patriots. As one of the best athletes on the team, Jackson stood out during camp and made the regular season 53-man roster. During the 2018 season, Jackson played in 13 games with five starts.
The Patriots drafted two cornerbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft, Duke Dawson in the second round, and Keion Crossen in the seventh, before picking up Jackson as an undrafted guy. However, before the 2019 season, both of those cornerbacks were traded, as Jackson emerged as the gem of that group.
In 2019, with former starting cornerback Malcolm Butler no longer on the team, Jackson played in all 16 games with six starts. He registered 738 out of the total 1,070 defensive snaps (69%), which was third most for a defensive back, with Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore the only two getting more playing time than him. On top of that, Jackson registered 57 snaps in the Patriots’ final game of the season, the wild-card playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.
Jackson’s stats increased as his snaps did from 2018 to 2019. In his first season, Jackson grabbed three interceptions with six passes defended. In 2019, both of those numbers increased to five and 10.
For being just a part-time and spot starter, Jackson’s numbers have been very impressive over the last two seasons. The people over at Pro Football Focus echo that thought, as well.
“Last season, no cornerback playing at least half his team’s defensive snaps came anywhere near Jackson’s opponent passer rating allowed of 35.9, which he amassed by allowing just 31 receptions on 65 targets for 328 yards, one touchdown, and five interceptions. Far from a beneficiary of the efforts of other great players, Jackson has the talent to be a No. 1 cornerback on most NFL teams.”
Let’s take a look at some of Jackson’s film from 2019 to see what he does well, how sustainable his solid play has been, and how much he can still grow over the next few seasons.
Let’s start with the play above.
In that clip, Jackson was lined up in the slot against Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews. As one of the bigger slot receivers in the NFL, Matthews likes to use his strength and size to his advantage when going up against what are typically smaller, quicker slot defenders.
But Jackson did a nice job of showing how comfortable he is playing with some physicality. In that clip, Matthews made Jackson flip his hips in coverage, and gave him a little shove, but Jackson, at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, didn’t allow that to create too much separation, and in doing so was able to stick with Matthews as the ball was arriving for the pass break up.
That type of play style showed up when Jackson was moved to the outside, too.
In the clip directly above, Jackson was matched up on the outside on the left side of the defense. He was opposite Titans wide receiver Corey Davis. Davis was just trying to get vertical against Jackson, but as the two went stride for stride down the field, Jackson did not let Davis’ hand fighting get the better of him, and when the ball arrived, Jackson was right there to get his hand up and into the catch point to disrupt the pass.
Jackson is a player who is not bothered by physical play.
A good athlete for his size, Jackson also has adequate recovery speed. In the play above, Jackson was lined up as an outside cornerback against Kansas City Chiefs receiver Demarcus Robinson. On that play, the Chiefs were just trying to get Robinson to run a loose in route that allowed Robinson to get to the sticks for the first down, but also allowed him to continue to increase his momentum with each stride, as opposed to a hard cut. Jackson was able to stay with him the whole way to the point that he was even able to undercut the route and grab the interception.
Now, I do want to point out the fact that Jackson was a bit of an opportunist in 2019 to get as many interceptions as he did while not being a full-time starter. As you can see in the clip above, Jackson’s interception on that play was more due to the quarterback misjudging where to get the ball to the receiver deep down the field than it was an individual play by Jackson. However, he put himself in that area to capitalize on the poorly thrown ball.
The same can be said for his interception in the first meeting the Patriots had with the Buffalo Bills in 2019.
In the play above, Jackson was being used as the slot defender. The receiver’s job on that play was to get vertical and across the middle of the field, as to stress the single-high safety as well as beat Jackson down the field to the spot. The receiver did that, but Bills quarterback Josh Allen didn’t get the receiver the ball where he should have, and the result was Jackson catching up to the play for an opportunistic pick.
I don't want to take too much away from Jackson. I wanted to highlight his size, strength, and speed profiles before I got into those “lucky” interceptions to give you a baseline of him still being a talented secondary player.
A play that stood out to me the most as an honest review of where Jackson is as a player is shown above. In that play, Jackson was lined up as the outside cornerback on the right side of the defense. Jackson was playing with inside leverage on that play, meaning he wanted to keep everything between him and the sideline. If you watch the play a few times, Jackson saw the receiver chop his feet and flip his hips, and stopped his momentum about as quickly as the receiver did. But then there was that little hesitation as the quarterback released the ball that way.
The context of the play was 3rd-and-10, so Jackson did a nice job of not letting the receiver, who ran his route too short, get to the sticks. But I feel like with some more experience and confidence Jackson can jump that pass (as he did read it well) and make it an even better result, such as a pass break up or even an interception.
I also didn’t want to end this on a negative note, since the whole purpose of this article is to highlight how well Jackson has played over the last two years. This interception in the Cincinnati Bengals game was not one of luck or “right place right time,” but rather good coverage and some elite athleticism to turn his body, locate the ball, use his hands to bring it in, and use his body control to get his feet down. These plays exist in Jackson’s tape, too. I didn’t want that to be forgotten.
If Jackson’s playing time increases even more in 2020 and beyond, there’s a good chance his stats won’t be as good as they have been on a per-snap basis. But from what we’ve seen from Jackson in his first two seasons with New England, there is reason to be excited about him as a potential full-time starter as the Patriots’ CB2 opposite Gilmore.