FOXBOROUGH — The plot twists in the Stephon Gilmore story Wednesday had more turns than a helpless receiver trying to shake the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback’s coverage.
Just hours after it appeared Gilmore would be released — he issued a goodbye to New England via social media — and just minutes after Bill Belichick confirmed the club was moving on from the 2019 defensive player of the year, Gilmore was dealt to the Panthers in exchange for a 2023 sixth-round pick.
Gilmore, who skipped mandatory minicamp and was placed on the physically unable to perform list prior to training camp, was unhappy with his contract, which was up after this season. He originally signed a five-year, $65 million deal in 2017.
Despite what Belichick called “discussions over a long period of time,” the sides could not come to an agreement on a restructured deal, necessitating the move.
The 31-year-old Gilmore was rehabbing a partially torn quadriceps suffered in Miami in December. He was due around $7 million this season; the Panthers will take that on unless they are able to hammer out a new pact.
His 2021 base salary was below market for a top cornerback, but was partially a result of the Patriots advancing him $5 million from his 2021 salary during the 2020 season.
In July, Gilmore told veteran NFL reporter Josina Anderson, “I just want what I’m worth, however that plays out … Hopefully we can find some common ground and get it situated.”
The trade provides needed salary cap relief for the Patriots, who now have approximately $5.8 million in space.
“I absolutely appreciate and feel strongly about the player and the person,” Belichick said just before practice. “He’s a great kid. Unfortunately, we decided to part ways.”
The soft-spoken Gilmore was a popular player among his teammates and those who covered the team. He was voted the team’s “Good Guy” award by Patriots beat reporters in 2019 for his patience and politeness.
Though he hadn’t been with the team for a practice or game since having surgery on the quadriceps, Gilmore was a presence at Gillette since the start of camp, rehabbing and participating in team meetings. He was spotted at the home opener, and many players said they still leaned on Gilmore for advice and guidance.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy called Gilmore “one of my best friends” Wednesday and said it was “disappointing” that they would no longer be teammates.
“Obviously, I was looking forward to it. It didn’t work out,” said Van Noy, who called Gilmore an “elite” player.
Including the postseason, Gilmore played in 63 games for the Patriots, collecting 13 interceptions (including a pair of pick-6s) and 63 passes defensed.
Among his memorable highlights were a game-saving pass breakup in the 2017 AFC Championship Game win over the Jaguars, a game-sealing interception in the Super Bowl LII victory over the Rams, and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2019. He is the only player to win that honor under Belichick, and just the third cornerback to claim it in the last 25 years.
Because he was traded, Gilmore will remain on PUP, and he cannot practice with his new club until the start of Week 7. Had Gilmore been released, he could have started practicing immediately with his new team.
If he’s healthy, Gilmore could face his old team soon after his return as the Panthers host the Patriots in Week 9.
Gilmore is from Rock Hill, S.C., and played at South Carolina, so it’s close to a homecoming.
His social media statement early Wednesday read: “Pats Nation, It is with mixed emotions that I announce my goodbye to this great fan base. We enjoyed so much success together and you have been an incredible inspiration for my individual achievements. Thank you for supporting this Rock Hill kid and allowing him to achieve his NFL dreams.
“To Mr. Kraft, the coaches and the organization thank you for providing me with this platform and allowing me to be part of greatness. Most of all I want to thank my teammates who lined up next to me every Sunday with one goal in mind.
“Those moments on and off the field will never be forgotten. Sincerely, Stephon.”
The Patriots have J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills as their starting perimeter corners, and Jonathan Jones as the slot corner. Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel, and Shaun Wade also are on the active roster, and Myles Bryant and D’Angelo Ross are on the practice squad. Belichick expressed confidence in that group Wednesday.
“I’d say, overall, that group’s played pretty well,” the coach said. “There’s always room for improvement, I’m not saying that, but overall, we’ve played the passing game fairly well this year and played the best passing game in the league last week [the Buccaneers] and played them competitively, so, I’d say there are other areas on the team that are maybe more, again, everything can be improved, but I’d say there are other areas that we can improve more than that group.”