By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Chris Hogan thought he had a catch. In fact, under the newest NFL rules, he probably did. But Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson knew the play wasn't over.
Snatching a deep ball in stride from Tom Brady, Hogan looked home free. But close behind him, and refusing to give up, was Jackson. The undrafted rookie out of Maryland wasn't known for his downfield coverage entering the 2018 draft, and it looked like that would play out in that 1-on-1 matchup. Instead, Jackson punched the ball loose about a half-second after Hogan reeled it in.
In last year's NFL, it's a simple incompletion. But now, officials would say Hogan made a "football move" with the quick strides he made before losing the ball. Jackson knew what that meant.
"I think it was a fumble," he said, grinning.
Contesting and disrupting plays with consistency in man coverage, Jackson had perhaps his best practice yet at Patriots training camp in Foxborough on Monday. Battling for a roster spot amid a crowded cornerback group behind Stephon Gilmore, Jackson needs to make plays to stand out from the pack. He had two other pass breakups on Monday, one against Phillip Dorsett and another on Paul Turner.
But Jackson's best moment came when he out-fought Dorsett for a jump-ball in the end zone to make an interception ... against Brady.
The quietly confident Jackson thought it was "pretty cool" to pick off No. 12, but he knows he can't let up just because of a single good practice. One standout day is nice. But 16 weeks of that would have Bill Belichick unearthing another hidden gem.
"Just trying to stay consistent, make plays, and get better," said the very Patriot-sounding Jackson, who projects as a physical press-man corner at the NFL level. He's going to have to build on Monday's performance, considering he's battling for a roster spot at a position loaded with both fellow rookies and teammates with the edge in experience.
Among the veterans is Jason McCourty, who got a good share of reps with the first-team defense on Monday. The twin brother of safety Devin McCourty explained on Sunday why he's helped the younger cornerbacks on the roster get better, despite being in a competition with them.
"Without the older guys I had in Tennessee, I don’t think I’d be where I am in my career today," said McCourty, who spent the first eight years of his career with the Titans. "I had older guys take me in under their wing, make me come get in the cold tub with them, make me stay after and watch film with them, just continuing to try to push me and talk to me all throughout practices, games. Trying to get my technique right, my knowledge and all of that.
"I feel like it’s only right, the way I repay those guys is to continue no matter what team I’m on, what situation, but to continue to pass that down."
McCourty said he talks to Jackson about "15 times throughout the day". The rookie says he's been taking advantage of his guidance as much as he can.
"You need somebody to talk to, you have any questions, understanding anything, he’s the guy I go to most of the time," Jackson said. "He’s a vet. This is his 10th year in the league, so I can get a lot of wisdom and knowledge from him."
In Thursday's preseason opener against the Redskins, McCourty gave way to Jackson and the Patriots' other rookie cornerbacks, a group that also includes second-round pick Duke Dawson and seventh-rounder Keion Crossen. Jackson had an up-and-down game, but also got plenty of special teams snaps. That's new for him; he exclusively played defense in his two seasons with the Terrapins.
It's been a consistent theme for Jackson, who's doing everything he can not to be typecast as a man-to-man "boundary corner". He knows full well how much Belichick values versatility, and he still has room for improvement when playing zone as opposed to press-man.
But Monday was certainly a big step for Jackson toward proving himself as a viable playmaker, and a kid who's more adaptable than scouts or draft analysts gave him credit for in April.
"I'm just trying to show the coaches I’m not just a corner, I can play whatever they want me to play," Jackson said. "Just trying to help the team win."
Jackson's big day could be the first glimpse of his potential as a winning player.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].