So much for the New England Patriots never making a splashy signing on the first day of free agency.
The Patriots reportedly have an agreement in place with cornerback Stephon Gilmore worth $14 million per season. It’s surprising — stunning, even — the Patriots would take on that kind of commitment with a player they haven’t met with, but head coach Bill Belichick knows Gilmore’s playing style well.
Gilmore, previously a member of the Buffalo Bills, has played eight career games against the Patriots in his five NFL seasons. He has one interception and 25 tackles in those matchups.
Gilmore, who’s 6 feet, 190 pounds, is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2016 and set a career high in interceptions with five last season. He is and will be paid like a No. 1 cornerback.
So, that raises the question: What will the Patriots do with Malcolm Butler?
The Patriots gave Butler, a restricted free agent, a first-round tender that will pay him just $3.91 million — more than $10 million less than Gilmore — in 2017. It’s unfair, but it’s the life of an undrafted free agent and restricted free agent. That doesn’t mean Butler has to accept, though. If him and the Patriots can’t reach a long-term deal, Butler could hold out.
Another team also could wind up signing Butler to an offer sheet, which the Patriots then would have the option of matching. If the Patriots chose not to match, they would receive a 2017 first-round draft pick. With Gilmore in place, they would have to at least consider taking that draft pick, depending on where it lands in the first round.
Obviously, given the surprising nature of the Gilmore agreement in general, nothing is off the table, but it would be surprising if the Patriots paid two cornerbacks like No. 1s moving forward. The Patriots don’t typically invest that heavily in one position. But again, they also typically don’t make splashy signings on the first day of free agency.
The Patriots clearly decided Gilmore is worth it. Gilmore comes at a hefty price, but it’s hard to doubt the move too heavily since the Patriots have found recent success in acquiring top-notch cornerbacks and fitting them into their system.
The Patriots acquired Aqib Talib midway through the 2012 season, and he turned into one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks. The Patriots then signed Darrelle Revis to what wound up being a one-year deal in 2014, and they won a Super Bowl before he returned to the New York Jets and significantly declined.
Still, blindly signing a free agent always comes with a degree of risk. Case in point: Adalius Thomas, who never quite seemed to buy into Belichick’s Patriot Way. Then again, there’s always players like Roosevelt Colvin, who came in and excelled without an issue.
The Patriots had plenty of cap room, and they had to spend it one way or another. Gilmore is a known commodity and, despite playing five years in the league, is younger than Butler, who’s entering his fourth season.
Gilmore has elite size and athleticism for the position, and he’s been a consistent performer on the rise. The Patriots clearly believe Gilmore has room to improve.
The move comes as a shock, and it might be the first of many dominos to fall on the start of the new league year.
And if Butler sticks around and doesn’t hold out? The Patriots suddenly have a 1-2 combination at cornerback that competes with the Denver Broncos for best in the NFL.
Thumbnail photo via Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports Images