Patriots

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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Jesse James relieved Patriots didn't win Super Bowl LII

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Jesse James relieved Patriots didn't win Super Bowl LII

Steelers tight end Jesse James is glad the Patriots' Super Bowl pursuit is done -- mostly because he played a big part in helping accelerate it.

In the final moments of the game, James failed to catch the ball during a Week 15 contest between the Steelers and the Patriots. The non-catch was a controversial one.

James told Centre Daily Times' Josh Moyer he finally felt relief on the morning after the Super Bowl when the Patriots fell to the Eagles, 41-33.

“I don’t feel like I gave them a Super Bowl with that,” James told the Daily Times. “So I’m over it now, but it’s going to be a topic of conversation until the rule gets changed — or it doesn’t.”

James' play was initially ruled a touchdown before the referees overturned the play, and took the lead away from the Steelers in the final moments of the game. Ben Roethlisberger then threw an interception a few plays later. By winning, the Patriots took a huge step in locking themselves into the AFC's top seed with a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, which they rode into the Super Bowl.

But of course, they couldn't finish their Super Bowl pursuit -- to James' satisfaction.

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have numbers but could see two key veterans depart via free agency: Receiver. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED:


Danny Amendola was a machine in the postseason. Chris Hogan was dynamite in the Super Bowl after a midseason shoulder injury that limited him to nine regular-season games. Brandin Cooks was very good throughout the majority of the regular season, putting up numbers that made him one of the league's most productive deep threats - and that's without the penalty yardage he drew. It wasn't a dominant season from this unit, but the group lost its most consistent performer when Julian Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Malcolm Mitchell's year-long knee injury also sapped this group of some depth. Despite some regular-season hiccups - it was a forgettable final month of the before the Wild-Card Round bye -- what Chad O'Shea's group did in the playoffs showed just how valuable it was for Tom Brady to have a handful of trustworthy receivers at his disposal. They checked in with a "B" in our final grades for 2017.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Cody Hollister, Riley McCarron

WHO ISN'T?
Danny Amendola, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Brady should have his top three options back for 2018 so the need here can't be considered more than a 5 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter. That said, the group needs some trustworthy depth. Especially if Amendola, 32, who has been willing to take less to remain in New England, decides he'd like to max out his value elsewhere. He's right there with Edelman, who turns 32 in May, as the most clutch postseason receiver Brady's had since Troy Brown. Dorsett and Britt are physically-gifted options who could benefit from a full offseason in the offense, but are they strong enough candidates to serve as the No. 4? And what about Mitchell? What does his future hold after missing his entire sophomore season? Moreover, and this wouldn't impact the offense so much as it would the kicking game and the level of leadership in the locker room, but Slater's loss would be monumental. If both Slater and Amendola return, the need here can't be considered close to dire. But a young option in the draft - either a burner who could provide insurance if Cooks opts for free agency next offseason, or someone who profiles as a true slot - would be a wise investment. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There's a potpourri of pass-catching talent available on the market this offseason. The biggest names available are receivers the Patriots know well from their time in the AFC East: Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins. One's a slot. The other's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, who struggled to put up numbers in a highly-productive Rams offense in 2017. Then there's Jacksonville's physical outside-the-numbers option Allen Robinson (coming off an ACL tear) and Arizona speedster John Brown. Other field-stretchers who could be had include Seattle's Paul Richardson, Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel and Arizona's Jaron Brown. Buffalo's Jordan Matthews (25 years old) is a bigger slot, sort of a younger version of Eric Decker (31), who also happens to be a free agent this offseason. Keep an eye on Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, who could become available as a cap casualty. The Patriots tried to bring him aboard as a restricted free agent years ago and it would make sense if they were still interested. He caught six passes for 137 yards in a Week 10 loss to New England last season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


After Alabama's Calvin Ridley, there seems to be some confusion as to which draft-eligible receivers deserve to take their place at the top of the class. Clemson's Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) has the size and speed to be a starter at the next level, but he was plagued by lapses in concentration that led to drops and false-start penalties. Courtland Sutton of SMU has an NFL-ready frame (6-4, 218), but probably doesn't have the athleticism to threaten defenses deep down the field as a pro. For teams interested in slot options, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk and Maryland's DJ Moore look like two of the best available. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


There may be little to address here if Amendola is back in the fold. If the Patriots are looking for young depth, though, there are plenty of options. Miami's Braxton Berrios could probably be had on Day 3, and he's already drawing comparisons to Amendola for his work in the slot, his toughness, and his ability to contribute as a returner. The Patriots could also dip into the Texas Tech pool after missing on both Amendola and Wes Welker in the draft in years past by taking Keke Coutee. He's slight (5-11, 180) but can play inside and out, has speed to burn, and could return kicks. If Belichick and Nick Caserio want to go with a bigger slot who will be a good character guy, Penn State's four-year starter Daesean Hamilton (6-1, 205) would make sense in the middle rounds. 

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