Opinion: The Patriots need to pay up for star cornerback Stephon Gilmore

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When each of the Patriots’ four quarterbacks dropped back, you could see it. It was clear as day, and it shouldn’t be debatable.

The Patriots need Stephon Gilmore.

That was evident when Jalen Mills or Michael Jackson Sr. were lining up opposite of J.C. Jackson at outside cornerback. It was obvious when it came time for one-on-one drills and Patriots wide receivers beat defensive backs on 12 of 14 reps, and that included a dropped pass.

The Patriots started minicamp on Monday and Gilmore, the team’s top defensive player, wasn’t in attendance. Prior to practice, Bill Belichick was evasive when asked if the Pro Bowler was in town for the mandatory practice.

“We’re scrambling to get things going this morning, so I didn’t really get a chance to see everybody myself, so we’ll see where we’re at,” Belichick said when asked if the cornerback was present. When asked about Gilmore not participating in OTAs and about his importance to the defense, the Patriots coach said, “We’ll there’s a lot of players we haven’t seen in OTAs. All the players are important and we’d like to have all of them.”

As the day unfolded, it became clear why Belichick was noncommittal. According to the Boston Herald, Gilmore is not attending minicamp due to a “contract dispute.” That means the 2019 NFL defensive player of the year is holding out, wanting a bump on his base salary of $7 million.

The two sides seem to be at a standstill with Gilmore scheduled to lose $93,085 by skipping mandatory minicamp. The cornerback was the subject of trade rumors last year, but the Pats held on to their No. 1 cornerback. It was a smart move then and it would be a smart move for the Patriots to pony up and pay Gilmore what he’s worth.

Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore reportedly is holding out of mandatory minicamp.

How did the Patriots and Gilmore get here?

Belichick’s been here before. In 2010, Logan Mankins held out before rejoining the Pats in November. Things worked out as the Pro Bowl guard signed a six-year deal the following summer. Of course, this situation is a bit different. At that time, Mankins was being paid $3.26 million, and he was still in his prime and a two-time Pro Bowler.

Gilmore restructured his contract last year with the Pats and the new deal moved $4.5 million of his 2021 salary up to 2020. That left him with a smaller base salary for this year. Coming off his fourth Pro Bowl season, Gilmore clearly wants more money. According to overthecap.com, Gilmore is set to earn $7.5 million in 2021.

Gilmore might have lost some leverage due to the way his 2020 season ended. The cornerback suffered a quad injury that cost him most of last season. He finished the year on the injured reserve and needed surgery. Gilmore has been rehabbing this offseason. He’ll also turn 31 years old on Sept. 19.

“I support my brother, but I wish (Gilmore) was here,” Patriots safety Adrian Phillips said on Monday. “… The best thing to do is let him know you support him. You want (Gilmore) back, but as you say, there’s a business side.”

Why Gilmore should be prioritized in New England

From the Patriots’ perspective, they might not feel inclined to pay up for a cornerback over 30 and coming off an injury. However, it’s impossible to look at the team’s current outlook and say that’s a smart move.

This offseason, the Patriots went on an unparalleled spending spree. They’re clearly loading up to compete this year. Why shouldn’t they make their best cornerback happy when they have more than enough money to pay the man?

Monday’s practice was one example of Gilmore’s importance in Foxborough.

If the Pats move on from Gilmore, Jackson becomes their No. 1 cornerback. He’s a solid young cornerback who turns 26 years old this season. He’s coming off a year where he finished second in the NFL in interception with nine total. However, he still allowed five touchdowns. Four of those came when Gilmore wasn’t playing. In 11 games last year, Gilmore allowed one score. He only had one interception but was still a better cover corner than Jackson.

Behind Jackson is Mills, who started at safety for Philadelphia last year and played cornerback the previous four seasons. Then there are Jackson, who’s appeared in two NFL games, and Joejuan Williams, a 2019 second-round pick who is still unproven.

Aside from the shaky outside cornerback depth, there’s also Jackson’s contract to consider since he’s set to become a free agent in 2022. Does it make sense to trade Gilmore when Jackson is set to enter unrestricted free agency next offseason?

The Patriots don’t have much certainty at cornerback. They can rectify that by giving Gilmore more money and adding another year (or two) to his contract. Considering the Pats have loaded up on defense, why not make your top cornerback happy?

The Patriots have the cap space to do so. They lack great depth at cornerback. Their other option (Jackson) could be out the door next offseason. It makes too much sense to give Gilmore a raise. That could be seen on the practice field on Monday. It’ll probably be seen if the Pats don’t have Gilmore this season. 

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