The New England Patriots have a history of handing out record-setting contracts, but they rarely give them to players outside of the organization. Usually, New England wants to see a player succeed inside the building and on the field before giving them a new deal so they’re positive that player will continue to be a success.
There have been four exceptions under Belichick, where the Patriots have handed out a top-dollar contract to a player that was not on the Patriots roster, and just three were on long term deals. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is on track to be the best signing of them all, the first All Pro caliber free agent the Patriots have signed to a top-dollar multi-year contract.
Let’s run through the big four.
LB Rosevelt Colvin
Contract details: 7-years, $30 million contract in 2003, the third-largest deal for a linebacker at the time of signing.
How he played: The Patriots were hoping to get a linebacker entering his prime as Colvin, who recorded 21 sacks over the prior two seasons was still just 26 years old. Unfortunately, Colvin broke his hip early in his first year with the Patriots and didn’t start until 2005 as he was behind Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel in the depth chart.
Colvin stuck around with the Patriots for six years, but spent both 2003 and 2007 on the injured reserve and was unable to achieve his potential due to his lengthy list of injuries. He recorded 26.5 sacks with New England, but other than an outstanding 2006 season, he was mostly a very solid starter.
Why Gilmore projects to be better: Gilmore has certainly battled injuries of his own, but while Colvin never realized his potential, Gilmore has been playing at an otherworldly level for his past five games.
Injuries can’t be predicted, of course, but Colvin didn’t have his big season with New England until his fourth year with the team. Gilmore needed four games to reach an incredibly high level of play.
EDGE Adalius Thomas
Contract details: 5-years, $35 million contract in 2007, the largest cap hit in the league at the time, and the "highest priced free agent in Patriots franchise history."
How he played: Thomas was coming off an All Pro season in 2006, but lasted just three years with the Patriots. He recorded 14.5 sacks in three years (he recorded 11 sacks in 2006 alone), averaging 13 games per season. His best game was probably in the Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
Why Gilmore projects to be better: The Patriots signing Thomas for his age-30 season and it’s clear that he was past his prime, after an outstanding stretch from 2004-06 where he didn’t miss a game, collected 4 interceptions and 17 passes defended, forced 8 fumbles, recorded 28 sacks, and scored 4 defensive touchdowns and a safety. Gilmore is just 27 years old and entering his prime.
Thomas also didn’t take well to the Patriots coaching style, feeling like he was overcoached and that there were too many things happening at the same time. He was not a good fit from a locker room perspective, while Gilmore seems to be taking the coaching well.
CB Darrelle Revis
Contract details: 2-years, $32 million contract in 2014, the $16 million APY the richest value for a cornerback in the league at the time of signing.
How he played: Revis was outstanding and earned First Team All Pro distinction in 2014. Revis broke up 16 passes and recorded 2 interceptions, and while he wasn’t the Revis Island from 2009-11, he was still one of the best in the league.
There were signs that Revis was slowing down as he was beaten by quickness and speed more often than before, and there were times he just lost the match-up to the receiver. He was able to get by on his veteran savvy, but as his ensuing time with the New York Jets revealed, Revis was on his last legs in 2014.
Why Gilmore projects to be better: The 29-year-old Revis signed a 2-year deal, but it was really a one-year rental with the second-year designed to either force the Patriots to sign Revis to an extension or release him. New England clearly opted for the latter.
Gilmore, on the other hand, signed a 5-year deal that didn’t have any options which means that he’s a long-term solution for the secondary. It’s also clear that Gilmore is ascending as a player, while Revis was on the decline.
Revis in 2014 was probably better than Gilmore in 2017, although Gilmore has been closing the gap in recent weeks and ranks 10th in Pro Football Focus’ coverage rankings. But would you take one year of 2014 Revis over five years of Gilmore at his present level of play?
CB Stephon Gilmore
Contract details: 5-years, $65 million contract in 2017, with $40 million in total guarantees, the third-most for a cornerback in the NFL at the time of signing.
How he is playing: Extraordinarily well. Over Gilmore’s past five games he’s gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Buccaneers WR Mike Evans, Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, and Raiders WR Michael Crabtree, in addition to Dolphins WR Devante Parker and Bills WR Zay Joes, and according to the Herald’s Jeff Howe, he’s been targeted 33 times, giving up 15 receptions for 128 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and four pass break-ups.
That’s an opposing passer rating of 53.6, which means Gilmore has been outstanding against some very good receivers.
“The guy is a professional,” Patriots free safety Devin McCourty said about Gilmore. “[He] comes in, extra work on his body, studying the film, studying different receivers. So I mean I wasn't overly worried about anything during the season because I knew inside that locker room he knew that every guy had his back and we were going out there as a group.”
Gilmore has four more weeks to continue boosting his stock, but with games against the Dolphins and Bills- teams that combined for 10 targets on Gilmore for 3 receptions, 27 yards, 1 interception, and 2 pass break-ups over the past two weeks- there’s a solid chance for Gilmore to cement his status among the league’s top cornerbacks.
Gilmore isn’t the only veteran the Patriots signed to a mega-deal at a young age (Colvin). He’s not the first to play at a high level (Revis). But he’s providing a combination of age, high-level of play, and length of contract that we have not seen before in the Belichick era from a free agent signing.