FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Around Gillette Stadium, Patriots defensive backs like to needle J.C. Jackson with his given name.

They’ve weaponized it, often calling the young corner “Jerald,” instead of his preferred initials.

Jackson hates it.

Sometime soon, though, another name should fit that he might like better: The next star among them.

In a secondary that features All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and future Patriots Hall of Fame safety Devin McCourty, Jackson is the defensive back passers can’t solve. Opposing quarterbacks own a lower passer rating when targeting Jackson than any other defender in the NFL who’s seen at least 10 passes, according to Pro Football Focus.

His five interceptions trail only Gilmore and Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White across the entire league.

Jackson’s pair of picks Sunday in Cincinnati encapsulated what he’s provided to the Patriots defense: A worthy coverage partner across from Gilmore whose ball skills are unmatched.

Just ask Gilmore, the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year.

“He has the best ball skills I done seen,” Gilmore said after the Patriots’ 34-13 win over the Bengals. “(I’ve) seen a lot of corners. He plays the ball as good as anybody. He’s just gotta keep working, keep practicing hard, keep preparing. He’s gonna be a great player.”

Defending deep passes like Jackson does is perhaps the most valuable skill a cornerback can possess because it fulfills two defensive imperatives: denying big plays and generating turnovers.

Interceptions are a function of opportunity as much as ability and, at times, luck. Elite cover men generally aren’t tested. They’re bypassed, avoided all together.

In Jackson’s case, as he’s bounced between the second and fourth corner on the Patriots’ depth chart, he’s proven unavoidable. His interception rate is the third-highest among cornerbacks, per PFF.

Furthermore, all five of Jackson’s picks this year have come on intermediate or deep throws.

This isn’t luck at play. It’s Jackson’s rare, innate ability to track throws, simultaneously fight a professional pass catcher and gravity, contort his body to make a catch and then secure the ball while crashing to the ground – all in a split second.

This skill traces back to Jackson’s high school days, when he rated as a four-star wide receiver prospect and top-150 overall player. As a senior, he once caught five passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns in a single game. Last season, the Patriots briefly returned Jackson to his offensive roots by having him practice as a scout-team wideout, according to safety Duron Harmon.

The transition was near seamless. Why? Ball skills the team couldn’t coach.

“Some guys have more natural instincts, ball skills than others. It’s like trying to make a slow player fast,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. “You’re never going to make a slow player the fastest guy on the team, but you can improve his speed.”

In this sense, Jackson is a Ferrari. And his success is a credit to both car and driver.

On multiple levels, Jackson represents another market inefficiency the Patriots have exploited.

Signing undrafted rookies is the cheapest possible avenue for roster-building. It requires minimal money, zero draft capital or relinquishing of any other assets. The Patriots signed Jackson on May 11, 2018, days after every NFL team passed on him in the draft because of character concerns.

Months later, he made the team, marking the 15th straight year an undrafted free agent has stuck in Foxborough. Had Jackson flopped, the Patriots would’ve simply cut him and moved on. Instead, they hit the cornerback lottery – again.

Like Malcolm Butler, Jackson is an undrafted cover artist who paints with his ball skills, not elite speed, quickness or strength, obvious measurables that can all be quantified and are annually at the NFL combine.

Rather, they thrive on their ability to read and react faster than wide receivers and process everything Belichick described about what it takes to succeed in the air.

“It’s putting yourself in a position to make a play, and then there’s the element of actually finishing the play, making a catch, looking the ball into your hands and so forth,” Belichick explained. “But, depending on what the coverage is and what your relationship is with the receiver, and how fast the two players are moving, or if there’s a change in speed, then that indicates something as well. So, based on all those things, the defender reacts a little bit differently, or should react a little bit differently.”

With a league-leading 25 interceptions, the Patriots seem to know how to best identify ball skills in defensive backs. In Jackson’s case, it’s clear he was a diamond in the rough.

Now polished and prepared, he’s shining quietly on Sundays.

PRACTICE REPORT: Linebacker Jamie Collins, limited for the first time in weeks because of a new shoulder injury, was among five Patriots who did not log a full practice.

The list included wide receiver Julian Edelman (knee/shoulder) and cornerback Jason McCourty (groin). McCourty’s potential return Saturday against the Bills has taken on added importance, with the expected absence of Jonathan Jones.

Jones is the only player who has missed practice this week. He has not been spotted on a field since suffering a groin injury last weekend that knocked him out of the team’s win at Cincinnati.

He’s started nine games this season and ranks second on the team in pass deflections, but no Patriot has missed two consecutive practices this season and played in the same week.

STEPHON GILMORE,  hours after making his third career Pro Bowl, proclaimed he was deserving of more. On the radio Wednesday, Gilmore was asked whether he should win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

“I mean, my play speaks for itself,” he said. “If you really watch the tape each and every game, there’s no question.”

Gilmore currently leads the league with six interceptions, including two he’s returned for touchdowns. He has a league-high 18 pass deflections to go with 44 tackles.

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