This time last year, no one knew the commitment the Patriots were about to make to overhaul their roster. A record $160 million in guaranteed money later, the complexion of the 2021 roster was vastly different from the previous year.
Included in that spending spree was the addition of four defensive starters – Matthew Judon ($32 million guaranteed), Jalen Mills ($9 million guaranteed), Davon Godchaux ($9 million guaranteed) and familiar face Kyle Van Noy ($6 million guaranteed) – as well as role player Henry Anderson ($7 million guaranteed).
Regardless of position, role or contract, the message was clear: the team was willing to spend considerable money for players outside of the organization in order to improve the roster. That part is fine. It’s no secret there were multiple roster deficiencies that came to a head in 2020. An infusion of talent was sorely needed and Judon, Mills, Godchaux and Van Noy all played significant roles in the team’s return to the postseason. The verdict is still out on Anderson, who missed all but four games last season.
This time around, following a season that righted the proverbial ship in Foxboro, the Patriots are at a crossroads with a homegrown star that needs a new contract – cornerback J.C. Jackson.
The Patriots are no strangers to identifying players outside of the draft’s seven rounds and turning them into quality NFL players. They do it perhaps better than anyone, which is evident by their 18-year streak of an undrafted rookie making the initial roster out of training camp. But one could make the argument that Jackson has been the best of that bunch, and that’s including guys like David Andrews, Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones.
2021 was Jackson’s moment to showcase his potential as a true No. 1 cornerback following the injury and eventual trade of Stephon Gilmore. Similar to his breakout year in 2020, Jackson delivered this past season, hauling in an NFL-second-best eight interceptions while shadowing opponents’ top receivers week in and week out. But Jackson’s significance to the Patriots is not best told on the stat sheet.
In Jackson, the Patriots not only once again unlocked an undrafted player’s potential. They developed a homegrown player into an elite star at his position – in their building and on their time. After a year of opening up the wallet for starter-level talent from outside of the organization, what kind of message does it send to the rest of the roster, particularly its younger players, if you don’t keep Jackson around? What’s the reward for earning a roster spot, growing within the team’s system, developing into one of the NFL’s best at your position, serving as an anchor on the league’s second-best scoring defense and earning Pro Bowl honors? A contract elsewhere? Jackson is the type of player you keep and build around. Your superstar.
Jackson, only 26, has progressively improved his game since joining the organization as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland in 2018. And he presumably, and rightfully, wants to be paid in line with his top counterparts around the league, like those below.
Jalen Ramsey: $20 million average per year (APY)
Marlon Humphrey: $19.5 million APY
Marshon Lattimore: $19.4 APY
Tre’Davious White: $17.3 million APY
Darius Slay: $16.7 million APY
Byron Jones: $16.5 million APY
Where the Patriots view Jackson in that elite group is another story. The Patriots have not been afraid to reward their young talent with top-of-market contracts, albeit after letting them test the market. In recent memory, they did it for Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and Shaq Mason. They didn’t, however, for Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Trey Flowers, Joe Thuney or Butler.
PFF projects a four-year contract for Jackson at roughly $72 million ($56 million guaranteed), which would put him in that upper echelon amongst corners. It takes both sides to play ball, so perhaps a franchise tag is the bridge to an eventual extension.
Five years ago, the Patriots identified Stephon Gilmore as the next lockdown corner to build their defense around and jumped to pay him top dollar on the first day of free agency. Gilmore was just entering his prime, as Jackson is today. The difference is they already have Jackson in the building.
In November, Jackson told reporters, “I love playing for the New England Patriots, playing under coach Belichick. I have grown as a football player since I’ve been here … It’s a place that gave me a chance from Day 1. I would love to be a New England Patriot for a long time.”
Jackson delivered his message. What will the Patriots say in theirs?