Stephon Gilmore

Belichick: Playoff neophytes like Cooks, Gilmore provide renewed energy

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Belichick: Playoff neophytes like Cooks, Gilmore provide renewed energy

MINNEAPOLIS -- This may be old hat for a handful of Patriots. 

Guys like Tom Brady (eight Super Bowl appearances), Stephen Gostkowski (five), Devin McCourty (four), Nate Solder (four) and Rob Gronkowski (four) have been through the hoopla of playing for a championship before. 

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And while those players have said they aren't taking this experience for granted, Bill Belichick acknowledged that the team gets a shot of energy from the players on the roster who are new to the whole thing. 

Belichick told Patriots.com that Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore, two of the most important players in New England's AFC title game victory over the Jaguars, are providing that shot for the Patriots this year. 

"It's great to see players like that come onto the team, embrace the team, come from one system to a new team and try to acclimate themselves to what we're doing," said Belichick. "To see them have the success, the results from that, it kind of gives your team an energy that you don't really anticipate.

"You think a lot of times the leadership is coming from the McCourtys and the Solders and the Bradys and those kind of guys. But a lot of times that energy comes from Cooks, Gilmore, or going back to '04 Corey Dillon or '07 Randy Moss -- guys coming from other teams that now have a chance to go to the Super Bowl, or went to the Super Bowl. And that energy level and enthusiasm that they brought made a lot of other guys, who saw the careers those players had like Corey and Randy, how excited they were because it was a chance to play for a championship. It's interesting how that works, it really is."

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Belichick will be the first to admit that the Patriots need to do more than simply get excited for Super Bowl 52 to have a shot to beat the Eagles. But if they play the way they did in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, that wouldn't be a bad place to start. 

"We really didn't play the game we wanted to play it through the majority of the game, but our fourth quarter was probably our best quarter of football of the year," Belichick said. "Coaching staff made some great adjustments, our players made some great plays, and we finished the game in a strong fashion."

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Stephon Gilmore impressed Patriots with resilient first season

Stephon Gilmore impressed Patriots with resilient first season

FOXBORO -- Stephon Gilmore understood the implications: Make the play, have a chance to do in his first year what he set out to do when he signed a lucrative long-term contract with the Patriots last offseason. 

"I came here to have an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," he said, wearing his newly-issued AFC Championship Game hat. "When New England called, that was the reason I came here." 

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Gilmore's fourth-quarter pass-breakup of Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles gave the Patriots the ball back with just under two minutes remaining and effectively swatted away Jacksonville's last shred of hope of mounting a comeback.

For a player who was maligned early in the season when his performance didn't match his paycheck, it was as redemptive an individual moment any player on the team has had this season. In the biggest game of the year, in one of its most critical spots, Gilmore showed why the Patriots value him so highly.

"It ain't always going to go all gravy," Gilmore said when asked about his road this season. "You move to a different team, you gotta figure everything out. Meeting new people. Getting used to playing with these guys. Getting used to all new things. It's no excuse, but you've just gotta keep working and preparing and playing hard."

Gilmore is as quiet a player as there is in the Patriots locker room. Duron Harmon, the first player to celebrate with Gilmore following the Bortles breakup, called him a "silent assassin" after the game. But Gilmore's teammates noticed the work he put in after a rocky first month to the regular season. And to them, it spoke volumes. 

"Just seeing where he's grown through this defense over this past year, it's amazing, man," Harmon said. "You had a guy who had a lot of scrutiny at the beginning of the year. All he did was continue to get better, ignore the noise, put in the extra work, and it's no coincidence why he was able to make that play on that fourth down today."

Devin McCourty was one of the first players Gilmore texted after signing with New England, and he helped Gilmore figure out the logistics of living in the area when he arrived. The longtime captain said that the resiliency Gilmore showed over the course of this season came as no surprise to him.

"He's a corner. He's an NFL corner," McCourty said. "When the difference is when you play in Buffalo sometimes you have a bad game and it didn’t get talked about. You come here and I learned early in my career, you have one bad game, one bad play or one play that everyone has no idea what happened but they think you did badly, you get 10,000 stories about how you are not good. 

"Steph was good. You don’t play corner and bat 100 percent. Plays happen. [He's] a very talented guy. We knew that from training camp as soon as we got together. I am happy because you decide to come here and play in games like this. The guy played awesome. He stepped up."

The Patriots weren't able to force Bortles into any turnovers in the conference championship, but Gilmore's leaping deflection gave them the football and a chance to ice the game.

On fourth-and-15 with 1:47 left and the Patriots leading, 24-20, Bortles stepped up in the pocket and tried to hit Dede Westbrook on a deep over route. Just before the snap, Gilmore and McCourty locked eyes. They knew the route. They knew how to play it. McCourty crashed down to create some traffic, while Gilmore turned and ran to go stride-for-stride with his assignment. 

"We were in a man-to-man coverage," Bill Belichick said on Monday. "Those over routes can be tough routes against that type of coverage because the receiver has a lot of space and can kind of run away from the defender. The defender doesn’t really have any leverage. 

"About all the defender can do is keep up with the route, which a lot of times a good throw and a good catch can result in a completion there or undercut it and make it a tougher throw and a tougher play to execute for the quarterback. Stephon's got a good feel for that . . . I thought he made an outstanding play."

The Patriots have a few different ways of playing the football when it's in the air, depending on where you are in relation to your assignment. If you're step-for-step with a receiver, you're "in phase." If you're a step behind, you're "out of phase." For the former, you have the freedom to play as though the football is yours. For the latter, the technique is to go up and through the arms of your assignment and bat the ball before it settles. 

Kyle Van Noy made a sound "out of phase" pass breakup on TJ Yeldon after he was picked near the line of scrimmage and lost a step on his man in the first quarter Sunday. Gilmore's play was an example of an athletic, almost graceful, "in phase" disruption. 

"Just go get the football," said Gilmore. "Don't worry about him. Coach always tells us don't even worry about the receiver. Go get the ball. Be the receiver. So that's what I did."

Iin the process, in his second-career playoff game, Gilmore made the play of his life. Now he's headed to Minneapolis, where he'll live out the fantasy that kicked around in his head less than a year ago when the Patriots first came calling.

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Patriots' postseason first-timers have 2017 offseason approach to thank

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Patriots' postseason first-timers have 2017 offseason approach to thank

FOXBORO - There aren't many players inside the Patriots locker room who will be new to the postseason experience this weekend. But the do-or-die nature of the playoffs is completely foreign feeling for a few key first-year contributors, such as Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. 

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That those players are finally getting a taste of football in mid-January is thanks in part to an evolving offseason approach in New England that saw the Patriots slot in as one of the NFL's top offseason spenders in 2017. 

The Ringer's Kevin Clark put together a fascinating piece on free-agent spending this week, pointing out which teams dealt out the most cash, why, and how they fared. The Patriots ended up as one of the top 10 spenders in free-agency, and they were one of six top 10 spenders that made the playoffs. 

It's a staggering number considering that free agency has long been viewed as an often-foolhardy last resort for NFL teams desperate to turn things around. But in recent years, organizations have had much more salary-cap space to play with, which has allowed front offices to be more aggressive. Those who have shown a willingness to spend have been rewarded as they've separated themselves from teams who've clung to the idea that thriftiness is key.

Where's the cap space coming from? The cap has ballooned from $120 million to $167 million in the past six years. Plus the 2011 collective bargaining agreement made two changes that have had an impact: 1) It reined in rookie contracts and 2) it allowed teams to roll over unused cap space from one year to the next.

The Patriots have long held a reputation as a team that prefers develop from within, as their list of long-term, high-priced, free-agent deals would indicate, with the 2007 addition of Adalius Thomas coming in as one of the few outliers in Bill Belichick's tenure. 

While the arrival of 2017 heralded a different approach, one doesn't need to go back all that far to find an example of the Patriots largely staying on the sidelines in free agency. Even though they came in as the No. 9 free-agent spenders in 2016, the vast majority of their money spent was a result of Tom Brady's contract extension. Without it, they would have placed among the NFL's bottom-third spenders, just a few spots ahead of the perennially free-agent averse Packers. (After shuffling their front office this offseason, even Green Bay has made a commitment to being more aggressive in the free-agent market, as bold an indication as any that teams are changing their stance on spending.) 

Then last offseason, the Patriots went on a shopping spree. They made Gilmore one of the highest-paid corners in the league. They went out and signed largely unheralded defensive tackle Lawrence Guy to a four-year deal. They invested (in the short term) at the running back position by grabbing unrestricted free agent Rex Burkhead and restricted free agent Mike Gillislee. They re-signed Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower. And they were willing to trade an opportunity to draft cost-effective rookies in order to acquire Cooks, and Dwayne Allen, both of whom would cost more against the cap in the short-term.

One could argue the effectiveness of their method, but not that it had a decidedly different look than the norm for them.

Will it continue into 2018? Will the Patriots have the money to add another playoff-starved free agent with a top-of-the-market deal?

They don't have much in the way of 2017 cap space to roll over next season (about $3 million), but the cap is expected to go up again. Over the Cap has projected it to land somewhere in the range of $178 million and for the Patriots to have around $17 million in cap space. Unless something changes, that's hardly a king's ransom that the Patriots will have available to them to spread around in March. 

But what the Patriots did last offseason -- shelling out for immediate help at expensive positions -- showed that when they have the ability to spend they're willing to do it. And in a league with a cap that's increasing annually, where it seems as safe to gamble on outside help as it's ever been, a prodigal approach isn't necessarily a bad one. Based on recent evidence, at least, fortune has favored the bold.

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