As Stephon Gilmore stayed away from the Patriots' mandatory minicamp back in June, Bill Belichick publicly seemed calm, cool and collected. Not too many coaches would act that way, not if they were missing someone of Gilmore's caliber, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Maybe it's because it was June. Maybe it's because Belichick knows what Gilmore wants and how this story will play out. Or maybe it's because the Patriots coach has J.C. Jackson.
Entering his fourth professional season, Jackson has gone from undrafted to being on the verge of a major payday. Since 2019, the Florida native has kept opposing receivers on lockdown, allowing the lowest passer rating in the league (per PFF), a paltry 48. That's 14.4 rating points better than the cavalcade of stars that are second over that time: Tre’Davious White, Stephon Gilmore and Xavien Howard. Jackson also has more interceptions (14) than any defensive back during this stretch. Is he a legit No. 1 corner?
"Of course I am," Jackson told me over the phone Monday, "I would never settle for less. I would never say I'm No. 2, No. 3. I'm No. 1."
Confidence on the field didn't always come easy for Jackson, which is remarkable when you consider his high school pedigree coming out of Immokalee, Florida. He was heavily recruited, eventually landing at the University of Florida. He later transferred to a community college before enrolling at the University of Maryland, where he starred for the Terrapins for two seasons before turning pro.
His defensive coordinator there, Andy Buh (now an assistant at Illinois), said he knew Jackson was destined for the NFL.
"There was no question," said Buh, who used Jackson as a man corner. "The minute he stepped on campus, he was different. You could tell. He had tremendous ball skills, he had exceptional speed and just the way he's built, he's built the way you want your corners to be built like. He's a perfectly put together athlete."
Jackson has long arms, excellent closing speed and is powerfully built. But he was an All-American wide receiver in high school, and Buh noted that while Jackson had all the tools needed to be successful on defense, it was almost as if he needed some convincing.
"I think his confidence level is what he improved on the most (at Maryland)," Buh said. "I don't think early on he was sure of himself."
Looking back, Jackson agrees with that assessment.
"I didn't believe in myself as much," he said. "I didn't know I was going to be this good of a player until I got to the NFL, until I got the opportunity."
Of course, the opportunity didn't come easy. Jackson went undrafted after bypassing his senior season and signed with the Patriots as a rookie free agent. But the coaching staff took a liking to him almost immediately, with Jackson getting first-team reps in the spring during OTAs and minicamp. He wouldn't seize a starting job until nearly two years later, but the Pats had found another gem, as they had done a few years prior with Malcolm Butler.
"Yeah, of course it motivated me, man," said Jackson of not getting drafted. "I mean, I came in with ... I came in, I felt like I was just a nobody, so I had to earn my respect. I had to believe in the process, believe in myself. I had to bet on myself."
That bet has paid off for both Jackson and the Patriots. He will make $3.38 million this season after signing the tender the team placed on him this offseason. While there have been no talks of a long-term extension, Jackson carries a great attitude heading into the season.
"I didn't get no extension. So what? Who cares? I know it's coming. I just love the game, man. The money is going to come. I just love playing football."
He would love to play another season -- or more -- alongside Gilmore, a player, Jackson said, who has been instrumental in his growth. The two remain in close contact, even during the offseason. Gilmore himself told me he sometimes marvels at what the now 25-year-old can do on a field: "How the hell did he make that play?" Jackson calls Gilmore a "big brother" and says the veteran, along with Belichick's belief in him, helped Jackson make the transition from college to the pros.
"I mean, he was very helpful for me because even, especially in the meeting rooms, watching the film, I mean I sit right beside him and try to copy his notes," Jackson said. "That's how crazy it is. That's how much I look up to him."
Jackson laughs at the thought. He's comfortable in his own skin, now oozing with confidence in his abilities while knowing that if he doesn't keep grinding, keep putting in the hours necessary, his success could be fleeting. And trust me, that's not what he's all about.
"I knew to get to the next level, I would have to put more work in," he said. "I just had to do a little more because everybody in the NFL is good, everybody's fast. I mean, everybody's getting paid to do their jobs, so I knew I had to do a little more, a little more grind, a little more film studying. I had to work hard. I had to just work a little harder."