And we’re off!
The Combine kicks off on Tuesday — so before we watch a bunch of college kids run, jump, and bench press their way into our collective hearts, let’s get this countdown started with the Number 20 Most Memorable New England Patriots Moment of 2021.
20. The Patriots trade Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers for a sixth round pick.
Bill Belichick has had his fair share of free agent misses over the years (hello, Adalius Thomas!). For whatever reason, some players that excel elsewhere in the league have trouble fitting into the system here in New England. And because of that, fans and analysts alike spent almost every offseason furious with Belichick for overspending on some Free Agent while simultaneously being furious with him for not spending enough in Free Agency.
But one Free Agent in which Belichick absolutely nailed it was 2017 acquisition Stephon Gilmore. The five year, $65 million dollar deal that included an $18 million signing bonus and $31 million guaranteed wasn’t unprecedented for the Patriots in terms of bringing in an outside guy — but it wasn’t something you see every day. And Gilmore more than lived up to his price tag; after a bit of a shaky start, he became one of the best lockdown corners in the league. He made the game-sealing interception in Super Bowl LIII and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. The man was a legit all-star. Unfortunately, his 2020 season was hampered by a quad injury and Covid, and he saw very limited action in 11 games. Then again, the whole 2020 season was a wash, so nobody really thought much of it —-especially with the emergence of young DB J.C. Jackson.
The thought of Gilmore and Jackson as outside cornerbacks had Patriots fans all kinds of excited; that was arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league, and with the other defensive upgrades the team made over the offseason, hopes were high for a big bounce-back from the D. However, the quad injury that Gilmore suffered in 2021 lingered all the way through the following August, and he was placed on the reserve/PUP list before the first preseason game.
But again...no big deal, right? We still had Jackson, and Jonathan Jones, and when Gilmore came back in October it would be a huge boon for the defense.
Except when Gilmore did come back, it wasn’t with the Patriots.
On October 6th, New England announced that they had traded Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers. In exchange, they’d be getting a sixth round pick... in 2023. Their All-Pro, All-World corner, gone for peanuts.
In true Patriots Nation fashion, reactions were calm, rational, and levelheaded — by which, of course, I mean people flipped out. Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Cassel, Logan Mankins, Jamie Collins, now Gilmore! How could Belichick do this again? Why does he keep doing this? Does he have some weird obsession with trading away great players for lousy returns?
As always, context mattered here. Gilmore was in the final year of his deal, and keeping him was going to be pricey. He was on the wrong side of 30, coming off a quad injury, and he struggled a bit in 2020. Odds are that 2021 would have been Gilmore’s last season in New England regardless, so Belichick unloaded him for a return.
Could he have gotten a lot more from another team? Possibly; we love to say that New England got screwed on trades like this, but nobody has any idea if there were any other takers at all. But the bottom line was that the best cornerback duo in the NFL never really got the chance to play together, because Gilmore was gone. He started eight games for the Panthers and logged two picks, one of which against the Patriots.
But it isn’t so much the actual departure that has me kicking off this list with it here at Number 20. Rather, it’s that I had completely forgotten that this trade even happened until I sat down to make this countdown. The emergence of JC Jackson as a legit lockdown corner and Pro Bowler made the loss of Gilmore much, much easier to stomach. And of course it would have been nice to get like a third- or fourth-round pick — or even a sixth-rounder this year — for Gilmore, I’m OK with it all. His time with the Patriots was a massive, massive success, I’ll always look back on his time here fondly, I’ll never pass up the opportunity to watch a clip of that Super Bowl pick, and this trade helped set the tone for the continued revamping of the faces of what hopes to be the next Patriots Dynasty. So I’m happy to put it on here.
Check out a great collection of Stephon Gilmore Patriots highlights here.