Watching Sunday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you had to come away encouraged by the play of the New England Patriots’ cornerbacks.
The trio of J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones didn’t neutralize Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady-led passing game, but they hung in well with one of the NFL’s best receiving corps, limiting an amped-up Brady to 269 passing yards and no touchdowns on 43 attempts.
Man, the postgame thinking went, once this team gets Stephon Gilmore back in Week 7, this secondary will be in great shape.
Those hopes were fleeting.
Three days after losing to the Bucs 19-17 on a rainy night at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots informed Gilmore — their No. 1 corner and the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year — that they planned to release him. The possibility of an eleventh-hour trade still exists, but Gilmore confirmed he has played his final snap for New England.
(UPDATE: The Patriots traded Gilmore to the Panthers for a 2023 sixth-round draft pick.)
The move was a stunner. Gilmore hasn’t played or practiced since he partially tore his quad last December, and his unhappiness with his Patriots contract was well-documented, but a resolution always seemed inevitable. When teammates — especially safety Devin McCourty — discussed Gilmore in interviews, they always framed his eventual return to the field as a “when,” not an “if.”
While the Patriots were overhauling their front seven this past offseason, they did comparatively little to address their cornerback depth, signing versatile veteran Jalen Mills and ignoring the position in the 2021 NFL Draft. This group seemingly was built to survive until Gilmore returned, not compete for a full season without him.
But that’s what it now will need to do. Jackson and Mills — who has played well through four games after a shaky summer — will move forward as the two outside starters, with Jones manning the slot and Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade and special teamer Justin Bethel filling out the depth chart.
Williams, who has yet to live up to his billing as a 2019 second-round draft pick, was a healthy scratch for the Tampa game. Wade, a fifth-round rookie acquired in a late-August trade, has yet to dress this season. Bethel rarely plays outside of the kicking game. A brief Jones injury forced him onto the field for one defensive snap Sunday night, and he was beaten by Antonio Brown for a key third-down conversion.
So, why boot Gilmore? And why now, when he still has two weeks left on his stint on the physically unable to perform list? Money.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Patriots approached Gilmore about a contract restructure that would free up salary cap space to sign free agent linebacker Jamie Collins and give them additional flexibility to make additional moves in the coming weeks. Gilmore, who’s been unhappy with his $7 million base salary all year and is set to hit free agency in March, wasn’t willing to make that concession.
“They went to him to get a reworked contract done,” Schefter said Wednesday on ESPN’s “Keyshawn, JWill & Max.” “He was unwilling to do what they said. He would have done something if it was favorable in his direction, but it wasn’t. He knew the leverage that he held, and he said, ‘Nah, I’m not gonna do that.’ And they needed the space, and he’s in the last year of a contract. Both sides were going different ways, and the (Patriots) said, ‘You know what? He’s not rushing back from his quad injury right now to play for us, he won’t take the reworked deal, we love the guy as a player.’ …
“But they needed some flexibility and space and they freed up $5.8 million by releasing him. So, now New England can function and operate.”
They can function and operate, sure, but can they win? That’ll be much more difficult without arguably their best defensive player. The Patriots are a team in transition, with a rookie quarterback and pricey newcomers in nearly every position group, but they didn’t hand out $175 million in guaranteed money this past offseason to finish 8-9. (They currently sit at 1-3 entering Sunday’s matchup with the lowly Houston Texans.)
The Gilmore decision has future ramifications, too. Jackson is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season and, barring a sharp decline in performance, will be in line for a hefty pay raise. If the Patriots can’t or choose not to retain him, they’d essentially be starting over at the cornerback position with no obvious rising replacements in the pipeline.
As Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan noted, the cap space gained by dumping Gilmore should allow the team to sign Jackson to an in-season extension if they so choose.
The only Patriots cornerbacks currently under contract for 2022 are Mills, Jones, Williams, Wade and Bethel.
As for Gilmore, whose contributions were vital to New England’s 2018 Super Bowl run, it likely won’t take him long to find a new home. The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both have been linked to the 31-year-old cover man.