NFL

J.C. Jackson faces uncertain future with Patriots after tough playoff outing

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. J.C.’s future: Coach Bill Belichick didn’t diminish the importance of evaluating the Patriots’ 47-17 playoff loss to the Bills, but also said it’s important to take a longer view of things when making decisions for the future.

Perhaps no player highlights this balancing act more than cornerback J.C. Jackson.

On a night the defense turned in what might have been the worst performance in Belichick’s 22 years as coach, Jackson had probably the worst game of his four-year career. His technique playing the ball in the air faltered. There were coverage breakdowns in Cover 3 zone calls. His interest in shedding blocks and tackling didn’t seem high.

And now comes the question: How much stock does Belichick put into the game when determining Jackson’s future with the team?

Jackson, a second-team All-Pro selection after totaling eight interceptions during the regular season (now 25 for his career), is scheduled for unrestricted free agency.

“J.C. Jackson looked like he wanted to get the heck out of there healthy and go to free agency and try to make a bunch of money. Which he will,” ESPN analyst Rob Ninkovich said on former teammate Chris Long’s “Green Light” podcast.

There’s always the possibility the Patriots and Jackson reach agreement on a contract extension before the start of free agency March 16. But once a player makes it through a season healthy, and there’s a chance to test the open market and maximize earnings, it usually takes a sweet deal (or an overwhelming desire to stay put) for him to sign before then.

That’s why it seldom happens that way in New England — or anywhere in the NFL.

A franchise tag for Jackson projects at $17.28 million on a one-year term. This reporter has been all over the map — a 15-yard flag for inconsistency is justified — on whether that might happen.

After Jackson’s playoff performance, it now feels like a longer-odds scenario to me that he would be tagged.

2. One clear voice on D? How Belichick addresses the defense immediately became a top storyline following what longtime safety Devin McCourty described as an “embarrassing” playoff loss to the Bills. Ninkovich, on the “Green Light” podcast with Long, shared his opinion that the group would benefit from a clear-cut defensive coordinator.

“I think that’s key. You can’t have a jury of defensive coordinators and minds of how to play defense,” he said. “You have to have the clear-cut general — ‘This is how we’re doing it, this is the type of scheme we’re going to run, this is our game plan.’ Then the players follow that and I think there’s more confidence.”

Belichick has always been heavily involved, as evidenced by the weekly TV shots of him on the sideline flipping through pictures. Then there’s outside linebackers coach/playcaller Steve Belichick, inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and even special assistant Matt Patricia.

“I think that tears at the players a certain way and doesn’t give them the confidence to go out there and play fast,” Ninkovich said on the podcast.

3. Phillips’ remarks: Of all the comments made by players in the aftermath of the playoff loss, safety Adrian Phillips‘ stood out to me. He acknowledged the season changed after the Dec. 12 bye week — he wasn’t sure why — and then said of meeting the physical challenge against the Bills in the playoffs: “I think physically we were there. I think mentally we just weren’t in the right space to go out there and make those plays … For us, we just dropped the ball on that part. I think that’s what the difference was.”

How were the Patriots not mentally in the right space for a playoff game?

Before Belichick can move forward to the 2022 season, and start building the team, this seems like the only place he should start. Without an answer to that question, not much else seems to matter.

4. Lining up the picks: ESPN senior analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s first mock draft — which had the Patriots taking Alabama receiver Jameson Williams at No. 21 — served up a reminder to become more familiar with the team’s entire haul of picks.

  • First round

  • Second round

  • Third round

  • Fourth round

  • Sixth round

  • Sixth round (from Rams)

The fifth-rounder went to the Raiders in exchange for offensive tackle Trent Brown, and the three seventh-round picks the Patriots once owned were traded as part of deals for receiver Isaiah Ford (Dolphins), offensive tackle Yasir Durant (Chiefs) and Shaun Wade (Ravens).

The team is not projected to receive any compensatory draft picks after its big-spending offseason in 2021.

Looking ahead, the Patriots get a fourth-rounder from the Rams in 2023 (as part of the Sony Michel deal) and a sixth-rounder from the Panthers in 2023 (as part of the Stephon Gilmore deal). They traded their 2023 fifth-rounder to the Ravens (as part of the deal for Wade).

5. Mac perspective: Kiper doesn’t have a quarterback in the top 10 of his mock draft, which of course can always change as the draft nears. But the initial snapshot provides context on how this year’s QB crop isn’t considered close to last year’s, when five went within the first 15 picks. It highlights how fortunate the Patriots were to land Mac Jones, as sitting at 21 this year and still looking for a QB would be a tough scenario.

6. Front-office depth: With director of player personnel Dave Ziegler (Raiders) and consultant Eliot Wolf (Bears/Vikings) interviewing for general manager jobs across the NFL, the Patriots could potentially lose two of their top front-office staffers. That would hurt given the positive direction things seem headed after a productive 2021 draft. It would test the depth of the personnel staff, with national scout Matt Groh and pro scouting director Steve Cargile top internal candidates to rise based on what Belichick said about them over the past year.

7. Salute to the wives: Veteran tight end Hunter Henry was asked what he learned about himself in his first season in New England, and his answer in an “exit interview” with reporters was heartfelt, highlighting the sacrifices his wife, Parker, made throughout a year “with a lot of life changes.”

Parker was pregnant with the couple’s first child (a son, Ace, born in December) as Henry himself spent the offseason training in New England. And then she packed up all their belongings and coordinated everything for a relocation from Los Angeles to New England, before managing a newborn mostly on her own during the homestretch of the season/playoffs.

“I think the biggest thing for me is her,” Henry said. “She’s the one who held everything together. I love her to death and am super thankful to have her in my life.”

8. Jennings’ lost year: Linebacker Anfernee Jennings, a 2020 third-round pick from Alabama, was a forgotten man this season after landing on injured reserve at the end of training camp and staying there all season. He falls into a similar category as Chase Winovich (2019 third round) and Josh Uche (2020 second round) as Day 2 picks on defense who should be part of the Patriots’ core going forward, but whose futures with the team are instead more uncertain. Jennings didn’t arrive for 2021 training camp in peak physical condition, so a good sign of a possible bounce-back in 2022 will be if he changes his offseason approach.

9. Meyers’ tender: Receiver Jakobi Meyers is scheduled for restricted free agency, and because he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, the Patriots would risk losing him without receiving compensation by tendering him at the lowest level. That’s why a second-round tender, of $3.9 million, seems like a no-brainer. In his final session with reporters after the playoff loss, Meyers expressed his desire to return and build on his play strength, which he said waned down the stretch.

10. Did you know? Belichick, his assistants and players conducted a total of 857 news conferences/video conferences from July 27 to Jan. 17. Belichick had 90 himself, while the players with the greatest number of news conferences/video conferences were Jones, linebacker Matthew Judon, McCourty, center David Andrews and Meyers.


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