FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots opened their 2021 training camp Wednesday, and with it came plenty of excitement.
The first day of competition between Cam Newton and Mac Jones. The first real practice for several free agent additions, including Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, and Nelson Agholor. The return of longtime stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.
But the biggest story occurred quietly on the lower practice field, away from the rest of the team. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, returning from a torn quadriceps he sustained last December, did conditioning work along with other injured players who are on the physically unable to perform list. He later watched the end of practice from the sideline, chatting with teammates.
Gilmore was attentive. He was invested. And, most notably, he wasn’t a distraction.
You would never know that Gilmore has been locked in a contract dispute with the Patriots for months. It’s a dispute that resulted in him skipping mandatory minicamp in June, and has frustrated him enough that he took his gripes public this month, telling reporter Josina Anderson, “I just want what I’m worth.”
I just got off the phone with #Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore. On his contract situation: "I just want what I'm worth, however that plays out. Every player should be paid what they're worth. That’s just how it is." He told me he's not looking to push for a trade adding...[Cont] 1/3— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) July 9, 2021
Gilmore, entering his fifth season with the Patriots, is under contract for $7.9 million in 2021, the final year of his deal. That’s about half of what he made last season, and about half of what top-flight NFL cornerbacks earn per season.
Gilmore could be making a big stink right now. He could have requested a trade, like disgruntled Cardinals pass rusher Chandler Jones. He could be putting forth as little effort as possible, like Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, who also requested a trade and said Tuesday, “I am just here so I don’t get fined.”
Gilmore could hold a press conference and air his grievances, as Aaron Rodgers did Wednesday.
But Gilmore is holding up his end of the bargain. He’s putting in the work, keeping quiet, and getting ready for the season. He’s invested in the Patriots and clearly wants to stay here.
Now it’s time for the Patriots to make the situation right and redo Gilmore’s deal. It’s the last piece of unfinished business from an offseason that saw them commit more than $175 million fully guaranteed to free agents. And it needs to happen soon.
Players who become disgruntled over their contracts and squabble with the front office usually get shown the door in Foxborough. Lawyer Milloy, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, and Vince Wilfork are a few noteworthy examples.
But Gilmore is a different case. He’s not easily replaceable, like a guard or a slot receiver or a safety. He’s a big, fast, and physical lockdown cornerback who was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. His 2020 season wasn’t quite on the same level, but Gilmore is still an elite cornerback, even though he’s on the wrong side of 30 (he turns 31 in September).
“He’s really made this defense operate at a different level when he’s out there,” safety Devin McCourty said Tuesday. “So any time I get an opportunity to be out there on the field with him, gives us a better chance to win, makes us a better defense.”
The Patriots probably could get by without Gilmore this year. Every cornerback moved up a spot in Wednesday’s practice, with J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills, and Jonathan Jones taking the starters’ reps. But a good secondary becomes elite with Gilmore in tow. None of the aforementioned players has Gilmore’s combination of size, speed, and ball skills. The Patriots may have the deepest cornerback room in the league with Gilmore as the No. 1 guy.
“Any time you can put a guy on somebody and he’s locked up for the game, and you don’t have to worry about that guy, it makes my job a lot easier,” Hightower said.
“It makes the offensive coordinator’s job a hell of a lot harder figuring out how to give the other guys the ball, and whenever you can take the best player out of that in a passing league, it does a lot for the defense.”
Gilmore probably will be disappointed if he expects the Patriots to just hand him a new multiyear contract with millions more in guaranteed money. They wouldn’t even do that with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski when they became disgruntled.
But the Patriots gave Brady and Gronk several million in reachable incentives, and there is no reason why they can’t do the same with Gilmore. He has outperformed his contract, and should have an opportunity to become one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. Gilmore may not like having to play for incentives, but he doesn’t have the leverage since he is under contract.
The Patriots theoretically could play hardball and look to trade Gilmore, but talk about a counterproductive move. They clearly are desperate to get back to their winning ways, as evidenced by their spending spree in free agency.
How foolish would they look if, after spending all that money in the spring, they played hardball and traded their best defensive player? What’s a few more million after already spending $175 million? How does getting rid of your best cornerback help you win in 2021?
The fact that Gilmore is here, keeping quiet and getting ready for the season, offers plenty of evidence that the situation isn’t too contentious. A resolution should be on the horizon.
“All that stuff usually gets resolved,” McCourty said.
It needs to be resolved with the Patriots doing right by Gilmore and giving him a pay raise. He’s doing his part; now it’s time for the Patriots to step up and do theirs.