The timing could not be better for cornerback J.C. Jackson. Or, perhaps, the timing could not be worse.
What the team decides to do about its Pro Bowl cornerback, whether to franchise tag Jackson, sign him to a long-term deal or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, will have huge ramifications for the entire league, as Jackson is unquestionably the top cornerback on the market this free agency season.
Here are the four most-likely destinations for Jackson come March 16:
4. The Patriots could end all speculation by placing the franchise tag on Jackson
It seems increasingly likely that the Patriots will apply the franchise tag to Jackson at around $17.5 million for 2022 to at least ensure they get one more season out of the first-time Pro Bowler in 2021. And that buys the Patriots another year to increase their financial flexibility and finesse a long-term deal that makes sense for them under the salary cap. They’ve already extended safety Adrian Phillips and are likely to lose Devin McCourty in free agency. Keeping Jackson is almost certainly Plan A in Foxboro.
But with Jackson likely to command something in the neighborhood of Jalen Ramsey’s $20 million per year salary on the open market, would franchising him only serve to alienate Jackson, guaranteeing his departure after 2022? And Bill Belichick has made the tough call on not retaining potential free agents of Jackson’s caliber in the past. The whole league is watching what happens here.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
The gap between Jackson and the rest of the free-agent field is fairly wide, so if the Patriots do let him hit the market, teams with the cap room to fit him are going to go after Jackson pretty aggressively. The Los Angeles Chargers, playing in the same division with Patrick Mahomes, and if you believe the rumors, potentially Aaron Rodgers, would certainly be in the market for back-end help.
The Chargers not only have the cap space to make the kind of five-year, $100 million deal Jackson will be seeking, they have the urgent need, with Chris Harris Jr. also a free agent and unlikely to return. That is a void the Chargers will be keen to fill, especially after a season where they struggled in the secondary. Jackson would anchor that unit and allow Joey Bosa and their defensive line the time to do more damage.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are another team that was shaky on the back end in 2021 and is set to lose a critical piece with Joe Haden becoming a free agent. Pairing Jackson with Minkah Fitzpatrick in the defensive backfield would cure a great many of the Steelers’ ills, and similar to the Chargers, having an improved secondary only enhances the ability of T.J. Watt and the defensive line to get after the quarterback.
If the Steelers decide not to make a big splash at quarterback to replace Ben Roethlisberger, they will likely look to load up on defense and let running back Najee Harris be the focal point of the offense. Matching a top running attack with a top defense has won championships in Pittsburgh before. Landing Jackson might point them in that direction again in 2022.
1. New York Jets
Now, wouldn’t this be a delicious development in the AFC East? The Jets probably haven’t forgotten when the Patriots took Darrelle Revis from them in 2014 and would love an opportunity to shift the balance of power in the division with a huge free-agent splash.
Needless to say, the Jets could use the help in the secondary, just as they could use help pretty much across the board. But when your head coach is a former defensive coordinator, you know Robert Saleh would love to add the top cornerback on the market to his developing squad, especially with the offensive firepower at the top of the division.
And if he was able to wound the Patriots in the process and grab the back-page spotlight in New York? That’s a win-win for the Jets that will be hard for them to resist.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference