Stephon Gilmore

Stephon Gilmore impressed Patriots with resilient first season

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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." 

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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Are issues in Patriots secondary popping up again?

Are issues in Patriots secondary popping up again?

FOXBORO -- Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

TC: I thought the Steelers and Todd Haley did an excellent job of game-planning and stressing the Patriots secondary. Jerod Mayo explained on Quick Slants and our Quick Slants pod how the Steelers were able to get Jesse James so open on the goal line for the TD that wasn’t. It had to do with understanding what the Patriots defensive rules were, based on formation, then exploiting it. To sum it up, the Steelers put Darrius Heyward-Bey in the backfield knowing Malcolm Butler had been sticking with him. Then they ran DHB to the right where there were already had three receivers covered by three Patriots. Pittsburgh knew Butler would have to pass off DHB during the play and stay home in the middle but he didn’t. Hence, James was open. So there are fails that come as a result of the other team scheming. There are also fails -- like 5-foot-6 Jakeem Grant of the Dolphins -- going up and beating Butler on a great catch-and-throw. Hard as it is to acknowledge, a lot of that play was Miami’s guys beating the Patriots guys. Same -- to a degree -- with Juju Smith-Schuster’s 69-yard catch-and-run. Good play design, but should have been a 20-yard gain if better angles were taken by Devin McCourty and Butler. When it comes to Gilmore, though, he doesn’t seem to play with the urgency and physicality that players who come up with the Patriots seem to. The intensity of Butler, Jonathan Jones -- or even former Patriot Logan Ryan -- compared to Gilmore both in the running game and finishing contested catches doesn’t look the same. When Butler gets beat, he’s fighting. These plays bugged me . . . 

But I don’t think the level of confusion and disarray is anything like what we were seeing at the start of the year.

TC: Worst in the AFC? Has to be Pittsburgh. They can put up numbers. Their sheer offensive talent is better than the Patriots. It’s better than everyone’s, really, but the mismatches they can get at the second level when they get into the Patriots linebacker crew or safety depth playing in the box is daunting. After that, the Chiefs would be a bother. The mobility of Alex Smith, their prior success this year, the fact they’ve played the Patriots as often as they have and have a grasp on what the Patriots want to do on both sides of the ball is a concern. Blake Bortles isn’t winning a playoff game in Foxboro. So despite the Jags very good year defensively, one cannot get worked up about that being a threat.

TC: I haven’t delved too deeply into each guy yet. What attributes does he HAVE to have beyond being of standard height, weight and arm strength? Outstanding leader. Really smart. Works. Works. Works. After that, it’s accuracy, big-game performances against very good competition and the ability to take tough coaching where every completion and correct read isn’t cause to break out the sheet cake and have an office party.

TC: Absolutely. And if the Jets are going to be getting Christian Hackenberg reps -- and he took some this week -- that’s an excellent invitation for the Patriots to take advantage of the Jets turning this into an audition Sunday. Which they should. But don’t give the Jets the inkling that this can be a season-saving, face-saving game. It will be minus-31 or so and it’s New Year’s Eve. Get the Jets on their jet with no drama.
 

TC: Good question Dave. Twenty-nine touches for Dion Lewis -- despite his great production last week -- was not ideal. Bolden definitely should expect to get some run in this one -- again -- after the Patriots have gotten separation. The 2015 mistake of trying to prove a point and establish a running game in Miami that led to a costly loss should still be fresh enough that the Patriots make sure this thing is locked down before going to the reserves.

MG: It was very nice to meet you a handful of weeks back. I’m still mad you stole my sign! There are a lot of folks who seem to be fearing the Baltimore Ravens, but I’ve got no faith or love for Jump Ball Joe Flacco so despite their history of playing the Pats tough, I’m not buying. The Chiefs would be interesting because they throttled you on opening night (this have some confidence) and seem to have rediscovered their game of late. With guys like Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt, they have players who can take it to the house in one play. We know the Steelers and what they’re all about. Supreme talent on the offensive side of the ball but that scheme defensively still can’t solve Brady and Gronk. Lastly, the Jags. I know, I know, Blake Bortles is their quarterback and he’s proven nothing, But that defense is beastly. Reminds me of the Houston Texans last year and they gave the Pats all they could handle but eventually were undone by an incompetent quarterback. I think we have a chance to see that all over again. As for the NFC, sign me up for the New Orleans Saints. They’re built to travel, they have an elite QB and two playmaking running backs and a defense that isn’t even remotely what we saw in week 2. Pats vs Saints. It’s happening.

MG: Will, Happy New Year. If that were to happen, the only people who will be happier will be members of the Brady and Garoppolo families. San Fran has a ways to go, and we’ll have to see how Garoppolo operates with heightened pressure and the entire franchise on his back, but there isn’t a player/staffer/coach/front office guy I’ve talked to that doesn’t think he won’t thrive. Can you imagine the buildup to that game? Brady would be 41. My goodness. Sign me up!

MG: Pete, right back at you my friend. It’s been an uneven year for Malcolm. I think he’s a better player than this but the contract and the offseason and Gilmore’s presence has screwed him up some. There have been plenty of Malcolm of old moments, but I don’t think he’s earned himself as much money as he thought. Of course, if he turns it on for the playoffs, that will all be forgotten and someone will knock his socks off. The cap is going up. Someone will invest in him, and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the Pats.

PP: Cheech! The sheer number of jobs rumored to be available, to me, makes it seem pretty likely that at least one Patriots coordinator is gone after the season. A lot will depend on which jobs actually open up, and which jobs would be paired with like-minded front offices, but the more likely option of the two would seem to be McDaniels. If Indianapolis comes calling and McDaniels feels good about Andrew Luck's arm and GM Chris Ballard, that could be a tough gig to pass on. Detroit, where former Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn is in the front office, could be another attractive landing spot. If the Titans job opens up, where another former Patriots front-office man Jon Robinson resides, that could be intriguing. Plus, if there's a team that would be willing to take on Nick Caserio as general manager (or former Bill Belichick pupils Scott Pioli or Louis Riddick) then the attractive openings could be fairly widespread. Feels like the timing makes sense for McDaniels. Same goes for Patricia, who may not have to be as picky since he's still looking at his first foray into being a head coach. I'd expect at least one to go, and it wouldn't shock me if both did.

PP: Good question, K. We've taken a deep dive into Rob Gronkowski's incentive-laden contract for 2017 on multiple occasions. He can earn an additional $2.5 million with 11 catches or 116 receiving yards (or six touchdowns, which seems . . . unlikely). He can also get there if he's named First Team All-Pro. But he's not the only one with reported incentives that will be impacted by what happens on New Year's Eve. Our buddy Miguel Benzan did a great job laying out all the incentives up for grabs here for Boston Sports Journal. Lawrence Guy can earn $500,000 if he ends up playing 55 percent of the defensive snaps for the season. He's currently at 55.4 percent, per Pro Football Focus. Matthew Slater would make $50,000 if the Patriots hit 13 wins for the season. A win would earn Patrick Chung $300,000. He reportedly needs 13 wins and 80 percent playing time to hit his incentive, and he's already sitting at 88.3 percent of the snaps. If he ends with 85 percent playing time, he'll make a cool $500,000. James Develin could be in line for a pay day as well. He'll need to play enough to push him to the 30 percent playing-time threshold, and he's sitting at 29.8 percent at the moment.

PP: First, it's important to ask her if she's doing OK. If she says she's "fine," you're good. Continue about your day as if everything is on the up-and-up because she said it was and you have a relationship rooted in honesty. Really not that hard.

PP: Occasionally electric.

PP: I give you Bill Belichick, last week: "I don’t believe . . . in living in the past. So, we can go back and look at a million things that have happened in every game. That’s not really important."

PP: They're still well above average in terms of points, Mr. Q, checking in at seventh in the NFL with 19.3 allowed per game. They're also still well below average in terms of yards, checking in at 29th with 373.9 allowed per game. If it's the yards you're talking about -- or DVOA (Patriots are 22nd) -- Kyle Van Noy and James Harrison probably won't be enough to bring them back to the middle of the pack. But they should certainly make the Patriots better. Depth in the front-seven, particularly on the edge, has been an issue for months. And against potential playoff opponents like Pittsburgh or Kansas City -- which can run the ball effectively to the outside -- any help there would be welcomed.