1:14 p.m. on 10/6/21
There has been a new development since this article was originally published:
Time for a Change
In a move that seems to have taken most of the NFL world by surprise, the New England Patriots released star cornerback Stephon Gilmore early this morning. Gilmore was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list prior to the commencement of the current NFL season. He would have been eligible to return to the active roster, and was widely expected to do so, after the Patriots’ Week 6 game versus the Dallas Cowboys. Now, Stephon Gilmore will likely field offers from what should be a very competitive market.
A Very Successful Tenure
After leaving the Buffalo Bills to sign with the Patriots on a 5 year, $65 million contract in 2017, Stephon Gilmore quickly established himself as one of the league’s premiere defensive backs. In the 4 years that he was with the Pats, Gilmore made 3 Pro Bowls and was selected as a First Team All-Pro twice. Additionally, he won AP Defensive Player of the Year for his excellent play during the 2019-2020 season, making him the first cornerback since Charles Woodson in 2009 and the first member of the New England Patriots ever to take home the award. He will be beloved by the Patriots fanbase for a long time due to his elite coverage ability and his ability to make big plays in the most crucial moments, most notably his interception to all but seal Super Bowl 53.
After suffering a quadriceps injury in Week 15 of last season, Gilmore was placed on the IR. The following offseason, he was placed on the PUP as a result of that same quadriceps injury barely a week prior to the kick-off of the 2021 NFL season. As fate would have it, the play during which Gilmore sustained his injury would be his last as a New England Patriot.
However, even prior to Gilmore’s placement on the PUP, relations between the star cornerback and his team were not stellar. Gilmore refused to show up to mandatory minicamp over the summer due to issues that he had with his current contract situation.
He was set to return while playing on the fifth and final year of his original contract with the Patriots, and he was scheduled to make $7,911,765 this season. For reference, this would have put Gilmore as the 24th highest paid cornerback in the league for the 2021 season. It is worth noting that Gilmore signed a front-loaded contract when he initially joined the Patriots in 2017. In his first year with the team, Gilmore made $22,906,250, which made him the highest paid cornerback in the league that year. Averaged out over the course of his entire contract, Gilmore made $13,000,000 per year, placing him as the 14th highest earner (by average) at the cornerback position.
Throughout the offseason, Gilmore made sure that no one was mistaken regarding his reason for holding out, even going so far as to tweet out a reaction to a graphic that CBS Sports shared on Twitter. This graphic showed the top 10 highest earners at the CB position by AAV (average annual value), and, notably, Gilmore did not make the cut.
Limited Cap Space
Whether the Patriots valued Gilmore at his asking price or not, one thing is clear: The team simply could not afford to pay him market value. Following an unprecedented spending spree by Head Coach Bill Belichick this past offseason, the Patriots were sitting at just around $54,000 below the cap with Gilmore on the roster at his current contract. Per renowned Patriots cap expert, @pastcap (on Twitter), the release of Gilmore has freed up roughly $5,790,850 in cap space. The team now sits at $8,614,769 below the cap, potentially offering them the flexibility needed to extend several young stars.
So far this season, the Patriots secondary has played well enough in Gilmore’s absence to tie for the league lead in interceptions (18). Moving forward, the team will start young star CB J.C. Jackson and veteran CB Jalen Mills at corner, with speedster Jonathan Jones and young guns Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade rounding out the cornerback group. With Gilmore departing the team, it seems likely that the Patriots will reach terms on a contract extension with Jackson, who is currently playing on a 1 Year/$3,384,000 contract. Jackson will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason if he is not re-signed before that time.
Stephon Gilmore’s Future
Stephon Gilmore will now field offers from what is sure to be a very competitive market. Speculation regarding the star cornerback’s landing spot has already run rampant in the hours following his release, but one team in particular sticks out as almost too perfect of a match.
A Match Made in Heaven?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Gilmore’s former teammate Tom Brady, are in desperate need of help in their secondary. They had already lost starting cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean-Murphy Bunting before their most recent game against the Patriots really added insult to injury (no pun intended). Next-man-up CB Carlton Davis and promising young safety Antoine Winfield Jr. both sustained injuries this past Sunday, and their return timelines are currently unclear. The Bucs turned to free agent cornerback Richard Sherman, who was without a team up to this point in the season, for help in their secondary. Amazingly, Sherman went from free agent emergency plan to important defensive piece in the span of a few days, playing a total of 58 snaps against the Pats.
A Familiar Problem
After bringing back the entire starting roster from their Super Bowl victory a season ago, the Buccaneers look poised to make another deep playoff push. However, glaring holes in their defensive secondary (exacerbated by injury) could be their undoing. As such, Gilmore and the Bucs seem like a match made in heaven.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, they do not have much spending room (currently less than $4 million under the cap). For an older cornerback who is seeking a big payday, this may prove to be a major issue. Perhaps Gilmore will take a pay cut to get a very legitimate shot at another Super Bowl ring and the chance to put himself in line for a huge, longer term payday this offseason. On the other hand, Gilmore has already made it quite clear that he wants to be paid up to his market value, a contract that Tampa Bay certainly will not be able to offer. In the end, it will be up to how Gilmore sorts his priorities. Tampa Bay will certainly come calling, but he may want more than they can offer.
(Another) Battle of the Juggernauts
Another seemingly obvious landing destination is the Kansas City Chiefs, who are currently allowing the 6th most passing yards per game at 291.8 yds/gm. While this is not quite as bad as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who allow the most passing yards allowed per game at 327.5 yds/gm, it still indicates a glaring hole. The Chiefs find themselves in a very similar situation as the Bucs – a win-now team with a stellar, explosive offense but some defensive concerns. Furthermore, they have a similar amount of cap space, which would force Gilmore to make the same exact decision that he would be faced with in the event of a contract offer from the Bucs.
In addition to these higher profile landing spots, several other teams have been speculated as possible landing spots for Gilmore. One team that is built in a similar mold to both TB and KC with regard to offensive strengths and defensive weaknesses is the Green Bay Packers. Notably, one differentiating factor with Green Bay is their ability to pay Gilmore, as they have roughly double the amount of cap space as Tampa Bay. Given that they may have just lost Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander for a considerable amount of time to a shoulder injury, the Packers may be aggressive in pursuing Stephon Gilmore.
Other teams that have been mentioned are the Cleveland Browns, the Carolina Panthers (who recently lost top draft pick Jaycee Horn and have ample cap space), the Los Angeles Chargers, and the San Francisco 49ers. All currently have winning records and are looking to make deep playoff pushes. Signing a cornerback of Stephon Gilmore’s caliber could be the jump-start needed to vault one of these teams to the next level of contention.
Gilmore is still recovering from an injury, but things are likely to move quickly regardless. It seems probable that Gilmore’s next landing spot will be known within the week, so be sure to return to this article to receive updates as they occur.
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