- In swiping away the top cornerback available and the star of a division rival, the defending champion Patriots are showing just how badly they want to avoid complacency.
If there is one thing we know about the Patriots, it’s that they do not rest on their laurels. A player helped them win the Super Bowl? Great. Is there an upgrade available on that player?
Per multiple reports, the reigning champs will sign ex-Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore—thought to be the top CB available—to a massive deal Thursday. Gilmore’s arrival effectively will end the Patriots career of Logan Ryan, whose versatility and move to the slot last season helped New England’s defense really take off.
The Patriots tried to turn Ryan into their No. 2 corner opposite Malcolm Butler. He was overwhelmed in that position and was moved to a slot-heavy role. Gilmore, though, is a true outside cornerback, a lock-down defender when he is at his best.
Granted, he wasn’t always at his best for Buffalo last year. He finished with a career-high five interceptions and his first Pro Bowl berth, but he—like the Buffalo defense as a whole—battled inconsistency. Patriots fans might best remember those ups and downs from their team’s Halloween weekend victory over the Bills, a 41–25 triumph in which Chris Hogan torched Gilmore. Pro Football Focus, in its grading system, barely had Gilmore cracking the top 20 among potential free-agent cornerbacks.
New England reportedly will pay Gilmore around $14 million per year, a clear indication Bill Belichick & Co. believe Gilmore’s best days are ahead of him. Pairing Gilmore with Butler gives the Patriots a 1-2 punch outside most teams would envy, and Gilmore can take on top-dog duties if the Patriots want to move Butler around.
The Gilmore signing could have an impact on Butler’s future, as well. He entered this off-season as a restricted free agent; the Patriots tendered him at a first-round price tag ($3.91 million). That means he is free to sign with another team, and New England either could match or receive a first-round pick back as compensation. With Gilmore helping to set the upper reaches of the cornerback market, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots doubling down and matching a Butler contract offer if another team swoops in with big money.
Even if Butler stays put and plays out 2017 on the tender, he could then be an unrestricted free agent next off-season. Will the Patriots hand out a second massive contract at the cornerback position? They would have the franchise tag in their back pocket if they can’t reach an extension with Butler, but that tag cost teams $14.3 million this year and should go up in ’18.
We’ll see. We also have to wait and see if Gilmore can shed those shaky performances and be a dominant, 16-game player. A $14 million-per-year deal would pay him like a top-five cornerback—that’s the current annual average on Richard Sherman’s contract, per Overthecap.com. Gilmore has those dominant moments, but he’ll be asked to deliver them on a game-in, game-out basis.
He is a step up from Ryan, since it’s apparent the Patriots were looking for more of an outside cornerback. How much of an upgrade he proves to be for the defense as a whole will determine the success of this surprising, high-priced move.