As J.C. Jackson heads to free agency, what's next for Patriots at cornerback?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tuesday's deadline to assign the franchise tag came and went with the New England Patriots passing on the opportunity to use it on cornerback J.C. Jackson, whose 25 interceptions are tied with Lester Hayes and Everson Walls for the most by a player in his first four NFL seasons since 1970.

The tag would have been $17.3 million for 2022, and while the possibility was obviously considered to some degree, it never seemed like a realistic option.

This clears a path for Jackson to experience unrestricted free agency beginning Monday. That is when his agent, Neil Schwartz, can begin negotiating with other clubs, and Jackson is expected to cash in.

He's earned the chance to do so. Entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2018, he has made a total of $5.1 million. Now, a new deal averaging $15-20 million per season could be within his grasp. And as Patriots fans have learned, Jackson doesn't let too many of those opportunities slip away.

Thus, the Patriots should be prepared to lose their promising ball hawk, which sparks several questions:

Why not use the franchise tag? One might say the simple answer is that coach Bill Belichick doesn't view Jackson as a $17.3 million per year player. And if another team does, or even exceeds that number, that's the business of free agency.

The Patriots have $13.7 million in cap space, according to Roster Management. So if they had assigned Jackson the franchise tag, they would have had to be prepared to create space by March 16, the official start of the 2022 league year.

Doable, but not ideal -- especially if they don't view him as worth such a rich salary, which seems to be closer to the heart of the issue.

How did it get to this point? The Patriots attempted to sign Jackson to an extension during the 2021 season, but as Belichick sometimes says, it takes two sides to make a deal.

Jackson described the situation in a February interview with NBC Sports Boston, saying: "It was all positive things. I wanted to focus on ball at the time. I wanted to finish the season the right way. I didn't really come back to them on it."

Jackson essentially bet on himself to make it to the end of the season healthy and test the open market. Had he suffered a serious injury during the season, there might have been some regret with the decision.

That's often the risk-reward scenario for players, and Jackson -- like he is known to do on the field -- has positioned himself well to maximize his earnings.

And, of course, the Patriots could have sweetened their offer during the season to possibly entice Jackson to change his mind.

Is the door closed on Jackson's return? Not necessarily, but it seems to be trending that way. The financial parameters are in place.

The Patriots' reluctance to tag Jackson helps clarify the financial level they are willing to extend themselves to retain him. So then the question becomes: Is there a deal on the open market worth $17.3 million per season or more?

Some in the NFL scouting/agent community view that as a likelihood, which is why the odds are greater that Jackson is playing elsewhere in 2022. But if the market doesn't materialize for Jackson, this wouldn't be the first time a top free agent explored other options and ultimately re-signed with the team.

What other corners are available in free agency? Finding a No. 1 corner will be pricey, and a case could be made that if the Patriots are considering that, they might as well extend themselves to bring Jackson back.

But other cornerbacks set to hit the market include old friend Stephon Gilmore (hard to imagine his return), Carlton Davis (Buccaneers), Donte Jackson (Panthers), D.J. Reed (Seahawks), Charvarius Ward (Chiefs) and Darious Williams (Rams), among others.

What options in the draft might help? This is where ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid chips in. Knowing what the Patriots value in corners, he was asked to identify some prospects who might fit their profile, with a nugget of analysis on why.

Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson) -- Booth Jr. is an exceptional athlete who has an extremely high competitive drive. A true man corner, he's a loose mover who also isn't shy about showing up in run support. Prior to the combine, he strained his quad. As a result, he was only able to do interviews. All eyes will be on him during Clemson's pro day on March 17. Draft range: Picks No. 15-25

Kaiir Elam (Florida) -- The nephew of former Ravens first-round safety Matt Elam, Kaiir is a big and physical corner (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) who enjoys getting his hands on wide receivers. Possessing adequate short-area quickness, he's been somewhat the forgotten man in a deep cornerback class, but that quickly ended after running a 4.39 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. Draft range: Picks No. 21-32

Derion Kendrick (Georgia) -- After having a stellar start to his career at Clemson, he was dismissed from the team after some discipline issues that resulted in him landing at Georgia. Since arriving in Athens, he's been on the rise, with his smarts, patience, and physicality as a tackler his three best attributes. If able to overlook his past, he has the talent to eventually become a dependable No. 2 corner. Draft range: third round

Josh Jobe (Alabama)The lone veteran in the Tide’s cornerback room last season, Jobe is a thickly built player who is a bully at the line of scrimmage. Experimenting at both safety and corner, he’s a sure tackler who was also a major presence on special teams. Coming off foot surgery (December 2021), which kept him out of the College Football Playoff, and being an older prospect (24 years old), he’s likely a late-round pick that could go on to be an early contributor on special teams and depth piece at corner. Draft Range: fifth-sixth round

If the Patriots don't draft a corner, what do they have on the roster?: Veteran Jalen Mills, the starter opposite of Jackson, returns in 2022. While he might project better to a hybrid corner/safety role playing in the middle of the field -- which is where the Eagles had moved him in 2020 -- he was competitive for the Patriots on the outside in '21.

Veteran Jonathan Jones, whose 2021 season was cut short after six games due to shoulder surgery, is back as the top slot option, with second-year man Myles Bryant his understudy. And the Patriots still have hopes for trade acquisition Shaun Wade, the 2021 rookie from Ohio State whom they acquired from the Ravens for fifth- and seventh-round picks last September.

The 6-foot-1, 191-pound Wade figures to get a long look in the spring after being limited to a small role in three games last season, in part due to COVID-19, injuries and learning a new playbook. The ideal scenario for the Patriots would be seeing a rise in Wade's confidence and availability. He looks the part, but can he play the part?

It's a similar question that had previously been asked of 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams, who remains on the roster but hasn't consistently shown he projects as part of the solution, with the playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills -- when he was badly beaten for a touchdown -- a tough final impression to leave heading into the offseason.