Patriots To J.C. Jackson: Franchise Tag, You’re Not It

Now, J.C. Jackson knows why his phone wasn’t ringing. Sorry, J.C., the New England Patriots are just not into you.

The biggest decision facing the Patriots heading into NFL free agency in less than two weeks was what to do about Jackson, their top cornerback and the consensus top free-agent defensive back on the market.

On Friday, Jackson got his answer, and it appears his career with the Patriots is over.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport, the Patriots will not be applying a $17 million franchise tag on Jackson, making him an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any of the other 31 NFL teams come the official tampering period, beginning March 14. Players can officially sign free-agent contracts as early as March 16.

The Patriots have decided the cost for keeping Jackson would be too high

Jackson indicated a week ago that he saw the writing on the wall, revealing that the Patriots had not been in contact with him about a contract extension or the use of the franchise tag. Jackson, who signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2018, had emerged as one of the top corners in the game, with 25 interceptions over the past four seasons, including eight in each of the past two years.

But with his contract up, the Patriots took the familiar route of not tying up critical salary cap space by applying the franchise tag, which would have cost the team $17 million in 2022.

Instead, the Patriots are willing to sit back and see what kind of offers Jackson actually gets, with the ability to try and match if they feel the price is within their acceptable range.

But as the top corner on the market, Jackson could easily find himself in Jalen Ramsey range, with offers upwards of $20 million. Who is most likely to bite?

Jackson should have plenty of offers as the top corner on 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 Denver Broncos 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.

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 with Joey Bosa, having an improved secondary only enhances the ability of T.J. Watt and the defensive line to get after the quarterback.

The Patriots will need to explore their own free-agent options at defensive back

The Patriots now can add cornerback to their laundry list of needs heading into free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. The Patriots were already looking at linebacker, edge rusher and wide receiver as areas of needs. Now with Jackson and Devin McCourty heading out of Foxboro, the secondary will need reinforcements, as well.

If the mock draft industrial complex is on the money, it appears the Patriots will address linebacker with the 21st pick in the first round of the draft and take Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd. And with the $17 million they will save by not franchising or otherwise signing Jackson, the Patriots can easily fit more than one free-agent into the fold, including wide receiver possibilities Michael Gallup and/or Christian Kirk.

And now, with Jackson virtually gone, the Patriots might explore free-agent defensive backs like Green Bay’s Rasul Douglas and Desmond King.

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