New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 13: J.C. Jackson #27 of the New England Patriots reacts during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

There’s a new list at CBS Sports that really gets you thinking: is J.C. Jackson a top-10 cornerback in the National Football League?

According to CBS Sports’ Patrik Walker, Jackson checks in solidly at No. 10. His 2021 rankings of the top-10 cornerbacks in the NFL also includes Stephon Gilmore, of course, but Jackson was a pleasantly surprising inclusion. Jackson is coming off a season in which he made nine interceptions, second-most in the league. He beat out honorable mentions like the Panthers’ James Bradberry, the Vikings’ Patrick Peterson, the Bears’ Desmond Trufant, and the Broncos’ Kyle Fuller.

From Walker:

You’re going to hear about how a couple of those in the honorable-mention list deserved the nod above Jackson, and while that point could be reasonably argued, did you miss the part where I said he grabbed nine interceptions? OK, let me add in how he recovered three fumbles and did this all with only 11 starts in 2020, and how his five INTs in 2019 were in only six starts. If the Patriots do move on from Stephon Gilmore, there can be no doubt who’ll immediately put on the crown in their secondary. The only reason he’s bringing up the back end of this top 10 list is because the 25-year-old still needs to polish his cover skills, but he’s got plenty of time and talent to do it.

Walker is correct in saying that if Gilmore does not stay with the Patriots in 2021 of beyond, Jackson would become the clear-cut No. 1 cornerback on the depth chart. The problem, in part because of factors that Walker mentioned, is that Jackson wouldn’t represent an even transition. Not in 2021, anyway.

Jackson has already proven he has enough ball skills and playmaking ability that he can compete against talented wide receivers, and you can expect quarterbacks to target him a little less in 2021. But he has yet to prove that his pure coverage skills even approach Gilmore’s level, let alone match it. It’s not a criticism to say that Jackson can’t, or won’t, be the kind of elite shutdown No. 1 corner that Gilmore has been, or Darrelle Revis or Ty Law before him. It’s just a more realistic projection to settle him in as an excellent No. 2 cornerback, and a lower-tier No. 1 if he improves his coverage.

Considering the situation with Gilmore’s contract – which does sound like it could be resolved in New England – it’s worth noting that No. 24 remains the Patriots’ best defensive player, probably their best player overall. Losing him and installing Jackson as the No. 1 cornerback would be a drop-off, even with Jackson improving in coverage. The Patriots would likely lean more on their much-improved front-seven to be the engine of the defense.

Gilmore, by the way, ranked fifth on Walker’s list. Here’s the full top-10:

1. Jalen Ramsey, Rams
2. Jaire Alexander, Packers
3. Tre’Davious White, Bills
4. Xavien Howard, Dolphins
5. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
6. Marlon Humphrey, Ravens
7. Marshon Lattimore, Saints
8. Marcus Peters, Ravens
9. Denzel Ward, Browns
10. J.C. Jackson, Patriots

That 6-10 range is where it becomes a good-old-fashioned sports debate. But it’s hard to quibble with the names in the top-5, order notwithstanding.

Jackson is getting this kind of attention around the league now, and he does deserve it. He’s worked hard to develop from undrafted free agent into a good starting NFL cornerback. Jackson always hits the right notes for the Pats when he talks about putting in the hours and getting better.

That needs to, and probably will, continue as Jackson fends off other good corners for top-10 status.

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Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.