With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Name: Stephon Gilmore
Jersey number: 24
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? 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. As such, he played a key role in the organization winning Super Bowl 53 and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. In total, he has appeared in a combined 63 regular season and playoff games as a Patriot.
What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off one of the best seasons any defensive back has had in recent memory — one that resulted in him earning multiple individual accolades as the best cornerback in football — Gilmore faced his fair share of challenges in 2020. While he still played at an elite level when actually on the field, he also had to deal with medical issues and was therefore unable to give New England the same consistent presence in the secondary week-in and week-out.
All in all, Gilmore appeared in 11 of the Patriots’ 16 games and was on the field for 632 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps. While his playing time share of 62.1 percent is the lowest of his four seasons in New England, Gilmore hardly left the field when healthy and played 89.5 percent of snaps whenever he was active. However, therein lies the problem: the reigning Defensive Player of the Year had to deal with multiple ailments and missed considerable practice and playing time as a result.
Following a Week 4 game in Kansas City, Gilmore tested positive for the Coronavirus. While he did not miss any playing time after his diagnosis — him testing positive contributed to the Week 5 contest against Denver being moved back one week — he had to spend eight days on the NFL’s newly created Covid-19 list. Gilmore appeared in only two games after his diagnosis before another issue forced him to spend time on the sidelines: he hurt his knee in practice and had to be declared inactive for three straight games.
Gilmore was back on the field by late November and went on to play five more contests. But just as he started to return to his All-Pro form — just ask Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins — he suffered another setback: New England’s star cornerback stayed down on the ground after partially tearing his quad on a non-contact play against the Miami Dolphins, and subsequently had to be sent to injured reserve. While no ligaments were damaged, he still had to undergo surgery and end his season prematurely.
At that point in time, Gilmore had again posted some solid numbers. While he was not on the same statistical level as a year before, he was among the better cornerbacks in football once more. In total, Gilmore was targeted 32 times and surrendered 16 receptions for 220 yards as well as a touchdown. He also registered an interception and a forced fumble, while notching 37 tackles — 24 against the pass and 13 against the run. Despite regularly going up against opponents’ number one wide receivers, he held his own.
Unfortunately, a tough Week 2 assignment against Seattle’s DK Metcalf created an unfavorable narrative that seemed to follow him throughout the year. The truth, however, is that Gilmore was still a worthy CB1 throughout the year and a massively important part of New England’s defense. While J.C. Jackson had his moments filling the top role in his two separate absences, there was still a noticeable drop-off between the two players — one that illustrates Gilmore’s value and quality even in his 30s.
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. He will play on an island most of the time regardless of man coverage calls. 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 over the last three seasons and none in 2020. His special teams value is therefore quasi non-existent.
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 30-year-old also brings considerable experience playing in the slot to the table. In 2020, for example, Gilmore played inside the formation on 76 of his defensive snaps (12%).
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the four-year pact he signed in 2017, Gilmore is counting $16.3 million against the Patriots’ salary cap — the highest number on the team. As a result of a series of contract restructures over the last three years, however, he is scheduled to play on a salary of only $7 million in 2021. Neither side is expecting that the four-time Pro Bowler will actually play under this deal, but the question is whether or not negotiations can lead to a satisfying outcome for both parties. If not, the Patriots moving on from Gilmore appears to be an option.
What is his roster outlook? A healthy Stephon Gilmore is still among the best defensive backs in all of football. Based on that fact alone he should be seen as a lock to make New England’s 53-man roster this year. However, his contract is an issue. If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, anything seems possible. At this point in time and based on the last few months, however, it seems more likely than not that Gilmore will be a Patriot come the start of the regular season. The team, after all, is undoubtably a better one with him in the fold — especially if he can return to the All-Pro form he showed in spurts last year.