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Patriots In A Tough Spot With J.C. Jackson Entering Free Agency

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- When it comes to the cornerback position, Bill Belichick has a long history of both valuing it extremely high and being willing to say farewell to some top performers. It's that history, blended with the Patriots' current picture on defense, that makes the forthcoming decision on J.C. Jackson so intriguing.

Jackson is, by all measures, due to make a lot of money. He's a free agent at age 26. He's picked off 17 passes over the past two seasons. He hasn't missed a game since 2018. He led the league in pass defenses this past season with 23, and he set a career high with 44 solo tackles and 58 total tackles. He had a top five PFF grade, and he'll be among the three top cornerbacks on the free-agent market -- along with Carlton Davis and Stephon Gilmore.

But will he get that massive pay day from the Patriots?

The initial inclination is to say no. While Jackson's ball skills are undeniable, he's not a shutdown cornerback. While he obviously had no issues getting his picks this season, the reality is the Patriots were able to better maximize his talents when they had Stephon Gilmore locking up No. 1 receivers. That was when Jackson was being maximized.

When Jackson has had to assume that No. 1 cornerback role, the results haven't been as consistent. That obviously showed itself in the Patriots' embarrassing playoff loss in Buffalo, when Stefon Diggs once again got the better of the cornerbacks.

That's not to indicate that Jackson is a bad cornerback. Not at all.

One doesn't find himself atop such lists without being a world class athlete with some unteachable instincts.

The question the Patriots have to ask is whether Jackson is the type of player for whom the team has opened the purse strings in the past.

The team did throw big money at Gilmore as a free agent, and paid a hefty price for one year of Darrelle Revis' services. The team was happy to usher Malcolm Butler -- who, like, Jackson, rose from being an undrafted rookie to a top-of-the-class free agent -- out the door. Dipping back into ancient history, Bill Belichick didn't pay to keep Ty Law in the fold after his injury-shortened 2004 season, opting to go with the younger duo of Asante Samuel and rookie Ellis Hobbs.

It's there that perhaps the best comparison can be found for Jackson. Asante Samuel had elite ball skills and always managed to be in the right place at the right time to make game-changing interceptions. His technique was not perfect, he took plenty of risks, but he also produced. Samuel also won a Super Bowl in his rookie season, just like Jackson did.

When it came time to pay Samuel coming off his NFL-leading 10-interception season in 2006, the Patriots balked, instead opting to place the franchise tag on him. The Samuel camp wasn't thrilled about that, and eventually a deal was hammered out that stated Samuel would play out the 2007 season on the franchise tag, with the Patriots agreeing to not re-use the tag again in 2008.

It was a good agreement for both sides, with Samuel starting 16 regular-season games and all three playoff games for New England (even though his final act in a Patriots uniform was unfortunate) before cashing in with a big-money deal from the Eagles.

That unique setup likely won't present itself for the Patriots this time, and it's also fair to wonder how the team feels about paying Jackson the $17.5 million for one season under the franchise tag. With limited cap space -- under $4 million at the moment, according to Patriots salary cap aficionado Miguel Benzan, though the team will surely be finding some more space -- the dedication of No. 1 cornerback money to a corner who more falls into the 1A category may not be what's needed.

At the same time, without Jackson, the Patriots' secondary looks rather ordinary. The return of Jonathan Jones should help, but he was at his best as a slot corner, with Gilmore and Jackson as the traditional outside defenders. Jalen Mills was fine but unspectacular in his first season in New England, but the depth is lacking. Perhaps Myles Bryant will follow a Butler-like or Jackson-like ascent into a key role, but that of course requires some wishful thinking. And the depth was so strained by the end of the year that Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel and De'Vante Bausby were all on the field in their playoff loss in Buffalo.

The cornerback cupboard isn't exactly stocked in New England. Which only makes the predicament trickier for all involved.

Already with needs at linebacker and receiver, will the Patriots pay the premium price to avoid adding corner to that list? The answer to that question will have to be where the offseason begins for Bill Belichick.

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