Two weeks ago, the Patriots pressed the turbo button on their rebuild. Since the splurge, attention has shifted back to the team’s biggest lingering question mark: quarterback.
But there’s other unfinished business flying under the radar that could have as much impact on 2021 fortunes as who’s at quarterback: What happens with Stephon Gilmore?
A quick refresher on the landscape: Gilmore, who turns 31 in September, is going into the last year of the five-year, $65 million contract the Patriots signed him to in March 2017. He’s got a $15.9M cap hit, which the Patriots would probably like to knock down. He’s on the books for a $7M salary which Gilmore would definitely like to bump up.
He was the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the sixth cornerback to win the award. The other five are in the Hall of Fame. He helped seal the Patriots' 2018 Super Bowl win over the Rams with a pick inside the 5-yard line. Along with Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel, Gilmore is the best free agent signing Bill Belichick’s made in his 21 seasons here.
He’s earned his money. But his pay has remained commensurate with his play. Even while Gilmore’s 2021 salary and the total value of the 2017 contract lag behind cornerback deals done since then, the deal isn’t really out of whack.
But the one place Gilmore could feel underpaid is in average annual value. Gilmore’s is now $13M. That’s 13th-best among corners. A raise would remedy that to a degree. An extension would fix it.
The Patriots went the raise route last summer when Gilmore was coming off that DPOY.
In June, we wrote about the dilemma Gilmore’s deal could cause for the team. And it did. Gilmore, who was briefly out of training camp last year, got a raise in early August soon after his return. But that raise was a Band-Aid.
The Patriots are still looking at the same dilemma. He’s got a fat camp number. He wants more money. So do they extend Gilmore, knocking down his 2021 number and keeping one of the NFL’s best corners at the back of their defense? Or do they look to move him either in the offseason or at the trade deadline and get something in return.
Gilmore is “very open” to an extension, according to the MMQB's Albert Breer. And teammates of Gilmore’s whom I’ve been in contact with this offseason are very hopeful he gets one.
The reason is simple. As nice as it is to have quality tight ends, wideouts, linebackers and edge rushers on the field, elite secondary players – often a shutdown corner – has been a common denominator in the Patriots' six Super Bowl wins. From Ty Law to Asante Samuel to Aqib Talib to Darrelle Revis to Malcolm Butler and now Gilmore, the presence of someone who can take away an opposing team’s biggest threat is what can make a talented defense a great one.
J.C. Jackson is a ballhawk in the same way Butler and Samuel were. But Gilmore is a technician like Revis, Talib and Samuel. If the Patriots want their up-front investment in Matt Judon, Henry Anderson, etc. to pay dividends, they need their back end covered.
It’s still impossible to know how much fire was behind all the smoke that had us on Gilly Watch. Were the Patriots actively shopping Gilmore? Or was conversation driven merely by the dot-connecting we did on Gilmore’s contract and the team’s history of moving players when they could still get something in return?
With Gilmore still rehabbing from the quad injury that ended his season, the time isn’t right for the Patriots to try and move him. And it may be that way through the draft and beyond.
But the time is right for an extension. Gilmore’s amenable to it. The Patriots – if they have designs on being Super Bowl contenders and not just an improved team – have greater motivation now than they may have two weeks ago. And knocking down Gilmore’s cap number might be necessary if the Patriots were to swing a deal for, say, Jimmy Garoppolo, who’d bring with him a $25M cap hit unless he agreed to a pay cut.
What would an extension look like? It would probably have to have an AAV of at least $16.5M, since that would put him in the top-five in that category among corners.
An extension for Gilmore isn’t a “must do.” The Patriots have cap space. They have him under contract. But if the door’s open to get a deal done with one of their best players at the most important spot on defense, it might be a good idea to do it.