This seems impossible right now, but eventually the New England Patriots' window to pile on more division titles, more conference championships and more Super Bowl wins will start to close.
I know, that’s a hard future to imagine with a miraculous 25-point comeback win in Super Bowl LI still fresh. But there’s an urgency and a hunger for more as quarterback Tom Brady marches closer to age territory few have conquered at his position. There’s a need to wedge the championship window open for as long as possible.
That mission for 2017 started with signing one of the best defensive reinforcements available in free agency.
The Patriots snapped up a top-tier cornerback when they signed Stephon Gilmore, a familiar division menace. It was an uncharacteristic money dump to begin the new league year from a team that normally holds its dollars tight, riding out the madness during the early chaos of free agency.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the contract terms. They are, well, large, as you would expect for arguably the best available cornerback not named A.J. Bouye:
It’s a contract right in line with the current market that spikes each year as the league’s salary cap keeps catapulting to new unseen levels. Gilmore will earn an average of $13 million annually, which ranks seventh among cornerbacks, according to Spotrac.
Much more importantly, he’ll turn 27 just after the 2017 season starts and will receive $40 million in guaranteed money. That’s tied for fourth at his position, and far ahead of what the impressive though less established Bouye received from the Jacksonville Jaguars ($26 million guaranteed).
Gilmore was always going to get that sort of pay day as a young, talented cornerback with still plenty of prime years left. But a lot of eyebrows involuntarily raised when receiving his sweet, sweet cash from the Patriots. The guaranteed money given to Gilmore is the most New England has ever handed out, according to ESPN:
The departure from the typical Bill Belichick approach to free agency shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness, or desperation. Instead, it’s the Patriots getting richer while perhaps also acknowledging the reality of that ticking clock. Making it tick a little slower means keeping a high-caliber defense on the field to support Brady.
Enter Gilmore, then, and the hope is he can bring the same shutdown presence that Darrelle Revis did in 2014. He’s been that guy before, but the first-round pick in 2012 did take a slight step back recently.
Gilmore allowed a reception on 60.3 percent of his targets in coverage during the 2016 season, according to Pro Football Focus, up from 54.3 in 2015. And the receptions he gave up were often of the deep variety, too, allowing an average of 15.6 yards per catch. But he made up for that with a career-single-season low passer rating in coverage of 70.6, and a career-high five interceptions.
Gilmore has snatched 11 picks over the past three seasons, and that’s more than all but two cornerbacks, as Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal noted:
When he’s playing at his highest level Gilmore can seem magnetized to the ball and is a swarming presence in the secondary who can minimize downfield strikes.
The Patriots transitioned to being a defense-oriented team during their fifth championship season in the Brady-Belichick era, leading the league while allowing only 15.6 points per game. Gilmore instantly becomes another critical cog in the effort to keep scores low each week, especially if the pass rush takes a step back with defensive end Chris Long leaving, and fellow defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard possibly out the door too.
The Patriots aren’t done yet in their quest for more championship jewelry. They’re both adding to their defensive core, and potentially keeping a massive piece if Dont’a Hightower is re-signed.
The 2016 Pro Bowl middle linebacker who excels against both the run and in coverage is still floating out there in free agency. But he’s been in close contact with the Patriots as they try to finalize a deal, according to ESPN’s Dianna Russini:
The Patriots have $48.1 million remaining in salary cap space, per Spotrac, and they could certainly afford to give Hightower the money he deserves.
If they’re successful in that pursuit the Patriots will still have some serious defensive muscle to flex during their championship defense in 2017. They’re reportedly considering moving some of that surplus in a trade with the New Orleans Saints, according to Dianna Russini of ESPN.
Earlier on Thursday rumors flew of a possible deal that would send cornerback Malcolm Butler to the Saints in exchange for receiver Brandin Cooks, giving Brady another option and a shifty wideout who can create yards after the catch.
The Cooks trade hasn’t materialized yet. But the trigger was pulled on the trade that sent tight end Dwayne Allen to New England from the Indianapolis Colts. He’ll be a Martellus Bennett replacement and can make a solid contribution in a secondary role after scoring six touchdowns in 2016.
There are always moving parts with the Patriots. But amid the shuffle holes are plugged, vital areas are reinforced and championship aspirations stay alive.