After missing three straight games, Stephon Gilmore will make his long-awaited return to the Patriots lineup Sunday afternoon in Houston.
But what had kept the reigning Defensive Player of the Year off the field recently? Was it really a knee injury -- or was it something else?
Count former Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson among those who believe that there was more involved in the cornerback's absence beyond his health.
"I think Stephon Gilmore and Bill Belichick are at odds," said Johnson during Sunday's episode of "Pregame Live" on NBC Sports Boston. "I think that there was something, probably over the contract, that those two aren't seeing eye to eye on, and I feel like it's almost become untenable with Stephon Gilmore and Bill Belichick. My feeling is, was the knee injury -- is there some truth to that? Yes. But I think it was more that Bill was not happy with Stephon and vice versa."
What's the deal with Gilmore's contract? He's signed through 2021, and even though he got a $5 million raise right before this season started, he's only due $7 million next season, far below the market value for a player of his caliber.
And when you add in other factors this season -- trade rumors leading up to the deadline, Gilmore putting his house on the market -- speculation about Gilmore's future has been simmering. As NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran put it last month, the possibility of a Gilmore trade was "when, not if."
All of that -- along with his own past history with Belichick -- leads Johnson to believe that there's been more to Gilmore's recent absences than a balky knee.
"My feeling is that Bill Belichick probably went to him this week and said, 'Let's bury the hatchet' -- extended him an olive branch," Johnson continued. "Bill has done that with me... When it becomes so hard to work and cohabitate together, I've seen Bill, because I've personally experienced Bill coming up to me, extending me an olive branch, giving me some credit and saying, 'What are we going to do to work this out?' And I said to Bill, 'We won't have a problem again this year,' and I didn't the rest of my career.
"So my feeling is he did something similar with Stephon Gilmore that (he) went to him and said, 'Hey, let's work this out, can we at least get on the same page and put our differences aside for the rest of the year?' "
Whatever the reason for Gilmore's absence, his return to the field should strengthen a Patriots pass defense that ranks 10th in the NFL, allowing 224.1 yards per game.