The New England Patriots will either have the best secondary in the NFL next season or just a really, really good one. So, regardless of whether Malcolm Butler is traded this offseason, Patriots fans should be really excited to watch their pass defense in 2017.
The Patriots officially added cornerback Stephon Gilmore 12 days ago. The signing was overshadowed as much as a shocking five-year, $65 million acquisition can be because of what came next for the Patriots — a whirlwind of trades, signings and re-signings. Now that those moves have slowed down, we can start to look deeper into how the players added by the Patriots early in the new NFL league year can help the team this season.
CORNERBACK STEPHON GILMORE
6-foot-1, 190 pounds
26 years old
4.40-second 40-yard dash, 1.52-second 10-yard split, 6.61-second 3-cone, 3.94-second short shuttle, 10-feet, 3-inch broad jump, 36-inch vertical leap, 15 bench press reps of 225 pounds
2016 stats: 48 tackles, 12 passes defended, five interceptions
2016 coverage stats, per PFF: 40 catches, 68 targets, 638 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions, 70.6 passer rating against
If the Patriots keep Butler, they have him to take out top smaller receivers and Gilmore to cover taller “X” receivers in man coverage. Gilmore’s size and athleticism likely are among the chief reasons why the Patriots valued him over Butler when deciding upon a future No. 1 cornerback.
The Patriots can stick Gilmore on big wideouts they’ll face in 2017 like Sammy Watkins, Quincy Enunwa, Keenan Allen, Julio Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, DeAndre Hopkins, Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper, Michael Thomas and Mike Evans. Butler would be helpful against guys like Jarvis Landry, Emmanuel Sanders, DeSean Jackson and Antonio Brown, though Gilmore also might have the athleticism and quickness to stick with them if the Patriots so choose.
Without an obvious matchup, Gilmore and Butler could play sides. The Patriots like to mix Cover-1 man, Cover-2 and Cover-3 zone and Cover-6 looks, which are a combination of man and zone. Gilmore says he likes playing press-man coverage, but he’ll be forced to be a Renaissance Man like Leonardo da Vinci, Akbar The Great (I Googled “examples of renaissance men”) or Shaquille O’Neal (he counts, right?). Gilmore will need to be able to play basketball (be physical at the line of scrimmage), rap (tackle and contribute in run defense) and even act in a movie about a genie (communicate with his fellow defenders in zone).
If Butler is traded, Eric Rowe takes on a greater role, and Gilmore likely would assume more responsibility. The Patriots would have more flexibility against bigger receivers since Rowe, like Gilmore, is 6-foot-1 with elite speed, agility and explosion for his size.
In fact, Rowe and Gilmore actually are very similar athletes.
That means the Patriots also could use sides with Gilmore and Rowe in Cover-1, Cover-2, Cover-3 or Cover-6. Rowe likely would see safety help shaded over to his side against top receivers.
Patriots fans understandably are more attached to Butler than they are to Gilmore. Gilmore’s potential to cover big receivers without safety help is invaluable, however. In an ideal world, the Patriots would lock up Butler to a long-term extension, and he and Gilmore could roam New England’s defensive backfield for years to come.
That seems unlikely at this point, but crazier things have happened. Shaq did shoot a movie about a rapping genie, after all.
Thumbnail photo via Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports Images