The New England Patriots broke the bank in free agency a year ago, spending more money than the team had in its history. While the club may not be backing up the Brinks truck in the same fashion this coming spring, they should be making re-signing J.C. Jackson one of the top items on their upcoming offseason to-do list. The 26-year-old is set to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career and has been one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL in recent years, which will likely make him a hot commodity on the open market.
Currently, the Patriots are getting elite cornerback play from Jackson for pennies on the dollar. This season, he's playing on a one-year restricted free agent tender that pays him $3.384 million. Entering Week 12, Jackson is second in the NFL in interceptions (six), leads the league in passes defended (15) along with passer rating against (40.1), via Pro Football Focus (minimum 50 coverage snaps). Given Jackson's compensation and his level of play, this is the bargain of all bargains for New England.
While the well will run dry in that regard, Jackson is the type of player that the Patriots should want to keep in Foxborough even if that price tag increases tremendously. And it seems like Jackson -- who signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent back in 2018 out of Maryland -- is interested in the idea of sticking around.
"I love playing for the New England Patriots, playing under Coach Belichick," Jackson told reporters Friday. "I have grown as a football player since I've been here. ... It's a place that brought me in and gave me a chance from Day 1. I would love to be a New England Patriot for a long time."
Albert Breer of The MMQB reported recently that the two sides did discuss a potential extension before the season, but they were so far apart on the terms that it resulted in talks almost immediately dissolving. New England does have the ability to utilize the franchise tag on Jackson, which would keep him in-house through the 2022 season, but an extension would likely be the cleaner approach.
"I'm a football player, I'm not an agent," Jackson said. "So when it comes to negotiating contracts, I'll leave that up to my agent. I'll let them deal with that stuff, and I'll just focus on football. That's how I look at it. That's how I control the situation."
Of course, Jackson and the Patriots' main focus at the moment is the 2021 season where they are in the thick of a playoff race. That said, it won't be long until the offseason arrives and this situation will take center stage. From New England's standpoint, having a talent like Jackson lurking in the secondary for years to come certainly sounds like a piece worth paying up for.
How to watch
Bill Belichick vs. Mike Vrabel
Sunday will mark the third matchup between Bill Belichick and Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. So far, the former Patriots edge rusher has gotten the better of his old coach, going 2-0 in the previous two matchups with Tennessee. Through those head-to-heads and Vrabel's success with the Titans, he's certainly garnered the respect of Belichick.
"Mike has done a great job at Tennessee," Belichick told WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show" on Monday. "I've always had a lot of respect for Mike, and certainly have a ton of respect for him when he was a position coach and as a head coach, for sure. It will be a big challenge and Tennessee is obviously is a good football team, one of the best teams in the league. We'll do our best to get ready and be ready to go on Sunday. Mike does a great job and other than when we play him I'm rooting for him, but not this week."
Of course, Belichick vs. Vrabel is a side story to what is on its own a big matchup between the No. 1 seeded Titans and a Patriots team that is riding a five-game winning streak into Sunday. With that in mind, it's not surprising to hear Vrabel tell the New England media this week that neither of the two coaches will have much of a physical impact on this game.
"We've touched on this plenty," Vrabel said. "Bill and I aren't going to do anything physically to determine the outcome on Sunday. I hope that we're all competitive each and every week. It's a great challenge. It ain't about me and Bill. I know it's unique having been up there and spent eight years there. I have a lot of respect for this football team and the way they've improved and have a lot of respect for the way they are coached."
Injury bug continues to bite Pats opponents
As we've noted previously in this space, the Patriots have been given a stroke of good luck when it comes to the injury bug. Not only has Bill Belichick's club been relatively healthy this season, but their opponents have missed a number of key pieces to their operation. Back in Week 10, the Browns were without Nick Chubb (COVID protocols) and Kareem Hunt (calf). Last week, Calvin Ridley (personal reasons) was absent for the Falcons along with Cordarrelle Patterson (ankle). Now, they'll face a Titans team on Sunday at Gillette Stadium who'll be missing Derrick Henry, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown due to injury.
That will continue for New England in the weeks to come as well after the Buffalo Bills lost top cornerback Tre'Davious White for the season after tearing his ACL in the team's Thanksgiving matchup. That injury could prove to have massive implications to the AFC East race as the Patriots will now avoid facing a fully loaded Bills defense with White out. With two games against Buffalo still on the docket and these two teams tightly against one another in the division race, this is a key break for New England.
Rodney Harrison Hall of Fame snub
This week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame unveiled its 26 modern-day semifinalists for the Class of 2022. One of the more notable snubs from this collection of NFL legends was former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who was on the list a year ago.
When asked about the cases for both Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork -- two former Patriots that were named as a semifinalist -- Bill Belichick was critical of the Hall of Fame process, noting that there are no clear criteria and "it's really hard to even have a conversation about it because it's not based on anything." Belichick also went out of his way to mention that Harrison should in Canton.
"I think that Rodney Harrison one hundred percent belongs in the conversation," Belichick said Friday. "I've coached safeties that have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, not taking anything away from them, but certainly Rodney Harrison belongs in that conversation, and he certainly belongs in the conversation with other players that are already there."
As for Harrison himself, he told WEEI's Merloni and Fauria this week that he was admittedly disappointed by not getting in this time around, but he is "never trading in my Super Bowl rings for a Hall of Fame jacket."
"At the end of the day, I would love to be a Hall of Fame for my legacy, for my kids and my family and things like that," he continued. "But, I know what I did on the football field and I'm OK with it."
Mac Jones vs. the cold
Living in Jacksonville, Florida and going to college at Alabama, playing in the cold is something that's still a bit foreign to Mac Jones. That'll change in short order over the final weeks of the regular season, however, with the temperature set to drop dramatically. While speaking to reporters this week, Jones was asked about playing in winter elements.
"I think just take each day day-by-day and try not to focus on it too much and just wear whatever you're supposed to wear and take the advice from the older people that have played a lot in the cold and just trying to figure it out," he said. "It's just another challenge, but you just have to look at it positively, like as if it was raining or really windy or whatever the situation is. It's football, and you're going to have days where it's cold and days where it's. windy and days when it's raining, so you have to be ready for all situations."
He added: "I mean, you can't really predict or prepare, it's not like you can go throw it in a refrigerator or something or freezer. You just got to go out there and do it, and it is what it is."
Jones noted that he's mostly sought the advice of Brian Hoyer when deciding what to wear when he plays. He also said that he hasn't experimented with wearing a glove.