J.C. Jackson, NY Jets, Contract, PFF, Free Agent
J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Getty Images

J.C. Jackson could change everything for the New York Jets defense, but enough to be worth an enormous contract?

After a season in which the New York Jets defense ranked 30th in the NFL with a microscopic total of seven interceptions (including just two by cornerbacks), it’s no wonder that many fans have turned their attention to free-agent cornerback J.C. Jackson, one of the greatest takeaway artists in the league today.

The four-year New England Patriot has been one of the Jets’ greatest nemeses since he entered the league in 2018. Jackson owns five interceptions in eight games against New York.

A former undrafted free agent who played college football at three schools, Jackson is now among the most feared cornerbacks in the NFL and will enter unrestricted free agency at 26 years old (he’ll turn 27 in November). Jackson is poised to earn one of the biggest contracts of any player on the open market this year.

Should the Jets attempt to lure Jackson out of New England?

Will Jackson even be available?

Firstly, we should address the fact that Jackson is not a lock to become available. Jackson is a candidate for the franchise tag, which would cost the Patriots a projected $17.3 million in the 2022 season.

However, ESPN’s Patriots reporter, Mike Reiss, recently stated the following regarding Jackson’s odds of being tagged:

“The window for teams to assign the franchise tag on players has opened and extends to March 8, with cornerback J.C. Jackson the likely only candidate to strongly consider in New England. A tag would be a projected $17.3 million for the 2022 season. Unless the Patriots believe they have a strong tag-and-trade possibility, I rate the odds of them tagging Jackson as low.”

So, it appears Jackson might actually have a good chance of hitting the open market.

How much will Jackson cost?

The title of this article isn’t hyperbole. A record-setting deal is truly what it could take to acquire Jackson’s services.

Spotrac estimates that Jackson will earn a five-year, $104.7 million deal ($20.9 million per year). It would be the largest contract in history for a cornerback, breaking the records currently held by Jalen Ramsey’s active five-year, $100 million deal ($20 million per year).

Perhaps Jackson will end up costing slightly less than that, but even so, Jackson would still cost a truckload of money.

Jackson will eat up a mammoth chunk of his new team’s cap space. Is he good enough to warrant such an investment? Let’s dive into his game and find out.

League-best takeaway production

Without a doubt, the most appealing aspect of Jackson’s game is his ability to take the football away.

Jackson is in his own stratosphere when it comes to interceptions. He has an NFL-high 22 interceptions since 2019, six more than any other player over that span. With nine picks in 2020 and eight more in 2021, he is the first player with back-to-back seasons of 8+ interceptions since Richard Sherman from 2012-13.

Here’s a wild way to put it: Jackson had more interceptions than three teams in 2021 (including the Jets) and four teams in 2020. Over the past two seasons combined, he has more picks (17) than the Las Vegas Raiders and Carolina Panthers (16 each).

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Elite on-ball playmaking

Jackson’s playmaking ability is not limited to interceptions. He breaks up plenty of passes, too.

In 2021, Jackson led the NFL with 23 passes defended. He’s tied for second in the NFL with 47 passes defended since 2019.

Jackson’s excellent PD totals legitimize his interception production. It’s not as if he is lucking out with an inordinate amount of interceptions relative to how often he gets to the football (see the Jets’ Marcus Williams in 2015, who had an incredibly unsustainable ratio of 6 INTs to 10 PDs). Jackson finds the football very often, so he should have a good chance of continuing to rack up picks.

Overall coverage performance

Interceptions and pass breakups do not tell the whole story. Some players (like Dallas’ Trevon Diggs) sacrifice a ton of yardage to the opponent in exchange for the highlight plays that they make.

Jackson is not one of those players. In the midst of making all of his own big plays, he keeps his man locked down.

Here are Jackson’s coverage stats over the course of his career, per Pro Football Focus:

  • 1,814 coverage snaps
  • 278 targets
  • 144 receptions
  • 1,809 yards
  • 9 touchdowns
  • 25 interceptions

And here are Jackson’s efficiency statistics in coverage, along with the 2021 NFL averages among cornerbacks for comparison:

  • 1.00 yard per cover snap (2021 NFL CB average: 1.08)
  • 6.5 yards per target (2021 NFL CB average: 7.6)
  • 51.8% completion rate (2021 NFL CB average: 64.1%)
  • 0.4-to-1 TD-INT ratio (2021 NFL CB average: 2.3-to-1)
  • 45.7 passer rating (2021 NFL CB average: 94.9)
  • 3.2% TD/target ratio (2021 NFL CB average: 5.0%)
  • 9.0% INT/target ratio (2021 NFL CB average: 2.2%)

As you can see, Jackson still soars beyond the positional average when it comes to preventing yards, completions, and touchdowns – both on a per-target and a per-snap basis. He’s the complete package.

Man/zone splits

Jackson comes from a Patriots defense that uses man coverage more than just about any team in the NFL.

In 2021, Jackson played man coverage on 47.7% of his coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus, ranking third-highest among qualified cornerbacks. He only trailed the Dolphins’ Justin Coleman and Nik Needham, who played under Bill Belichick’s disciple, Brian Flores. Man coverage clearly remains the hallmark of the Belichick defense.

While Jackson’s bread-and-butter is his man coverage, he thrives in zone, too.

Jackson allowed a 30.4 passer rating in zone coverage this past season, ranking second-best among qualified cornerbacks behind Atlanta’s A.J. Terrell. His 44.0 passer rating in man coverage ranked eighth-best.

In 2020, Jackson ranked seventh-best out of 118 qualified cornerbacks with a 51.1 passer rating allowed in zone coverage, while he only ranked 27th with a 79.1 passer rating allowed in man coverage.

Thriving without Stephon Gilmore

Earlier in Jackson’s career, there were questions as to whether his success was partially a product of getting to play on the opposite side of Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.

Jackson quelled those doubts with a strong 2021 season as New England’s top dog at cornerback.

With Gilmore out of the picture, Jackson snagged eight picks and led the league with 23 passes defended (as we discussed previously).

Those numbers are impressive, but what matters most is that he maintained great numbers in coverage.

Teams challenged Jackson a lot, throwing 98 targets his way (4th-most of any CB), and he proved worthy of the increased responsibility. Jackson allowed just 6.5 yards per target (equal to his career average) and a 47.8 passer rating on throws in his direction (3rd-best among qualified CB).

Run defense

There isn’t much of note to say about Jackson’s run defense. His numbers in the run game don’t stand out as particularly good or bad.

Jackson’s composite PFF run-defense grade over his career is 63.6. That would have ranked 44th out of 92 qualified cornerbacks in 2021 (53rd percentile).

Durability

Jackson has never missed an NFL game due to injury. He was a healthy scratch in three games as a rookie but has not missed a game otherwise.

Is J.C. Jackson worth it for New York?

Jackson has arguably the best coverage resume of any active cornerback in the NFL. He takes the ball away better than anyone else in the league and still holds his opponents to lackluster production.

Plus, Jackson can play well in any coverage scheme, is in his prime, and offers a perfect track record of durability.

Jackson’s profile is about as perfect as you will ever see for a free agent cornerback.

Of course, when a player’s profile is that good, it just means that you have to part with quite a bit of dough to get him in your building. Jackson deserves the possibly record-setting deal he is likely about to receive.

Some team out there will happily sign Jackson to that deal – but will the Jets be that team?

Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh both have histories of refraining from using premium assets on the cornerback position. Last year, the Jets entered the offseason with a clear need at cornerback but ended up throwing three unproven Day-3 picks onto the field for the entire season, adding zero veterans or pre-fifth-round picks into the competition.

The decision lined up with the backgrounds and philosophies of the two men. Both have openly admitted many times that they prefer to build a football team from the inside-out, believing that the trench players assist the rest of the team more than vice versa. Saleh was a part of teams in Seattle and San Francisco that forged defensive success by investing heavily in the trenches and lightly in the secondary.

I would wager that signing Jackson is not something that aligns with the Jets’ collective vision. But, who knows – perhaps they are open to spending premium assets on the cornerback position and have just been waiting for the right time (and player) to strike.

When it comes to evaluating the Jackson-Jets proposition in a vacuum (ignoring the likelihood of it happening), it is just a matter of personal preference regarding the cornerback spot.

If you are a strong believer in the value of the cornerback position, you should be on board with the Jets signing Jackson. Yes, he will be extremely expensive, but he’s as good as it gets at the position right now.

If you are someone whose philosophies align with Douglas and Saleh, then it would be perfectly fine to make the case that there are more efficient ways for the Jets to allocate their resources than by pouring $20 million per year into one cornerback.

J.C. Jackson is great enough to warrant a mega-deal in free agency. The player himself is not the issue here – it’s whether the player’s position and cost align with the Jets’ team-building philosophies.

We’ll just have to wait and see if Jackson is the type of player that the Jets would feel comfortable about breaking the bank for.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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Robert
Robert
6 months ago

4th or 10th Draft pick extremely low cost. Is Jackson worth the use of $18+M for other free agents or signing your own?

BigJetsFan1
BigJetsFan1
6 months ago

I am all about the offense. Our offense has been mainly offensive since Namath. He threw for 4007 yards in 1967. He did this in 14 games! 54 years later, we haven’t had a qb throw for more. If I was the owner, I would say to the coach to somehow, some way beat that passing record in the next 2 years. This is a passing league. The league has obviously passed us by.

Remember that football is entertainment. It is so entertaining to move the chains and score touchdowns. At the end of the day, the team that scores the most points wins before the clock runs out. Let’s have a top 5 offensive line. Let’s have a top 5 passing game. This keeps their offense off the field anyway.

The receiver mostly gets the pass interference calls, especially big name players. Let’s get a true #1 in FA or trade. Let’s get a great WR in round 2. I’m all in on Ekwonu with 4, Linderbaum at 10, then McBride and a WR in 2. Let’s get Ruckert as well and a RB. Let’s go JETS!!!!!

Jets71
Jets71
6 months ago
Reply to  BigJetsFan1

I agree with you 100%. This is an offensive league, and there is too much advantage to be loading up on D. I like Ekwonu at 4, Garrett Wilson at 10. Then a TE. I have said it many times, scoring 30 pts a game will do wonders for the defense. They can wait a year to build the D. Get Zach loaded up with talent around him.

BigJetsFan1
BigJetsFan1
6 months ago
Reply to  Jets71

Amen, Jets71! Here’s to 30 points a game and a high-flying Jets offense!

Jets71
Jets71
6 months ago

I was all on the Jackson bandwagon for most of the season, but I have changed my position totally. As you pointed out this guy is as good as it gets and yet the offense still has too much advantage. I don’t see the CB position in the same way as I did in the past. Even the “best of the best” get beat (or I have witness getting beat) by the top WR’s. Put pressure, make the QB uncomfortable and keep him thinking is the way to go. I’m not saying you don’t need good CB’s and the Jets certainly need a HUGE upgrade (Hall is overrated) but I wouldn’t spend that much on a CB no matter how good.

2iron
2iron
6 months ago
Reply to  Jets71

Totally agree. I think it’s to early to commit that much to 1 player. they still have too many holes to fill to do that. Amazing though how Belichick can find these guys. UFA. If it’s a guy that will put you over the top, maybe, but Cincy proved last year, which Saleh and Douglas agreed with, don’t over spend but fill positions with functional players that fit your scheme. Leave some flexibility for when you need it. Excited for the draft and what they do in FA.