Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler haven't yet played a snap together, but they're already widely considered to be among the best cornerback duos in football.

Broncos cover men Aqib Talib and Chris Harris probably deserve top billing for now since they have an established track record in the same secondary. But expectations for Gilmore and Butler -- who will team up with safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon -- are already sky high outside the walls of Gillette Stadium. 

"There's only pressure if you make it," Gilmore said on Thursday. "You just go out and work hard, and do your job, and rely on each other, trust each other. If we do that, I think we'll be good."

There was no guarantee that Gilmore and Butler would be teaming up as of a few weeks ago. Speculation was rampant that Butler, who signed his restricted free agent tender for $3.91 million, could be traded for draft picks late last month. He wasn't. And, at least for now, the plan is for him to factor into the Patriots defensive backfield significantly once again in 2017. 

"It'll be fun," Gilmore said. "I know he's a talented player . . . He just competes. No matter what. He competes to the end of the play. All the guys do in the secondary so that's one thing that sticks out to me."

Gilmore acknowledged that at this time of year, time spent at the Patriots facilities is about getting into shape more than it is solving the Patriots playbook and learning how to communicate in the secondary. When those nuances become the focus, though, Gilmore knows he'll have plenty of help from the experienced players around him. 

 

"Veteran guys that have been around, played a long time," he said. "We've got those type of guys back there that allow you to come in and ask questions. [You] try to do the best you can to communicate with them and make plays."

With Gilmore in the fold, the Patriots secondary has a chance to be among the best Bill Belichick has ever coached. Gilmore has the frame and the athleticism to matchup with bigger receivers on the outside (guys like Atlanta's Julio Jones, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin and New Orleans' Michael Thomas -- all of whom the Patriots are scheduled to see this season), while Butler has the speed and quickness to hang with smaller burners (guys like Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel, Tampa Bay's DeSean Jackson, Carolina rookie Curtis Samuel and New Orleans' Willie Snead or Ted Ginn).

With McCourty keeping things organized, Chung matching tight ends, and Harmon covering ground on the back end, it's a unit that could rival the effectiveness of talent-laden Patriots secondaries like the ones that won Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004.

But before those comparisons can hold any water, there's plenty of work to be done for the group and its most recent high-profile addition. 

"The guys welcomed me," Gilmore said. "Great teammates. The secondary welcomed me in, and they said if I have any questions, ask them. [I'll] hit the ground running and do whatever I can do help the team."