Patriots Must Pay Stephon Gilmore Or Figure Out Next Step At Cornerback

Two starting-caliber cornerbacks remain available in free agency

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The New England Patriots had to know this was coming, and that’s the biggest reason not to panic about All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s absence from mandatory minicamp this week.

After borrowing $4.5 million from Gilmore’s 2021 salary to give him a temporary pay raise last season, the Patriots failed to put that money back into the cornerback’s piggy bank over the last five months. Knowing that money was still absent and that he was only set to earn $7 million in salary this season, Gilmore forced the issue by failing to show up at Gillette Stadium this week.

It probably didn’t make sense for the Patriots to adjust Gilmore’s contract until he actually held out. It was worth seeing if the cornerback would show up anyway even without the raise. He didn’t, and now things get interesting.

The Patriots’ have three options at this point: give Gilmore another raise (a real one this time), extend him past the 2021 season with a fair market deal (probably around the $13 million he made last season) or trade him. And Gilmore has two options: Say yes or no to whatever deal New England slides across the negotiating table.

Gilmore currently has more power in the process. Despite a knee injury that sidelined him in the middle of the season and a quad injury that ended his year early, Gilmore is still probably the Patriots’ best overall player. And New England lacks ideal depth at his position.

They’re certainly fine with JC Jackson and slot-man Jonathan Jones as starters, but the cornerback depth gets a little murky after that. Monday’s minicamp practice showed Jalen Mills would be next in line for a starting role. He’s an experienced starting NFL defensive back, but with the quality of play expected out of New England’s defense this season, he’s best suited for a jack-of-all-trades role to fill in where needed at cornerback, slot and free or strong safety. The Patriots shouldn’t be content heading into the 2021 season with Mills as a starting outside cornerback replacing Gilmore in the starting lineup. Beyond Mills, the Patriots have 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams, 2019 fifth-round pick Mike Jackson, 2020 undrafted free agent Myles Bryant, special-teamers Justin Bethel and Dee Virgin and 2019 undrafted free agent D’Angelo Ross.

Williams is unproven as an NFL cornerback and was moved to more of a safety role last season. Jackson has shown some potential in spring practices but spent nearly all of last season on New England’s practice squad. Bryant and Ross are undersized and best utilized in the slot, and moving Jones outside shouldn’t be a solution. Bethel and Virgin would only be defenders in emergency situations.

There are two players left in free agency worth monitoring, though: Richard Sherman, who was a second-team All-Pro as recently as 2019, and Steven Nelson. Sherman and Nelson are not on Gilmore’s level, but they’re certainly still starting-caliber players. Sherman is a risk since he only played five games last season, but Nelson could be a bargain at this point in free agency. He was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers in March at his own request and has yet to sign elsewhere.

Traversing the waters of Gilmore’s holdout will be tricky. New England would rather keep Gilmore than sign anyone else at that cornerback position, but they also don’t want to be left without Gilmore and Sherman or Nelson. The Patriots also didn’t address cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Sherman and Nelson could be gone by the time the Sherman situation is settled.

The Patriots can’t allow themselves to enter the 2021 NFL season after fixing their defense by adding Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Christian Barmore and getting Dont’a Hightower back in the mix by throwing their hands in the air and hoping someone on the current roster can step up across from Jackson. The Patriots have $15 million in cap space, so price is not an issue or an excuse. It now comes down to deciding whether they want to pay Gilmore or someone else.

Acquiescing to Gilmore’s needs is probably New England’s simplest path to ensure its defense is as strong as required and anticipated. The two parties have less than three months to figure something out.

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