Curran: Will Stephon Gilmore follow in Xavien Howard's footsteps?


The Miami Dolphins were able to placate disgruntled cornerback Xavien Howard with a contract tweak on Sunday.

Does Howard’s situation with the Dolphins provide a preview of how the Patriots will placate their own disgruntled corner, Stephon Gilmore? Not really.

The main difference is that Gilmore is entering the final year of the five-year, $65M deal he signed in 2017. Howard is in the third year of his five-year, $75.5M deal signed in 2019. The Dolphins were able to both tinker with this year’s number and subsequent seasons to get Howard back on the field.

The Patriots don’t have that situation with Gilmore. They’ll either give him a bump from his $7M salary this year by slapping down the money or adding some reasonable incentives (likely) or they’ll give him an extension (less likely but not out of the question).

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The aspect of the Howard and Gilmore situations that is similar, though, is the team’s need to see the player play.

Because of the NFL’s fine structure for training camp holdouts, Howard was “holding in” on the Dolphins with an ankle issue. He took the practice field for the first time on Saturday -- bingo, bango, bongo -- new deal on Sunday.

Gilmore has been rehabbing his surgically-repaired quad throughout camp. Meanwhile, NFL Network’s Mike Giardi reported there were no restrictions on his workouts as far back as June 21.


If there wasn’t a contract issue, would the 30-year-old Gilmore be on the field by now or would the team be taking its time with bringing back one of their most important defenders? It’s hard to say definitively. But it’s not hard to imagine the Patriots definitively wanting to see Gilmore on the field before handing him either a bump or an extension.

While Gilmore was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, he didn’t close that season on a high, as Miami’s DeVante Parker had an eight-catch, 137-yard day against Gilmore in a “gotta have it” Week 17 game. And he wasn’t close to the same player in 2020 that he was in 2019. Pro Football Focus had Gilmore rated 61st among corners last year before his season ended after 11 games. Even if you don’t trust PFF as a lock-down source, the evidence was there week in and week out that Gilmore wasn’t as dominant.

The Patriots defense as a whole wasn’t even close to what it was in 2019 thanks to opt-outs and free agent attrition. But before the Patriots cut Gilmore for future performance, they will want to be sure he’s going to play more like 2019 Steph than 2020 Steph.

There’s no doubt among his teammates that he will. Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower both sang Gilmore’s praises in the opening days of camp.

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“He’s one of the best corners in this league,” said McCourty. “He’s been the best guy for the last couple of years -- obviously defensive MVP. And he’s really made this defense operate at a different level when he’s out there. So anytime I get an opportunity to be out there on the field with him, it gives us a better chance to win, makes us a better defense.”

Even though he hasn’t been on the field, Gilmore’s been a contributor in camp.

“Right now, he’s ‘Coach Steph,’ ” said cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino. “He’s working the other part of his game. Working off the field, trying to get better, he’s rehabbing. He’s getting there. Taking it one day at a time, but in the meantime, he always helps the younger guys. He’s doing his part. He’s being a good teammate. He’s been great in the room.”

There’s an air of inevitability to this impasse. The two sides will eventually find the “common ground” Gilmore said he and the team were seeking and the Patriots once again will have one of the best on-paper secondaries in the NFL. But to find that common ground, Gilmore’s feet may have to find the ground of the Gillette Stadium practice fields. Just like Xavien Howard.