The Patriots' decision was somewhat expected, given how extension negotiations have reportedly gone. Last month, Jackson told NBC Sports Boston’s Phil A. Perry that the Patriots had not contacted him about a potential extension.
“I guess they feel like they don’t need me,” Jackson told Perry. “I guess I can’t be that important to them. I know I am, but they’re not showing me.”
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Jackson is now set to test unrestricted free agency and is projected to fetch a four-year, $72 million deal with $56 million guaranteed — a deal that would make him one of the five highest-paid corners in the NFL.
The fifth-year Maryland product is the sixth-highest-ranked player on PFF’s Free Agency Rankings and the top free-agent cornerback.
After spending years in Stephon Gilmore‘s shadow, Jackson seized the opportunity as the Pats’ CB1 last season, producing a 78.9 PFF grade and 0.5 PFF Wins Above Replacement (PFF WAR), both of which were top-10 marks at his position.
His successful 2021 campaign signaled a step forward from his first three years in the league. From 2018 to 2020, he earned solid yet unspectacular coverage grades above 70.0, though those grades are made all the more impressive by the volume of man coverage he was asked to play.
Jackson trails only Gilmore for the highest man coverage grade in the NFL since 2018. He has intercepted 19 passes in man coverage over that span, five more than the second-place player and twice as many as the guy in third. His mirror ability and poise at the catch point make him a nightmare to face in man coverage.
While the 6-foot-1, 198-pound corner is clearly fit for a system that plays man coverage at a high rate, that’s not to say he isn’t crossing off zone-prominent schemes in free agency. As with all free-agent moves, he will go to whoever will pay up for his services.
The door isn’t completely shut on a return to New England, but all signs point to a departure from Foxboro. Here are some of the top landing spots for PFF's top-ranked corner:
Last season, the Jets’ four most-played cornerbacks were either Day 3 picks or undrafted free agents from the past two draft classes. The lack of talent and experience was apparent, especially without safety Marcus Maye, who ruptured his Achilles midway through the season. Overall, the Jets allowed more EPA per pass than any other defense in the regular season.
New York has two top-10 picks, the 35th pick, the 38th pick and the third-most cap space for free agency. They are capable of making significant moves and will do so to revamp the secondary. Given the capital they have, a pursuit for Jackson makes a lot of sense.
Arizona was forced to play Robert Alford (who hadn’t played a down since Week 17 of the 2018 season), 2021 fourth-round pick Marco Wilson, slot corner Byron Murphy Jr. and NFL journeyman Antonio Hamilton at outside corner this past season. As a result, the unit ranked 28th among the NFL's 32 outside cornerback groups in PFF coverage grade.
Arizona isn’t rich with cap space on paper, but they can open up the room via cuts and restructures to make a push for Jackson. Not to mention, his skill set would allow defensive coordinator Vance Joseph the freedom to call more man coverage after he was forced to dial back in 2021 due to the lack of talent at the position.
Head coach Brandon Staley’s defense isn’t the perfect fit for Jackson, but given the team’s cap room and need at cornerback, they should be willing to make the investment.
The cornerback's trust in his skill set will translate just fine to Staley’s scheme. Pairing Jackson with promising young cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. would help bolster a cornerback room that ranked 31st for unit coverage grade in 2021.
The Raiders’ secondary had a mini-resurrection in 2021. They ranked 15th in the NFL in secondary coverage grade after ranking dead last from 2018 through 2020. But now they are back to square one.
Last year’s group was crafted to play Gus Bradley’s Seahawk Cover 3 system and is now getting a new look under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Expect regression from slot corner Nate Hobbs, who was largely protected in the scheme en-route to a top 10 PFF grade at the position. Re-signing Casey Hayward Jr. — the 12th-highest-graded corner last season — is no longer an option, given his reliance on Bradley’s scheme.
Las Vegas needs to be aggressive to prevent setbacks within the unit, meaning they could make a move to go after Jackson. There’s also a clear connection between Jackson, new general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels, who both came from New England.
Injury issues to Trae Waynes — a likely cap casualty in the coming days — forced Eli Apple into the starting lineup this past season. And while Apple had a run of quality play down the stretch of the regular season, inconsistency was there for most of the season and during the most important moments of the postseason.
Apple put up a middling 60.4 coverage grade for the season. Bringing in Jackson would be a great complementary piece opposite Chidobe Awuzie, a top-five-graded corner in the 2021 regular season.