The Patriots aren't allowing injuries in the secondary to sink their season, making a trade to reunite with former Pro Bowl CB J.C. Jackson in a swap of late-round draft picks with the Chargers.
Before we get into Jackson's bumpy journey back to New England, let's first say that the Patriots at 1-3 and down their top four corners weren't going to wave the white flag four games into the 2023 season. Some fans might've wanted the Pats to tank for a top draft pick the rest of the way, but that's not in their DNA, and it's way too early to pull the plug.
With reports indicating that rookie Christian Gonzalez is done for the season, New England was staring at a depleted cornerback room that wouldn't keep them competitive. For better or worse, head coach Bill Belichick built this roster with an elite defense to keep teams in range for the offense to score just enough points to land in the winner's circle. We can debate the success rate of that philosophy in today's NFL, but that was the plan, and that path was impossible if third-year CB Shaun Wade and DB Myles Bryant were their top corners.
New England expects veteran Jonathan Jones (ankle) to return from a three-week absence soon, while second-year CB Jack Jones should play again this season, and adding Jackson into that mix will give the Patriots a workable cornerback room for the rest of the season.
It's fair to wonder if the Patriots would've felt compelled to make a big move had the injuries piled up on offense. Still, Jackson was available due to his falling out with the Chargers, and he immediately upgrades a defense that was incredibly shorthanded at his position.
Jackson wasn't living up to a five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed with the Chargers in the 2022 free agency window. Following a disastrous first five games where he allowed a 152.4 passer rating into his coverage, Jackson suffered a significant season-ending ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee last season, a brutal injury that led to a long road back for the 27-year-old corner. Between injuries, contract expectations, and on-field struggles, it wasn't working out for Jackson in LA, who was a healthy inactive in Week 3 and dressed last week but didn't play a single snap.
However, the film from his 49 coverage snaps in two games this season wasn't far off from his 2021 season with the Patriots. Jackson was never a lockdown cover corner. He's an excellent ball-hawk, has great ball skills down the field, and is decent in press-man. But he was never a shutdown corner against elite receivers. Jackson is a boom-or-bust player, and the Patriots could use a little "boom" on defense with only two takeaways in their first four games.
|Coverage Stat||2023 Season||2021 Season|
|Coverage Success Rate||58.3||58.3|
Although he had a rough opening week in a shootout against Miami, Jackson's coverage metrics were starting to level out to more closely resemble his first stint in New England, and the Chargers didn't do him any favors with his usage against Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson allowed a 46.2 catch rate and had a 58.3% coverage success rate, similar to his 2021 season.
On film, Jackson looks the same, struggling at the first level at times on slants and needing to rely on his safety help to stay attached to vertical routes. The Chargers defense did him zero favors in the game against Miami, asking him to cover Waddle on a quick-hitter out of the slot on one explosive play, a filthy wheel motion route in man against Hill on another, and failing to provide adequate safety help on a long touchdown to Hill. Overall, Jackson allowed 99 yards and a score in Week 1.
On the 35-yard touchdown to Hill, the Chargers appear to be in a two-man coverage, with Jackson taking inside leverage on Hill in press-man at the bottom of the screen. If the corner has inside leverage in a man scheme, the half-field safety needs to help over the top against a fade, especially when Hill is the one running it. Jackson is sitting inside at the line to take away in-breakers, but it puts him at a disadvantage against an outside release — no help, no chance.
When he was in his comfort zone, Jackson still had impressive reps playing press-man and tracking the ball with his usually good ball skills. Above, Jackson is covering a vertical route in a cover-one robber coverage where he can play off his inside help, and he makes the play on the ball for an interception that looks like classic J.C. Jackson.
Along with a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, the Charger film didn't have as many opportunities for Jackson to play off the line. There were plenty of spot-drop zone reps, but several of Jackson's interceptions with the Patriots came when the Pats allowed him to ball-hawk in cover three or off-man, whereas the Chargers play more split-safety zone like cover-2 or cover six, which didn't work. The Patriots let Jackson take calculated risks from off-coverage, where it's much easier to ball-hawk than with your back to the quarterback, leading to 25 interceptions in his first four seasons.
Once it went south in LA, you knew the Pats would be lurking to bring Jackson back. The only surprising element to this move is that the Patriots are taking on the three years remaining on Jackson's deal. But the Chargers are paying most of his 2023 salary, per reports, and Jackson doesn't have much guaranteed money remaining on a front-loaded deal.
The injuries in the secondary forced their hand, but the Patriots now have another NFL-caliber corner to keep their defense competitive.