CHARLOTTE — Donte Jackson was aware he'd head into contract negotiations this offseason, but he was also confident enough to purchase a home in the area ahead of his fourth season with the Panthers in 2021.
Perhaps Jackson's devotion to Charlotte — and the Panthers — played into the easy decision he made in free agency.
For Jackson, the decision to stay with Carolina was essentially a no-brainer.
"The Panthers were the only team I was worried about getting anything done with," Jackson said. "I wasn't really focused on testing the market or anything. I knew what it was going to be. I knew this was home."
Jackson has cemented himself as one of the Panthers' key leaders on defense throughout his four seasons with Carolina — and was voted a team captain last summer. He followed that up by performing on the field, tied for the team lead with two interceptions, along with a team-high 10 passes defensed and a forced fumble. He has 12 career interceptions with the Panthers.
The 26-year-old Jackson has assumed a veteran attitude on a defense that ranked second in the league in yards allowed per game last season, third in yards allowed per play, and fourth in pass yards allowed per game.
Through the Panthers' defensive success last year, Jackson's focus for 2022 remains sharp: Enjoy the momentum, and know that improvements are still needed.
"Even though we're going to ride that momentum, and we're going to accept our highs from last year, we're going to work on our lows from last year," Jackson said. "We can't dwell and sit on last year and think, 'Oh, they were the No. 2 defense last year.' . . . Nah, people are still not going to respect us."
For one, Jackson wants to focus on improving Carolina's red zone defense, which ranked No. 30 in the league last season, and communication, particularly in red zone situations.
He has channeled his experience into making those improvements and helped set the mood for the Panthers' defense during voluntary OTAs.
"We came into OTAs just knowing that last year wasn't a fluke," he said. "Last year was something that – even though we had some things that we would like to get better at — we came in knowing that we also have stuff we can celebrate. We also have some momentum that we can continue to ride.
"We made a name for ourselves, and we set a standard. Now that's just keep working toward it and keep getting better. I think that's been the mood and trajectory we've been on."
While he's grown his confidence as a leader, Jackson has been sure of Charlotte since the moment he arrived from LSU as a second-round pick in 2018. He was always drawn to the city's warm and welcoming energy, and there was a mutual hope between Jackson and the Panthers that he'd stick around.
"I really wanted — and our staff did — want Donte back," defensive coordinator Phil Snow said Wednesday. "He's one of the more talented corners in our league, and he's shown great improvement from year one to year two under the tutelage that (cornerbacks coach) Evan Cooper has given him, so I was excited about getting Donte back."
Now Jackson's future appears certain. He has settled in Charlotte. He said he rarely returns to his hometown New Orleans these days, simply too busy embracing his status as a Carolinian.
"This has always been home to me," he said. "Just to know that it's going to continue to be home, (I) was just ecstatic. My whole family, everybody's excited, everybody's happy."