The two biggest stories coming out of the New England Patriots’ mandatory minicamp last week were the development of first-round rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the holdout of star cornerback Stephon Gilmore. We already know that Jones will be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster come this fall, even though it remains to be seen where he will land on the depth chart. Gilmore, on the other hand, is less of a certainty.
How we got to this point is well known, so let’s only do a brief recap right now: Gilmore joined the Patriots via a five-year, $65 million free agency contract in 2017, but through a series of subsequent restructures is entering the 2021 season on a maximum cash intake of only $7.9 million — 25th highest in the league. Entering the final year of his contract he is now looking for an adjustment, likely through an extension.
Despite the holdout there is some optimism that the two sides might reach a deal. ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss, for example, noted the following over the weekend:
[W]hile some holdouts can become acrimonious, my sense on Gilmore’s mindset is different. He seems to enjoy being a Patriot, is open to sticking around, and this was his least-expensive-but-most-decisive way of sparking more productive contract talks with the team, so he can feel better about being part of New England’s present and future.
Before the two sides actually reach an agreement, four realistic outcomes are still on the table, though. As you will see in a second, “Gilmore getting released” is not among them: cutting the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year makes no real sense for the Patriots, which puts the odds of it happening in the <0.1 percent area.
The other four outcomes, meanwhile, are all still in the realm of possibility at this point in time and therefore worth exploring.
Door No. 1: Extension
If the Patriots and Gilmore want to resolve their situation while continuing to work alongside each other in the long term, an extension is the only solution. New England would keep its top cover cornerback under contract for the foreseeable future and possibly the rest of his career, while he himself would get that financial stability he seemingly is after.
There is one obvious question, though. What can such an extension look like without stressing the team’s books too much but also without forcing the defender to take too big a discount?
A possible middle ground between those two positions was proposed by Patriots salary cap expert Miguel Benzan earlier this offseason:
In this scenario, the Patriots would re-work Gilmore’s 2021 deal to actually lower his current team-leading cap hit of $16.27 million. They would also add three more years to keep him under contract through the 2024 season. At that point, he would be 34 years old and a possible candidate for either retirement or departure via free agency.
The deal itself would carry an average value of roughly $17.5 million, which would make him the highest paid cornerback in the league over the age of 30. That title currently belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles’ Darius Slay, whose three-year extension signed last year pays him an annual average of $16.7 million.
Of course, this raises another question: Is Gilmore aiming for Slay’s contract or, being a superior player than the Eagles cornerback, higher than that?
If he does, the ceiling is obvious. The Los Angeles Rams’ Jalen Ramsey signed a five-year extension in 2020 that awards him an average of $20 million per season. What has to be considered by all parties involved is the age difference: Ramsey was 25 when he signed his mega-extension; Gilmore will turn 32 in mid-September. The Patriots star trying to challenge Ramsey’s numbers could therefore be a disqualifier for New England.
Nobody outside of One Patriot Place knows what Gilmore’s financial targets might be, but putting all things into consideration the deal proposed above seems like a fair compromise: Gilmore would be paid like the elite cornerback he still is, while the organization would have its outs and keep its top cornerback on a reasonable deal given his age.
Door No. 2: Trade
Gilmore has been the subject of trade speculation going all the way back to last offseason, but nothing has materialized at this point in time. If extension talks go south, however, the Patriots could be prompted to look for a trade partner — preferably in the NFC (e.g. the Seattle Seahawks).
Such a move would have some major implications on New England, both from a financial and a football perspective.
Financially, a trade would create cap savings of roughly $6.8 million: $7.7 million in salary and roster bonuses would transfer to Gilmore’s new club, while his active signing bonus proration of $8.5 million would stay with the Patriots. Add a player replacing him on the Top-51 list or 53-man roster, depending on when such a move is made, and you get the aforementioned savings.
The timing of a potential trade is important as well, as New England might opt to keep most of those savings unused and move them over to the 2022 league year. The team would, however, feel an immediate impact as far as the quality of its defense is concerned.
Even though he struggled with various ailments last season — he missed six combined games due to knee and quad injuries and also tested positive for Covid-19 — Gilmore is still a top-notch cornerback; just ask the Arizona Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins. Removing a player of this quality from the equation would put additional pressure on New England’s other cornerbacks, most notably J.C. Jackson and projected number three perimeter option Jalen Mills.
Jackson and Mills are starting-caliber players, but Gilmore is a blue-chip cornerback despite his recent injury history and age. Losing him would undoubtably weaken the Patriots’ cornerback depth, and the 2021 defense as a whole.
Then, there is another factor to be considered: compensation.
While he was the NFL’s best defender just a year ago, Gilmore is coming off a challenging campaign that surely has hurt his trade value. Add his age and unclear contractual outlook beyond 2021, and it would not be a surprise if he yielded a seemingly undesirable return: seeing him get traded for less than Julio Jones would not be a surprise.
The Atlanta Falcons traded the superstar wideout and a sixth-round draft pick in 2023 to the Tennessee Titans for second- and fourth-round selections in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Jones and Gilmore are almost the same age, and have had a similar experience last year. While the circumstances are not entirely the same, the trade market might still be a slow one when it comes to the Patriots’ defensive back.
Door No. 3: Nothing
Nothing happening would be a surprise given Gilmore’s somewhat aggressive stance. Skipping mandatory minicamp was no declaration of war but it still sent a clear message about his desire to re-work his contract.
Stranger things have happened in the NFL, though, so this is at least a scenario worth considering as a potential outcome.
The Patriots, after all, possess Gilmore’s rights for 2021 whether he signs and extension or not. He can opt to hold out into training camp and the regular season, but that does not change the fact that Bill Belichick and company can decide whether he gets moved off the roster or not.
If Gilmore stays on the team and plays at least six regular season games, he will get an accrued season and enter unrestricted free agency next March. New England could still extend him during or after the season, but in this scenario nothing of that sort happens. Instead, he plays out his deal and becomes a free agent. At that point, like any other free agent, he will be free to sign a deal with whichever team he pleases.
This would mean that the Patriots a) would no longer control his landing spot, and b) would be entitled to compensation under the NFL’s compensatory draft picks process.
The first of those two is of no direct concern — as mentioned, they can’t control where he would be going — but the second might just be. After all, Gilmore would net the team nothing more than a fifth-round selection in the 2023 draft: as a player with 10 accrued seasons that is the maximum return New England could expect under the formula.
This fact will not be the deciding factor for the Patriots over the coming weeks or months, but it certainly is something they will consider as well.
Door No. 4: Holdout
The final scenario to look at is Gilmore continuing his holdout beyond mandatory minicamp. Theoretically, he can hold out as long as he pleases, but at one point he would have to make a call (if not already traded at that point): choosing to forfeit most if not all of his 2021 salary and roster bonuses, or returning to the team to play out the year.
Gilmore holding out deep into the 2021 season would cost him considerable money, and it could also cost him an accrued season unless he is on “full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games,” per the Collective Bargaining Agreement. There would be an additional fallout from that happening, but all of this is rather theoretical in nature and therefore not really worth looking at for the purpose of this analysis.
While him holding out into training camp could happen, him missing most of the season for the same reason seems unlikely.
Looking at all four of these scenarios and considering the circumstances, it seems that the most realistic outcome is Gilmore and the Patriots agreeing to an extension. Unless a financial common ground simply cannot be reached, it would be the best result for all involved: Gilmore would stay put with some long-term security added, while the Patriots would keep him as part of their defense for the foreseeable future.
There is still time for such an extension to be reached, and there is no reason to panic in New England just yet.