That column Wednesday stating that the Patriots won’t partake in the free agency frenzy on Thursday?
Yeah, we’ll take a mulligan on that.
The Patriots were shockingly active as the NFL officially opened its 2017 season. For the first time since signing Adalius Thomas in 2007, the Patriots spent big money on another team’s free agent, agreeing with Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore on a five-year, $65 million deal with $40 million in guarantees, according to ESPN.
The Patriots also re-signed several role players of various importance — defensive tackle Alan Branch, safety Duron Harmon, and blocking tight end Mike Williams — officially executed the previously reported trade for tight end Dwayne Allen from the Colts, and are rumored to be considering a trade with New Orleans that would involve speedy receiver Brandin Cooks and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at these moves and what they mean for the Patriots moving forward:
■ The Gilmore signing came out of nowhere — according to one report the Patriots hadn’t expressed any interest in him until Thursday morning — and is perhaps a sign the Patriots are looking to switch their coverage scheme in 2017.
The Patriots played a decent amount of Cover 2 and zone coverage last season, but Gilmore is not that type of player. He’s 6 feet 1 inch, has 31-inch arms, and ran a blazing 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash in 2012 at the NFL Combine. Gilmore is a far superior press-man corner than he is playing off coverage or zone. He’s also much better in these areas than Logan Ryan, who is almost certainly out of the Patriots’ plans now.
“Gilmore gives you size and press ability,” said one AFC scout. “Tough, physical press corner who had a very down year this past year. Good press-man corner, but had a lot of mental busts and isn’t the most anticipatory player. Mental busts were kind of always there in zone coverage, but showed up more in off-man coverage this past year.”
Gilmore had an up-and-down career in Buffalo after being made the 10th overall pick in 2012. He has excellent athleticism and measurables, is great at jamming and re-routing receivers at the line of scrimmage, and has excellent explosion on quick slants and other short throws. He has 14 interceptions in five seasons — including one against Tom Brady in 2015 — and is one of five NFL players to have at least three interceptions in each of the last three seasons.
“Size, length, athletic ability,” another AFC scout said. “Experience in the division. Good speed, press coverage ability. More of an outside player. Played better in 2015 than 2016.”
He also has played for five defensive coordinators in five years, and never got comfortable.
“It’s frustrating because everybody teaches different things and you’ve just got to find a way to be successful in whatever system they have. It’s hard,” Gilmore said after the Bills’ 2016 season ended. “Some guys play in a system for a long time and that’s why they’re able to make more plays, but we’ve got to learn to adapt.”
In his first eight games of 2016, Gilmore allowed 25 catches for 444 receiving yards (17.8 average) and one touchdown, per Pro Football Focus. Patriots fans remember watching Gilmore get burned badly by Chris Hogan for a 53-yard touchdown, and giving up on the play early to yell at his teammates. Gilmore also was beaten by Brian Tyms for a 43-yard touchdown back in 2014.
But Gilmore improved significantly in the second half of 2016. In his final seven games, Gilmore allowed just 15 catches for 183 yards (12.2 yards per catch).
The Bills will be going more to a zone coverage scheme under new coach Sean McDermott (who employed a zone scheme in Carolina), making Gilmore expendable.
But the Patriots now have two big, physical press corners in Gilmore and Eric Rowe, and a scrappy do-it-all cornerback in Butler (assuming they keep him, of course). The first AFC scout said Butler is a better off-man and zone cornerback than he is at press-man, so it will be interesting to see if the Patriots view Butler as a scheme fit.
Since Gilmore and Rowe are almost strictly outside players, Butler’s best fit might be as the slot cornerback.
And considering the Patriots are facing a murderer’s row of quarterbacks next season — Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, and potentially Tony Romo — they certainly could use the depth at cornerback.
■ The Gilmore signing was shocking because it’s a slap in the face to Butler, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, and every Patriots player who hasn’t been able to get paid by the team.
The Patriots are going to reach the AFC Championship game next season like they always do, but it has to hurt Butler to see them pay big money to a guy from Buffalo but not take care of their own.
If anyone deserves to be paid, it’s Butler, who has been the epitome of the “Patriot Way” — coming from nothing, playing 16 games each of the past two seasons, not making a peep the last two years despite being vastly underpaid, and of course making a franchise-altering play in the Super Bowl and developing into a solid No. 1 cornerback.
A trade to the Saints for Cooks would make a lot of sense, but it would be sad to see the Patriots give up on Butler after already giving up on Collins, Jones, Ryan, and perhaps Dont’a Hightower. Butler is exactly the type of player the Patriots should reward and use as an example for all of their young players moving forward.
Butler will eventually get paid by someone, just like Jones and Collins did this offseason. If the Patriots don’t sign Butler to a long-term deal, the message to the locker room will be loud and clear — playing for the Patriots will help you get paid, just not by the Patriots.
■ Speaking of Butler, he still has a little bit of leverage. The Patriots placed a first-round restricted free agent tender on him, which comes with a $3.91 million salary. He hasn’t signed it yet, and the Patriots can’t trade Butler until he does. So Butler would have to sign off on any trade.
Per the collective bargaining agreement, Butler has until April 21 to sign a deal with another team, and the Patriots would have five days to match. If the Patriots don’t, they would get that team’s first-round pick in this year’s draft.
If Butler doesn’t get any free agent deals, he doesn’t have to sign his RFA tender until June 15. At that point, the Patriots would have the option of reducing his salary from $3.91 million to 110 percent of last year’s salary, which would be $660,000. Obviously, this gives Butler motivation to sign.
But Butler doesn’t have any offseason workout bonuses, and if he wanted to show his displeasure with the Patriots, he could skip spring practices, sign by June 15, and still collect his $3.91 million.
Of course, the Patriots also can pull his RFA tender at any time, which would make Butler an unrestricted free agent. The Patriots would save the money and the headache, but wouldn’t get anything in return.
■ The Browns made the most unique move of the day, trading a fourth-round pick to Houston for a second-round pick, a sixth-rounder, and QB Brock Osweiler, taking his albatross of a contract off the Texans’ hands. But the Browns certainly don’t view Osweiler as the answer — they might just cut him and eat some or all of his $16 million salary — and now have extra ammunition to trade for Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Browns now have 22 draft picks for 2017 and 2018, including three 1s, five 2s, two 3s, and four 4s. The Patriots and Browns have a month and a half to work out a trade before the draft on April 27.
■ Although the final details of their new contracts are not known, Branch and Harmon are great signings, giving the Patriots continuity at two important positions.
Branch was the Patriots’ best run stopper and arguably their most consistent defender all season, playing almost 62 percent of the snaps as a force in the middle. And Harmon gives the Patriots good flexibility in the secondary, someone who can play deep center field and allow Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung to play more man coverage.
With all of the departures the Patriots have had (and may still have) over the last year-plus, having some continuity is important.