In the black and white era of hot sports takes, it's not very exciting to land somewhere in the middle. But that's exactly where many folks are when it comes to the future of J.C. Jackson in New England.
Jackson is about two weeks away from free agency and the Patriots have one week to decide whether or not the franchise tag might be a useful tool to keep him (assuming no long-term deal is worked out in the interim). The ball-hawking corner would be set to earn $17.3 million under the tag, a healthy chunk of change for a team that won't be basking in salary cap space or, more importantly, bundles of cash to spend after last season's free agent spree.
Whether or not tagging Jackson makes sense is a dilemma with no simple solution. On one hand Jackson is hands-down the team's best corner and his presence makes life easier for a thin secondary that includes Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones. Having Jackson and his eight interceptions back in the fold allows Bill Belichick to keep Mills and Jones in roles they're best suited for rather than trying to have them step into the void that Jackson's absence would create.
But doing so would also make it difficult to address many other needs the Patriots have, especially retaining the half dozen or so veteran starters set to hit free agency alongside Jackson. Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Ted Karras and Trent Brown are among a group of key players who will need some money in order to be retained, and surrendering over $17 million to Jackson won't make that an easy chore.
Clearly, figuring out Jackson's future is no easy task.
In an ideal world, the Patriots can use the tag and keep their No. 1 corner in place while using a high draft pick at the position as well. This would allow the rookie a year to acclimate to the system and, assuming the pick works out, eventually take over a starting role in 2023.
But this isn't an ideal situation, and if Belichick indeed uses a high pick on a corner he may need to play him immediately even if Jackson departs. That would leave Mills, Jones and a couple of question marks in Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade. The rookie would likely need to fill a role in the secondary from the outset in that scenario.
And that's where Belichick and the Patriots may ultimately land, and as concerning as it is, it's probably the course that makes the most sense. The current roster has some holes, potentially a lot of them depending on how other free agent situations unfold. Losing Jackson hurts the secondary, but it may allow some other areas to be addressed with the potential savings.
After all, Jackson was part of a secondary that struggled down the stretch, especially against Josh Allen and the Bills. Having his play-making ability wasn't enough to allow the defense to come up with stops when they were needed, so the rebuilding is about much more than a single cornerback.
There will be times when the secondary struggles and there will no doubt be countless mentions of Jackson's absence as a result. But given the state of the roster and the money recently spent, it's hard to imagine giving Jackson a large portion of the available funds represents the best way for the Patriots to return to title contention.
It will be a tough pill to swallow, but Belichick may be better off allowing Jackson to walk and finding a replacement in the draft.
QB Carousel II?
Last season brought lots of quarterback drama to sift through during the offseason. This year's version may be even better. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Jimmy Garoppolo all could be on the move with plenty of suitors likely to be waiting. In addition, there will be movement among lesser commodities such as Carson Wentz to track.
That doesn't even include contract sagas that will be unfolding, led by Arizona's Kyler Murray. Murray recently wiped his social media platforms clean of all Cardinals references before apologizing as he begins his negotiations. More recently his agent, Erik Burkhardt, crafted a statement expressing Murray's desire to re-sign and to bring a Super Bowl to the desert. Fun stuff.
In Green Bay, general manager Brian Gutekunst said he never assured Rodgers he would be traded should the quarterback seek a deal. That likely didn't sit well with Rodgers, who has told the team he expected to make a decision on his future quickly.
The ramifications of the future of these quarterbacks could be felt in Foxborough. Should Rodgers sign in the AFC (Denver is considered a logical destination due to his ties with new coach Nathaniel Hackett, who was the Packers offensive coordinator the last three years) it would add another contender to the mix. Wilson and Seattle have been quiet thus far but what if he winds up in, say, Pittsburgh?
Suddenly teams with better than average rosters would be adding quality quarterbacks and therefore entering into the contender category, further complicating the Patriots path back to the postseason.
While it might make life more difficult in New England, that kind of high-profile offseason movement is great for the league.
The NFL Combine kicks off in Indianapolis on Tuesday and even though Belichick doesn't plan on speaking at the event there will be some things worth monitoring for Patriots fans. The wide receiver class is considered to be deep, and there should be plenty of prospects to watch Thursday night when they join quarterbacks and tight ends for on-field workouts.
A few other items of interest for the Combine:
- There were 324 players officially invited to this year's event.
- Georgia leads the way with 14 players headed to Indy, followed closely by the team the Bulldogs defeated in the national title game, Alabama, with 11. Oklahoma also had 11 while Texas A&M, another SEC school, had nine. Cincinnati, Michigan, Mississippi, Penn State and Arizona State were next with eight each.
- Some of the smaller schools represented this year include Liberty and quarterback Malik Willis, Sam Houston State, Fordham, Southern Utah, Fayetteville State and NAIA school Culver-Stockton College.
- Willis isn't the only quarterback coming from a non-Power 5 school. In addition to Brown's E.J. Perry, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, Nevada's Carson Strong, Southeast Louisiana's Cole Kelly, Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe, Western Michigan's Kaleb Eleby and Kent State's Dustin Crum are all among the 15 passers invited this year.
- NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah recently conducted a conference call detailing his thoughts on the draft and he offered some ideas on players he thinks may fit the Patriots mold.