FOXBOROUGH — Heading into a contract year, Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson’s mind-set remains the same.
“I approach it the same way I did my rookie year, just grinding, getting better,” Jackson said Saturday. “Play the best I can.”
Jackson, who is entering his fourth NFL season, is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the year. This past offseason, he was a restricted free agent and ended up returning to New England by signing his second-round tender, worth $3.384 million.
Jackson signed his tender on April 16, despite having until April 23 to field offers from other organizations. He said Saturday he did not hear from any interested teams.
Had another club wanted to sign Jackson, it would have cost a second-round draft pick in addition to a lucrative new deal reflective of Jackson’s value. The Patriots would have had the opportunity to match any offer.
The Patriots also could have negotiated a contract extension with Jackson, locking him up beyond the 2021 season. Instead, Jackson will test the open market next offseason.
“I had a feeling they were going to tender me,” the 25-year-old said. “I wasn’t expecting no contract extension yet.”
It doesn’t sound as though there are hard feelings regarding the situation.
“It ends up being another year to get better and improve myself, actually,” Jackson said. “That’s how I look at it. Nothing negative. All positive.”
As for whether he would like to remain with the Patriots long term?
‘We’ll discuss that later,” he said. “Right now, my focus is on training camp and getting better.”
Jackson has carved out a major role in New England’s secondary since signing with the team as an undrafted rookie out of Maryland in 2018. Through three seasons — he played in all 16 games each of the past two — he’s logged 17 interceptions, 30 passes defensed, and 100 tackles.
Last year, Jackson recorded a team-high nine interceptions, ranking second in the league behind Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (10). Opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer rating of 66.5 when targeting Jackson, completing 59 percent of their pass attempts.
“J.C. came in here unknown,” coach Bill Belichick said Thursday. “He earned a spot on the roster, earned playing time. He has continued to work hard and develop. I’d say his role has increased from Year 2 to Year 3, and it’s kind of stayed about the same since then.”
Heading into this season, Jackson expressed a desire to continue improving, with a focus on the defense’s collective success.
“I don’t really have no self goals,” he said. “It’s a team.”
Among those joining Jackson in the secondary are Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Jonathan Jones, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills, and Kyle Dugger. Gilmore is on the physically unable to perform list amid a contract dispute, but Jackson doesn’t necessarily envision a competition for the No. 1 cornerback role.
“I still play my role,” he said. “Steph’s role is Steph’s role. My role is my role. "
Jackson said he talks to Gilmore every day, calling him his “big brother” and praising his leadership skills. The two have been teammates for the duration of Jackson’s tenure in New England.
“I look up to Steph,” Jackson said. “Watching somebody in their prime, somebody who’s won Defensive Player of the Year — he’s one of the top corners in the league — being able to be on the same team as him, it’s a blessing.”
After Friday’s practice, Matthew Slater approached the roped-off area for players’ friends and families, stopped about six feet short, and waved to two of his children. Because of the NFL’s health and safety protocols, players and their guests have been unable to mingle on the field following practice in the same way they have in years past.
But the restrictions were lifted Saturday, which meant Slater and his kids were among those scattering the field after practice, enjoying the sun. Elsewhere, linebacker Dont’a Hightower lifted his 1-year-old son, Grayson, into the air, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy swung his 4-year-old daughter, Adriana, in circles, and McCourty had his 4-year-old daughter, Londyn, hugging his leg.
Fans in attendance at training camp will have the opportunity to receive their COVID-19 vaccination at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots and the Kraft Center for Community Health administered the vaccine at Saturday’s practice, and will do so again this coming Wednesday and Thursday. The staff will assist with the coordination of second doses.
Those who get the vaccine at a practice will also receive a $25 food voucher and free admission to the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.