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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: S Patrick Chung

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with arguably the best player on New England’s roster.

Hard facts

Name: Stephon Gilmore

Position: Cornerback

Jersey number: 24

Opening day age: 29

Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Stephon Gilmore arrived in the NFL when the Buffalo Bills decided to invest the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft in him. The South Carolina product quickly showed his potential: after earning a starting job in training camp, he appeared in all 16 of Buffalo’s games during his rookie campaign and finished as the team’s leader in defensive playing time. While he did have some growing pains — he surrendered three touchdowns versus only one interception — Gilmore’s first season in the NFL was an encouraging one.

Unfortunately, however, he failed to build on the foundation he laid as a rookie. Not only did Gilmore have to play under three different head coaches in his five seasons with the Bills, he also struggled to stay healthy and appeared in just 42 of a possible 64 contests between 2013 and 2016. He was named to his first Pro Bowl following his 2016 season and regularly showcased his talents, but Gilmore was never consistently able to quite live up to the natural expectations that come with being a top-10 selection in the draft.

He still generated considerable interest in 2017’s free agency period, however, especially from one team: the Patriots signed the former first-round pick to a five-year, $65 million contract. The move was a shrewd one, but it paid immediate dividends as Gilmore became a fixture in New England’s secondary right way and by 2018 had grown into the best man-to-man cornerback in football. As such, he played a key role in the organization winning Super Bowl 53 — a contest in which he made the de facto clinching interception in the fourth quarter.

What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the best season of his career — one that did not only end with a championship but also recognition as a first-team All-Pro — Gilmore and the Patriots renegotiated his contract to create some short-term salary cap relief. The move did not signal any change in status for him, though: the ex-Bill remained the team’s undisputed top outside cornerback and as such an integral member of what would eventually become the best defensive backfield in the entire NFL.

In his role within the unit, Gilmore appeared in all 16 of the Patriots’ regular season games in 2019 as well as the club’s lone playoff contest. Serving as New England’s CB1, the veteran rarely left the field in those games and therefore finished his third year in the system with a defensive playing time share of 94.1% (1,007 of a possible 1,070 snaps) — second highest on the team behind only safety Devin McCourty. Like McCourty, Gilmore was a standout performer and a big reason for the Patriots finishing as the league’s top scoring defense.

Gilmore posted some truly outstanding numbers despite regularly facing off against opponents’ top wide receivers. He saw 80 passes thrown his way throughout the season, but allowed only 33 of them (41.3%) to be completed for a total of 456 yards with only one touchdown. In the meantime, he registered six interceptions — tied for most in the league — and returned two of them for touchdowns: Gilmore had a pick-six in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, and another in Week 15 versus the Cincinnati Bengals.

On top of it all, he registered a team-high 16 pass breakups and also had a fumble recovery. Gilmore was a high-impact player all year long and as reliable a defender as any in football: with the exception of Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker in Week 17, the 29-year-old virtually erased every player he squared off against — most prominently, arguably, the Dallas CowboysAmari Cooper, who was one of the most productive wide receivers in the league in 2019 but stood no chance against New England’s top cornerback in Week 12.

While Gilmore’s impressive play may not have helped the Patriots defend their world championship, it did allow him to earn numerous individual accolades. He was named to his second straight Pro Bowl and first All-Pro team, made multiple all-season teams and New England’s all-decade squad, and was also voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore was the best cornerback in the NFL in 2019, and he was rightfully honored as such.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? As has been the case ever since his arrival in New England in 2017, Gilmore will again be employed as a starting cornerback and top option at the position when the defense is playing man-to-man coverage schemes. As such, he will travel over the formation if need be to follow his assignment — whether it is the opponent’s number one or number two wide receiver. Either way, he will play on an island most of the time. Furthermore, Gilmore will also not leave the field when the Patriots defense moves to zone concepts.

What is his special teams value? While Gilmore was somewhat regularly used in the kicking game upon his arrival in the NFL, and also after joining the Patriots in 2017, his value as a special teams performer is limited: New England’s coaching staff shied away from using him in the game’s third phase since he missed three games due to a concussion during his first season with the team. As a result, the veteran was on the field for just five combined special teams snaps in 2018 and 2019 (all of them on punt return teams).

Does he have positional versatility? Gilmore’s primary role is that of a perimeter cornerback, but his alignment depends on the defense the Patriots are playing: if New England is in man-to-man looks — as is the case on most snaps — he will move over the field to follow his assignment. Accordingly, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year also brings considerable experience playing in the slot to the table. In 2019, for example, Gilmore played inside the formation on 211 of his snaps (21%).

What is his salary cap situation? Gilmore is still playing on the five-year free agency deal he signed with the Patriots in 2017, but it has been altered multiple times over the last three years — most recently last March. As a result of this latest renegotiation, his salary cap impact for 2020 is the highest on the team: he hits New England’s books with $18.67 million. While no cornerback in the NFL has this high a cap hit, Gilmore’s play over the last three years in combination with his value to the Patriots defense justifies it.

What is his roster outlook? While New England could create $11 million in gross salary cap savings by trading or releasing Gilmore post-June 1, him not being on the team in 2020 would be a major surprise. After all, he is too good a player and too important to the Patriots’ operation to be moved on from. Accordingly, he is expected to return to play his usual role: the roster lock is the team’s number one cornerback and will play prominent snaps as one of the best, if not again the best, player at his position.