July is supposed to be a slow time on the NFL calendar, but the Patriots have made a surprising amount of news over the past week.
Stephon Gilmore seems to be getting increasingly frustrated with the status of his contract, former first-round pick N’Keal Harry officially asked for a trade, and future franchise quarterback Mac Jones finally inked his rookie deal.
Let’s take a deeper look inside these stories:
1. Still plenty of time to get something done with Gilmore. It was no secret that Gilmore wants a new contract from the Patriots — he skipped mandatory minicamp last month, incurring more than $93,000 in fines. But his since-deleted tweet on June 30 about not being one of the top highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL reveals that Gilmore is getting increasingly frustrated over his lack of progress in getting a pay raise.
Gilmore is in the final year of a five-year, $65 million deal he signed before the 2017 season. The Patriots gave him a salary advance last year to increase his 2020 compensation to $14.7 million, but that left him with a $7.9 million salary in 2021. Gilmore believes he deserves a raise, but, clearly, the Patriots have not made a suitable offer yet.
However, I really don’t see this as an acrimonious contract negotiation yet — just business. Gilmore, whose full-time home is in Charlotte, has still been around Foxborough throughout the offseason. At a community event in Burlington in April, Gilmore told me his contract is “out of my control. I’m just happy to be a Patriot right now, and see how it goes.” Gilmore hasn’t publicly requested a trade and hasn’t dropped any hints that he wants out of Foxborough.
I also don’t get the sense that the Patriots have much interest in trading Gilmore. Though his 2020 numbers didn’t come close to matching his 2019 production, Gilmore is still their top cornerback and one of the best in the NFL. After spending $175 million fully guaranteed on 25 free agents this offseason, the Patriots would be silly to trade arguably their best defensive player over a few million dollars. Gilmore is a much more important piece than Lawyer Milloy was in 2003, or Logan Mankins in 2014. The Patriots want to win in 2021, and trading Gilmore makes the Patriots significantly worse, not better.
The real date to watch between Gilmore and the Patriots is July 28, the first day of training camp. If Gilmore fails to report, he will be fined $50,000 every day he holds out. He also would be fined about $411,000 for every preseason game he skips. But there are still three weeks for Gilmore and the Patriots to work out something.
It wouldn’t even surprise me if Gilmore does hold out for a few days of training camp. Incurring $200,000 in fines could be worth it if it results in several million added to his contract. And missing the first week of training camp isn’t a big deal as far as preparing for the season. But I wouldn’t expect Gilmore to hold out for all of training camp and risk fines of more than $2.5 million. The Patriots are probably just waiting him out to see how far he is willing to push a holdout.
Gilmore isn’t wrong to believe he deserves to make more this year, considering he’s coming off a second straight Pro Bowl berth and is just one year removed from being named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
But the Patriots don’t just hand out money. When Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski wanted pay increases, the Patriots only relented with performance incentives, not guaranteed money. Gilmore is under contract for one more year, he will be 31 in September, and he’s coming off a torn quadriceps. That’s not a recipe for getting more money from the Patriots.
Gilmore will be disappointed if he expects the Patriots to pay him $18 million-$20 million per year like the top cornerbacks. He may not even get in the $15 million-$16 million range.
But there’s a compromise to be made, and I expect it to happen. I believe Gilmore will end up accepting performance-related bonuses — the Patriots gave Gronk $5.5 million in incentives in 2017 and $3.3 million in 2018 — and I would be very surprised if Gilmore’s relationship with the Patriots turns overly contentious.
2. Patriots still can’t develop receivers. Chad Jackson. Aaron Dobson. Bethel Johnson. Brandon Tate. Taylor Price. Now, Harry joins the list of young receivers who couldn’t hack it in New England.
The news Tuesday that Harry’s agent publicly requested a trade wasn’t too much of a surprise. He saw the writing on the wall that Harry probably doesn’t have a roster spot with the Patriots anymore, with the additions of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne this offseason, the returns of Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, and the progress of youngsters Isaiah Zuber and others.
But it does shine a light on the Patriots’ baffling inability to find young wide receivers. Other than finding and developing Julian Edelman, a seventh-round flyer in 2009, the Patriots have whiffed time and again at wide receiver.
There are obvious questions about the Patriots’ scouting methods, because they chose Harry, the second receiver drafted in 2019, over A.J. Brown, D.J. Metcalf, Mecole Hardman, Terry McLaurin, and Deebo Samuel. A whopping 18 receivers from the 2019 draft class have more career receiving yards than Harry (414), including several late-round and undrafted players such as Meyers.
It's not just that the Patriots could've had AJ Brown, DK Metcalf or Terry McLaurin with the 32nd pick.— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) July 6, 2021
18 WRs from the 2019 draft class have produced more yards than N'Keal Harry (414), and 10 WRs have caught more TDs (four).
Includes several late-round and undrafted players: pic.twitter.com/5mh1pngr8q
But the Patriots’ developmental methods also should be put under a microscope, because it can’t be a coincidence that they keep missing on young receivers while teams such as Pittsburgh and Seattle consistently find productive ones.
Whether the Patriots’ offense is too complicated, or Josh McDaniels and his position coaches aren’t effective communicators and teachers, the Patriots have struggled to develop young receivers. It’s certainly not a given that Brown and Metcalf would be budding superstars in New England if they were the picks instead.
Harry is responsible for his own performance and deserves plenty of blame for his career not taking off yet. But the Patriots’ complicated system probably deserves its fair share of blame, too.
3. Mac is good money. The Patriots made a big investment in the future when they took Jones with the 15th pick in April’s draft, the first time in 22 years that Bill Belichick used a first-round pick on a quarterback.
But financially, drafting Jones comes with very little risk and a ton of upside. Jones signed his slotted rookie contract Tuesday — a four-year, $15.59 million pact that is fully guaranteed. That comes out to less than $4 million per year, which is backup quarterback money. Starting quarterbacks are now commanding between $25 million-$45 million per year. Jones is so inexpensive the Patriots won’t feel obligated to play him right away and can move him along at the appropriate pace.
There is always the chance of Jones busting out, but the reward is worth it. If Jones develops into a solid starter by Year 2 or Year 3, that gives the Patriots a huge advantage — a cheap QB and the ability to spend money elsewhere on the roster. The Seahawks won a Super Bowl with Russell Wilson on his rookie deal, and the Chiefs did the same with Patrick Mahomes. The Patriots have until 2025 until Jones makes real money.
And if Jones isn’t as good as hoped, the Patriots will be back at Square One at quarterback, but it won’t set them back from a financial or salary cap standpoint. Jones’s cap numbers will be about $2.8 million, $3.5 million, $4.2 million and $5 million — so low that the Patriots could still draft a quarterback again before Jones’s contract expires.
Everyone around the Patriots hopes Jones can become the future of the franchise. But his rookie contract won’t hamstring the organization if he doesn’t make it.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.