Patriots get aggressive with Gilmore, Branch, Harmon on Day 1 of free agency

Patriots get aggressive with Gilmore, Branch, Harmon on Day 1 of free agency

Just. When you thought. You had them all figured out.

Recent history suggested that the Patriots might sit out the first 24 hours of the new league year while the rest of the league handed out big-money deals like candy, but Bill Belichick's front office was active Thursday. And the work started early.

About seven hours before free-agent deals could be executed, news broke that the Patriots would be signing Bills corner Stephon Gilmore to (presumably) a long-term contract that would (presumably) pay him near the top of the market. 

Ramon Humber this was not.

When the numbers came down, we found out that Gilmore's deal would include more guaranteed money ($40 million) than the Patriots had ever given a free-agent defender -- more than they gave safety Devin McCourty after he explored the market and agreed to re-sign two years ago.

While the timing and the aggressiveness to sign one of the top corners on the market may have caught some off-guard, it was a move that was oh-so-Patriots in other ways. 

They plucked a player away from one of their division rivals to fortify their own roster; they maintained their scheme flexibility by finding a someone whose skill set will fit whatever gameplan Belichick and his staff decide to employ from week to week; and they protected themselves against an uncertain future as it relates to the personnel already on their roster.

That last bit is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Gilmore's acquisition: What does this mean for others at that position? 

Logan Ryan seemed destined to land elsewhere before the Gilmore deal, and it was a virtual certainty after. Indeed he signed with the Titans before the clock struck midnight.

Even in advance of that move, the Gilmore acquisition led to rampant speculation that Malcolm Butler's time with the Patriots might be coming to an end.

Late in the day, the pride of West Alabama did his best to snuff out any rumblings that he wasn't happy with his contract situation -- he's currently staring at a first-round tender worth $3.91 million, giving the rest of the league some time to present to him offer sheets -- but when it comes to the team's long-term planning, even he might admit that it looks like a choice has been made.

After all, how many No. 1 corner contracts do the Patriots plan on handing out between now and the end of next season when Butler's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent?

The Patriots now have a few different avenues to pursue with Butler.

They could extend him. They could have him play on the tender if he signs it. They could trade him if he signs it -- say to New Orleans for wideout Brandin Cooks? Or they could let him walk with an offer sheet from another team, if he gets one, and get a first-round pick in return. 

There are decisions to be made. There's work to be done. And it may get done quickly.

If the Gilmore move reminded us of anything, it's that the Patriots aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and take action once their minds are made up. 

Here's a quick rundown of the rest of the day's Patriots-related news to catch you up on everything you need to know headed into Day 2 of the 2017 league year . . . 

* The team locked up its most consistent defensive tackle from 2016 for two more years by agreeing to terms with 32-year-old Alan Branch. He wanted to be in New England. The Patriots wanted him in New England. He fits the scheme perfectly. His fun-loving personality is embraced in the locker room. After a career year, it's no surprise Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio found a way to bring him back. 

* Duron Harmon will be back on a four-year deal worth up to $20 million, solidifying the back end of a secondary that has already undergone a pretty significant makeover. As the third safety in Patriots "big nickel" packages, the rangy Rutgers product has played over 50 percent of the snaps in each of the last two seasons. Alongside Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, Harmon has provided consistency in coverage and strong communication skills. On the first day of free-agency, the Patriots made sure he'll continue to do the same for the foreseeable future. 

* Logan Ryan, not surprisingly, found greener pastures elsewhere. His three-year deal with the Titans is reportedly worth $30 million. He'll go from working with one McCourty in Foxboro to another in Tennessee. Devin's twin brother Jason has been a staple in Titans secondary since 2009. 

* The Browns are apparently undeterred by New England's willingness to keep backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the fold. They swung a fascinating deal with the Texans to acquire a future second-rounder along with Brock Osweiler's albatross of a contract. Cleveland's stockpiling of picks, it's been posited, is a way to eventually put together a trade offer that Belichick wouldn't be able to turn down.

* No movement yet from free-agent linebacker Dont'a Hightower, running back LeGarrette Blount, tight end Martellus Bennett or defensive end Jabaal Sheard, but the Dolphins announced that Sheard had been in for a visit. 

Two years after clutch Super Bowl performance, Malcolm Mitchell retires from football

Two years after clutch Super Bowl performance, Malcolm Mitchell retires from football

The last time Malcolm Mitchell left the site of a game that mattered, he did so nonchalantly. He carried a to-go plate in one hand, a half-eaten wing in the other. 

He'd just caught six passes for 70 yards and helped the Patriots win Super Bowl LI. I spoke to him about how two weeks prior, on the fields behind Gillette Stadium, he hadn't been playing like a guy who would come up with some of the most critical plays in the last game of the season. He'd been dealing with some drops. He admitted they were probably the result of over-thinking his Super Bowl prep. 

Mitchell was thankful, remembering how he flipped the switch, that Tom Brady pulled him aside at the time and told him to focus on one play at a time. Mitchell smiled, strolling through the bowels of NRG Stadium in the direction of the team’s Super Bowl party as one of its most promising young players fresh off a championship.

At that point, who knew how many more big-game performances Mitchell would put together over the course of his career?


As it turned out, he wouldn’t play in another game outside of a preseason contest in Houston the following summer. Mitchell announced at an event at the University of Georgia this week, more than two years after that clutch performance against the Falcons, that he was retiring from football. 

He followed up his announcement with an instagram post that read in part, “Everything will work out.”

Mitchell’s knees wouldn’t allow him to continue his career after spending a portion of last offseason with the Patriots. Though he’s been gone for almost a full calendar year, his absence is still felt at One Patriot Place. 

The fourth-round pick in 2016 — who fell that far in part because of injury concerns — was the most productive rookie receiver the Patriots had featured since Deion Branch in 2002. Receiver remains among the most glaring needs on the Patriots roster as they work to build around Julian Edelman. 

Mitchell’s football career was short-lived, but his one year in New England — and in particular that one night beating up on Falcons corners — has given him a platform to serve as a literacy advocate. He’s written children’s books and continues to speak about the importance of reading for kids from all walks of life. 

Mitchell may be done with the game for which he’s known, but his retirement announcement certainly won’t be the last we hear from him. 

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Robert Kraft trying to thread the needle with statement/apology

Robert Kraft trying to thread the needle with statement/apology

The septuagenarian speaketh. Or maketh a statement as the case may be.

Which was a good idea.

The stupidity exhibited by Patriots owner Robert Kraft leading to a month all of us gasbagging about multiple ill-fated visits to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa.

It needed input from the guy who made the decision to go there in the first place. Twice. On consecutive days.

Kraft made it clear in his statement that it wasn’t his choice to dummy up and not own his decisions. He said he wanted to do it a month ago. The lawyers wouldn’t let him.

What’s changed?

A few things.


First, earlier this week, Florida prosecutors offered a plea deal only a drooling moron would agree to.

“We’ll drop the charges if you tell everyone you’re guilty and you know it, clap your hands…deal?”

Then Kraft let it be known that he wasn’t taking that deal and that he was still maintaining he “hadn’t done anything illegal” (a wise semantic dodge, keeping the word “innocent” out of this mess).

Then, Sheriff Buford T. Pusser 2.0 saber-rattled that video of Robert Kraft’s saber-rattling was inevitably going to get out there and that most folks might not like it.

Then, Kraft’s attorneys returned fire Friday intimating that the full legal fury of a multi-billionaire would visit upon the precinct house if that damn video – part of an investigation they allege was illegal – got out.

And of course, the NFL’s Annual Meeting convenes Sunday in Arizona and the image of Kraft scuttling from elevator to meeting room to limousine without comment for four days while his fellow owners had to answer for him was destined to be some of the worst optics since … well, since whatever’s on that video.

So what to make of the statement? I dunno.

Kraft was trying to threading the needle between apologizing without admitting guilt while saying, “I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time but couldn’t…” On that front, it worked.  

Also, without saying the women he interacted with were specifically disrespected by him, he at least acknowledged that transactional sex in general isn’t the highest form of love.

Personally, I loathe that he brought up Myra Kraft in the statement. Regardless how important she was in shaping your morals and respect for women and how deep your love for her continues to be, references to her in a statement regarding? What are we doing?

The last bit expecting to be judged by his words and not his actions and working to regain trust? Good. Fine. ‘Nuf said.

We are a long way from reaching the point of, “Remember when Kraft got pinched at the massage joint …” and having a good nostalgic laugh about it, though.

There’s a court date next Thursday. The ever-present specter of the video being released is dangling. The NFL has to decide how it proceeds with punishment.

There are miles to go before we sleep but at least Kraft’s head can hit the pillow tonight knowing he’s publicly acknowledged … something.

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