INDIANAPOLIS — The Patriots are not expected to place the franchise tag on cornerback J.C. Jackson, according to NFL Network.
Jackson, who turns 27 in November, will instead become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the league year on March 16. The NFL’s legal tampering period, when agents and clubs can first engage in negotiations, begins at noon on March 14.
By letting Jackson hit the open market, the Patriots are risking losing their No. 1 cornerback to another organization. Using the franchise tag would allow Jackson to return to the team on a one-year, $17.3 million deal — his compensation being equal to the average salary of the top five players at his position. The Patriots do not have enough salary-cap space for that transaction, with less than $10 million available.
The team has until Tuesday March 8 to decide on the tag.
Jackson could remain with the Patriots, even without the tag, but the parties would have to agree on a multiyear contract. This offseason is Jackson’s first opportunity to earn a hefty payday after he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He played last season on his second-round tender worth $3.38 million.
In four seasons with the Patriots, Jackson’s total compensation has been $5.184 million. His next deal is expected to be on par with other top cornerbacks. In September 2020, Jalen Ramsey signed a five-year, $105 million extension with the Rams, with $71.2 million guaranteed. In September 2021, Marshon Lattimore signed a five-year, $97.6 million extension with the Saints.
Last season, Jackson recorded eight interceptions, 23 passes defensed, and 58 tackles. The Patriots offered Jackson an extension during the season but did not agree to terms.
Jackson is represented by agent Drew Rosenhaus, who is extremely familiar with Patriots coach Bill Belichick because of his vast clientele. Cornerback Jalen Mills, tight end Jonnu Smith, and offensive tackle Trent Brown are also represented by Rosenhaus.
Jackson is expected to garner interest from a number of cornerback-needy suitors — and the competition could easily price out the Patriots. New England has a number of other important unrestricted free agents, including Brown, safety Devin McCourty, special teams ace Matthew Slater, and running back James White.
If the Patriots do not retain Jackson, adding a cornerback immediately jumps to the top of their list of offseason priorities. New England owns six picks in the upcoming draft — and at least one should be used on a cornerback.
Without Jackson, the Patriots’ depth chart at the position consists of Mills, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade, and Justin Bethel. Jones plays primarily in the slot, leaving Mills, Williams, Wade, and Bethel as the remaining outside options.
It is obvious the Patriots would need an upgrade. Mills is not a No. 1 cornerback, Williams has been torched repeatedly when he’s not a healthy scratch, Wade logged 11 snaps last season, and Bethel is primarily a special teams player. The 23-year-old Wade has potential — he got a late start to the Patriots’ system as a rookie last year — but his role and abilities are unknown.
This year’s draft class has several intriguing options in the early rounds, including Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon of Washington, Andrew Booth of Clemson, and Kaiir Elam of Florida. Some of the more affordable cornerback free agents include Casey Hayward, Steven Nelson, D.J. Reed, Charvarius Ward, and Darious Williams.
Cornerback prospects are scheduled to answer questions from the media at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday, and then complete on-field workouts and testing on Sunday.