An Appreciation for J.C. Jackson

When I heard that Stephon Gilmore would be out for at least the first 6 weeks of the 2021 season, I had some significant concerns for the New England Patriots secondary. The DB group is solid with Gilmore, but without their CB1 it forces everyone up the depth chart and seriously weakens the matchups across the field. I also questioned whether J.C. Jackson is a true #1 and would continue to be successful without having Gilmore on the other side of the field shutting down the opponent’s WR1. Now just 2 games into the season, my feelings are beginning to shift.

Let me preface by saying that I know the Patriots played the lowly New York Jets on Sunday so the stats will naturally be skewed, but I was still impressed by the play of J.C. Jackson. Looking back at his career, Jackson has 19 interceptions in just 47 games and of those 47 games, he technically only started 24 of them. It’s hard to argue against Jackson being one of the best undrafted rookie signings in recent memory with his ball-hawking nature.

Jackson had a monster year last season with 9 interceptions, but overall he has been near or at the top on the Patriots in interceptions and passes deflected over his 3+ seasons in the NFL. He has worked his way up the snap count every year, playing just 38% of the defensive snaps his rookie year in 2018, 68% in 2019, 84% in 2020, and 100% this year through 2 games. He has become an invaluable member of the secondary which seems to have had an impact on the Patriots’ negotiations with Stephon Gilmore.

“…The ninth pick of the season, I feel like I could have had more than that. But that’s a hell of a season, to have nine picks. I’ve just got to continue to grow and get better for the 2021 season.”

J.C. Jackson on his 2020 season

Looking beyond the Patriots and across the league, Jackson is leading the NFL with 2 interceptions in 2021 (through 2 games), finished 2nd in the NFL in interceptions in 2020 (1 behind Miami’s Xavien Howard) and tied for the 2nd most interceptions in 2019 with 5. He’s beginning to get some recognition across football as well, placing #49 in the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 NFL Players this offseason, just 2 spots behind Stephon Gilmore (the only 2 Patriots players to appear on the list).

Although Jackson isn’t yet the same shutdown CB1 that Gilmore has become, he is proving to be a more than capable of holding his own as the leader of the CB group and he’s only 25 years old. He should continue to get better each year and has forced himself into a position where he is an incredibly important piece to lock-up on a longer-term contract. He will have a tough test in week 4, as will the entire Patriots defense, when they play Tom Brady and his gazillion top tier receivers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I feel like I’m not even at my highest level yet. I’ve still got some room to improve and have some things I need to work on.”

J.C. Jackson in January 2021

Jackson is currently on a 1-year, $3.38 million contract that felt a little like a prove-it deal for this season. So far, in just 2 games (have I said that enough yet?), Jackson is proving to Bill Belichick that he can continue to learn and become the CB1 of the present and future. If that continues, I’m hoping the Patriots ownership will think long and hard about a multi-year deal to keep Jackson with the Patriots as a protection plan for when the 31-year old Gilmore decides to move on (or is not resigned). If Jackson hits free agency this offseason after a strong year, the Pats will probably not be able to pay him what others teams might leaving them in huge trouble in the secondary.

With the likely retirement of Devin McCourty in the next year or two and the likely departure of Stephon Gilmore, the Pats need to be planning for the future in the secondary. They have the next-person-up already on the roster, the time is now to lock him up for the next several years.

Is this the end for Stephon Gilmore in a Pats uniform?

One of the biggest stories in training camp and the preseason for the New England Patriots was the status of CB Stephon Gilmore. He’s an elite defender and and critical piece in the secondary for the Pats, but has yet to step on the field this year and now won’t until at least week 7 because he’s on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. There has been some clear animosity and contract issues with Gilmore this offseason and it feels like the standoff between Bill Belichick and Gilmore will not end well for the Pats.

The 30-year old Gilmore’s 2020 season ended early after a quad injury that led to surgery and lots of offseason rehab. His actual health now remains somewhat of a question since no one has seen him on the field in months. Due to a contract dispute and seemingly a disagreement on a contract extension and contract value, he’s in the last year of his deal, Gilmore was a holdout and missed OTAs and minicamp earlier this year. He reported to Gillette Stadium in July to end the holdout, but was then placed on the PUP list, where he has remained since.

Gilmore is slated to make $7 million this season, after $13 million last year, based on the way his contract was structured when he signed the 5-yr $65 million deal in 2017 with the Pats. It seems that Gilmore assumed that if his performance was still high, they would renegotiate the last year of his deal (this year) and potentially talk about an extension, but it appears the Pats haven’t made a generous-enough offer to satisfy him (or any offer depending on who you believe). From the outside, it appears the relationship has eroded to the point of Bill Belichick trying to prove that he doesn’t need Gilmore to be successful.

The most frustrating piece to me is that Gilmore is a top-tier CB in the league and seems to just be asking to be paid a more reasonable salary. At $7 million, it puts his contract on par with Jonathan Jones as the 27th highest paid CB in the league (strictly by salary, not cap hit). Gilmore is definitely a top-10 CB, if not a top-5 or even top-3 talent and he knows that. Even as he approaches 31 this week, Gilmore is incredibly valuable on a short-term deal if healthy, which is the big question.

“I just want what I’m worth, however is plays out. Every player should be paid what they’re worth. That’s just how it is.”

Stephon Gilmore in July 2021

To me this just screams mismanagement from the Patriots ownership. With Gilmore healthy and back in the lineup, the Pats are a serious contender and can make a big playoff push. Without him, it’s yet to be seen, but it’s a significantly weaker secondary that may struggle against top passing games. It forces the Pats to rely more heavily on CBs like Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams who are decent as your depth 4th or 5th corners, but get exposed as a 2nd or 3rd behind CB J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones. It also puts more pressure on SS Devin McCourty to help in coverage.

If Gilmore is really injured and there is a deal in place once he’s healthy for him to come back, then great, but as of now things seem to be trending toward a messy separation. I think we have already seen Gilmore’s last game in a Pats uniform, but boy do I hope I’m wrong.

Top 5 Headlines for the New England Patriots as the Season Begins

It has definitely been an interesting offseason for the New England Patriots. Between a QB competition unlike anything we have seen in decades in Foxboro to the #1 defensive player in an odd holdout/injury situation, there has been plenty of storylines surrounding the New England Patriots. For those who aren’t following the daily comings and goings of the franchise like I do, let’s take a look at the major headlines and their potential impact in 2021 as the season kicks off this week.

1. Rookie QB Mac Jones Takes the Reins

Arguably the most talked about story this training camp and preseason was the QB competition. Incumbent Cam Newton appeared to have the edge right up until the 53-man roster was selected and he was released from the team. By all accounts, Mac Jones outperformed Cam both on and off the field this offseason, proving he was ready to lead the team despite being drafted just over 130 days ago in the 1st round of the 2021 draft. The University of Alabama QB has looked poised, calm, and confident in the limited preseason playing time we’ve seen from him and appears to have the support of the Patriots offense, which is incredibly important.

While Cam Newton provided the Pats with more offense on the ground, Mac Jones seems to have the stronger and more accurate arm. The largest difference between Mac and Cam based on my observation is decision-making. Mac has shown he can make a quick decision and get rid of the ball, unlike Cam who tends to hold on to it longer than maybe needed, leading to more scrambles and broken plays. Mac is just a rookie who will be starting his first game on Sunday, so expectations may be high, but should be tempered. He will make mistakes, but hopefully will continue to learn from them and should have a pretty high ceiling in this Pats system.

2. The Stephon Gilmore Saga

The Patriots top secondary talent, and maybe top overall defensive talent, Stephon Gilmore has had an eventful offseason off the field, but a silent one on the field. Here’s the high-level summary of the situation: Gilmore is unhappy with his $7 million per year contract because he is one of the best DBs in football, but isn’t being paid like it. He’s in the last year of his contract and started training camp in July by holding out, essentially just deciding not to show up until a deal was done. No deal was agreed to, so he appeared in Foxboro, but was immediately added to the PUP (physically unable to participate) list. A quad injury and surgery ended his 2020 season, but it’s unclear whether he is really still injured or just using it to continue to hold out.

Then, after not appearing with the team in any practices or games, Gilmore was placed on the PUP list to start the regular season, which means he will be out until at least week 7. Meanwhile, Gilmore is posting pictures on social media on vacation while the rest of the team is busting their butts in practice. The whole situation is a complete mess and was botched by the Patriots. Gilmore is an elite talent and I would guess the entire holdout situation could have been avoided with a small pay raise and perhaps a year or two extension, something that is definitely within the ability of the Patriots to complete.

The impact on the defense will be significant, because the absence of Gilmore pushes every other DB up on the depth chart and that chart gets thin rather quickly without him. This weird game of chicken could seriously hurt the Patriots this season. At this point, there is a real possibility that Gilmore will never wear the Patriots uniform in-game again, which would be a huge shame and massively disappointing.

3. The Four-Headed Running Back Depth

One of the few position groups that had a surprisingly huge spring and summer was the running back group. The 3rd year back out of, you guessed it, the University of Alabama Damien Harris came into camp as the clear #1 who should get the majority of the snaps. Entering training camp, there was a group of guys, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, James White, and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson all fighting for the other running back spots on the roster. After being the lead back in 2018 and 2019, Michel appeared to be on the outs with the coaching staff and in fact was traded to the Los Angeles Rams toward the end of the preseason to make room for the other guys.

While Harris maintained his grip on RB1, Taylor and Stevenson shined in the preseason and both showed the tremendous value they can bring to this team as both change-of-pace backs, but also as subs in case of injury. Taylor is tiny, by football standards, listed at 5’6″ and 185lbs. His small size makes him difficult to find behind the massive offensive linemen and his quickness is a huge asset as well as his special teams ability. He’ll probably see significant time in the return game throughout the season. Stevenson is in stark contrast to Taylor listed at 6′ and 227lbs, he has breakaway speed, but is also a tough, physical back. He did dislocate his thumb in practice this week, but could still play in week 1. They will likely not play Stevenson as much, giving him some opportunities, but barring injuries, I think they’ll take it easier with him to start the season.

White is an interesting back who has been around for awhile. He’s essentially more of a WR coming out of the back field, so will probably get some 3rd down touches and see more action in the passing game. Some weeks he’ll play like an RB2 and other weeks more like RB4 depending on the game plan for the week. They also have a Bill Belichick favorite in Brandon Bolden on the roster. He’s another guy who will likely have an impact on special teams, which is a huge plus in Belichick’s book. I imagine he will see the rare running back reps, but frankly hope they are limited given the other 4 talented players in that position.

4. The Pass-Rush Improvement

For anyone who has been an ardent supporter of the Patriots, there was a clear lack of pass-rush on last year’s team. There are several reasons, one of the biggest being the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower last season due to COVID, but also because the team lacked the overall personnel on the front 7 to get pressure on the QB. The Patriots addressed this issue in a big way this offseason, drafting DT Christian Barmore in the 2nd round this year out of, your guessed it, the University of Alabama. He has come in and looked really strong stuffing the run and getting pressure on the opposing QB. Alongside Barmore, Belichick signed 6’3″, 311lbs DT Davon Godchaux to stuff the middle and get pressure. As good as Barmore is, he’s likely 3rd best DT behind Lawrence Guy and Godchaux, which is a great place to be as a Pats fan.

On the outside, maybe the most important free agent signing this offseason was LB Matt Judon. The former Raven is a pass-rushing LB who can single-handedly disrupt the opponents offense. He’s big, athletic, and has already shown his ability get to the QB with regularity this preseason. Add back in Dont’a Hightower and the return of former Pats LB Kyle Van Noy, and that’s a pretty impressive rotation. On the end, the team returns LE Deatrich Wise Jr. and new addition RE Henry Anderson to complete the powerful front line. Opponents should have some trouble running against this front line and the opposing QB should taste some dirt, which is important given the secondary question marks.

5. Improved Receiving Options

One of the most glaring issues in 2020 was the lack of receiving options. WR N’Keal Harry didn’t step up the way the team had hoped and they were left with basically WR Jakobi Meyers as the main option for Cam Newton. The TE group was even more suspect, with no one being able to stay on the field or produce when healthy. This offseason, the Patriots clearly made that a priority and signed the 2 best TEs on the market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Both are legit #1 options if healthy, but both have has some injury issues in the past and in training camp/preseason. Smith has been on the field more regularly, but if they both can be healthy and play at the same time, it’s trouble for opposing defenses.

In the WR core, the Pats added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, who are nice depth pieces. They are looking at Agholor to play a bigger role that perhaps I would, but if the TEs are healthy, there are solid options across the field. Add in the pass-catching ability of James White and hopefully Damien Harris and it leads to a ton of 5-10 yard passes for Mac Jones in his rookie season. N’Keal Harry went down with an injury late in the preseason that landed him on IR, which means he won’t be able to return until at least week 4, but he could be a contributor once he returns. Overall, this group has definitely improved, although many fans will argue Belichick didn’t do enough in this area this offseason.

The Mac Jones Era Begins in New England

There are usually some surprises on cut-down day when every NFL team needs to trim their rosters significantly down to a 53-man roster. Rarely are the significant surprises coming out of the New England Patriots camp, but today was a clear exception. After an entire preseason with QB Cam Newton being positioned as the starter and starting all 3 preseason games, Bill threw us all a curveball. Around 10am this morning the news came down that Cam Newton had been released by the New England Patriots, clearly paving the way for the Mac Jones era to begin. There is no better way for Bill Belichick to make a statement about his confidence in Mac Jones as QB1 than to cut his competition.

Its incredibly uncommon for Bill to trust a rookie at a major position, especially QB. On top of the fact that QB is one of the most pivotal positions on the field, it was also a shortened preseason this year with one less game to evaluate players. All the reports out of Patriots camp were that teammates liked Mac and were impressed by him on and off the field, but there is always a lot of fluff talk before the season starts and it’s hard to know what to really believe. As it turns out, Bill really did feel that way and was clearly impressed by the young QB in order to hand the reigns to him before his first NFL game.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, and as recently as yesterday, Mac Jones should be QB1. What no one expected was Bill making that decision. The most common word used this morning amongst those in the know in Foxboro was “shocked”. While some felt Bill would bench Cam and start Mac to start the season, most still believed, me included, that Bill would begin the season with Cam and depending on results move on to Mac later in the season. I don’t think there was a single person who could have predicted Cam Newton would be released this morning and not even make the 53-man roster.

Now that the shock is beginning to wear off, it’s time to focus our attention on the rookie QB and his debut September 12th. This is his team now and he should feel empowered to be smart and play his game. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and wonder if one mistake will see him on the bench. The coaching staff is not going to ask him to throw for 400 yards every week and score 6 TDs, but they need him to be a smart game manager, limit the mistakes, take advantage of opportunities for a big play, and play with confidence. The defense is weaker without CB Stephon Gilmore for the first 6 weeks, so they will likely need at least 3 scores each week to have a chance to win.

If he can complete short passes and move the chains through the air, it will open up the potent running game for the Pats and in turn, reduce the pressure on Mac. The offense is poised to be really solid as currently constituted without Mac throwing deep bombs and trying to force too many throws. If he continues his calm, cool confidence from the preseason, this could be a fun team to watch this season.