New England Patriots: J.C. Jackson will determine path of Pats offseason

J.C. Jackson #27 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
J.C. Jackson #27 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots offseason is officially underway. With the Los Angeles Rams being crowned the champion of Super Bowl LVI, it’s time to close the book on the 2021 season and begin preparations for the 2022 season.

For the Patriots, this is a crucial offseason. They had a solid 2021 campaign that helped wash the bad taste from the previous season out of their mouths, but it’s clear there is still a lot of work to do in order to get this team to the next level. Revamping an aging defense and getting second year quarterback Mac Jones more help are two of the biggest items on the to-do list this offseason.

It’s going to be tough for New England to have the offseason they need to have though. They have limited cap space to begin with, and a number of their key players are set to hit the open market. Getting better is tough to begin with, but doing so with limited money is even tougher.

There are many different ways the offseason could go for the Pats, but as we transition from the postseason to free agency, there’s one person who has almost total control over how the offseason goes, and that is star cornerback J.C. Jackson. Jackson is one of New England’s top players set to hit the market, and how the team handles his impending free agency could completely change the course of the offseason.

The New England Patriots offseason depends on what they decide to do with J.C. Jackson

Assuming Jackson hits the free agent market, he would be the top cornerback available. Jackson has transformed into a top tier cornerback over the past two seasons, and he capped things off with his first Pro Bowl appearance and a spot on the All-Pro Second Team. Jackson is an elite ballhawk (17 interceptions over the past two seasons) who proved this season he can lockdown any receiver not named Stefon Diggs when called upon.

Jackson is the New England Patriots top cornerback, and losing him would be a potentially fatal blow for a secondary that could also be without veteran safety Devin McCourty come next season. There’s no clear replacement for him on the roster, meaning if he leaves, someone is going to have to be brought in to replace him. Considering how many other areas of this roster need work, that’s not an ideal scenario for the Pats.

The reason Jackson has so much power over the Patriots offseason is simple. Jackson is a clear cut top corner, and without him, New England quickly has a new top position of need this offseason. That piles on top of needs for wide receivers, linebackers, and interior defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the list. So why not just pay Jackson what he’s looking for and move on?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Despite Jackson openly saying he wants to stay in New England, reports have stated he’s intent on hitting the open market, and he even turned down an extension offer midway through the 2021 season. Jackson knows he’s set to be the best cornerback on the market, and while the Patriots probably didn’t lowball him on their extension offer, he wants to see what his value is for the rest of the 31 teams in the NFL.

That would send the Patriots to a bidding war, and that might be a war they won’t win. While they have a lot of ways to clean up their salary cap, New England only has a bit over $7 million in cap space right now, which obviously won’t cut it when it comes to a new deal for Jackson. If New England clears up enough cap space for Jackson, they would have to use a large chunk of it to bring him back, which creates other issues for the team.

Unless something drastic is done, re-signing Jackson will severely limit what the New England Patriots are able to accomplish this offseason. You can throw out a top wide receiver and a star linebacker because it simply wouldn’t be plausible. The team could conceivably franchise tag Jackson, but at this point it seems like that would just be delaying his inevitable departure, and it would still take up a big chunk of the salary cap.

If Jackson were to leave in free agency, that would mean New England’s top priority would have to be replacing him. Jalen Mills is still onboard for next season, and Jonathan Jones will make a welcome return after missing a good chunk of the season, but neither are going to be able to lock up a top receiver. Signing another free agent would seem like a foolish move if you are letting Jackson walk, so it would probably become an issue addressed early in the draft.

That also takes away from what the Pats could do to fill other positions. Using a first round draft pick on a cornerback wouldn’t be the worst thing, but in a world where Jackson returns, it could conceivably be used in a trade to bring in another top player. Free agency would be more productive for the most part, but you aren’t going to be able to find a replacement for Jackson there.

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The New England Patriots held off on extending Jackson for a couple of seasons, and it has come back to bite them. They could simply let Jackson walk, but there’s no denying the defense would be worse off as a result. But even if you re-sign him, you essentially are destroying the rest of your offseason plan.

There’s not a perfect solution to the Jackson situation, and unfortunately, the result of the situation will play a big role in what the offseason looks like for the Patriots.