8 takeaways from the Patriots’ breakup with Stephon Gilmore

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It was easy to wonder what the New England Patriots defense would have looked like when cornerback Stephon Gilmore returned from the physically unable to perform list in Week 6. Now all we can do is wonder.

Gilmore is headed to the Carolina Panthers after Bill Belichick traded the star cornerback on Wednesday. The Patriots announced they intended to release him, which stirred up trade interest, eventually netting a 2023 sixth-round pick for the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.

It wasn’t totally unexpected, given the ongoing contract dispute between Gilmore and the Patriots. The final result, however, was fairly bizarre. We’ll explain why in our eight takeaways from this breakup.

Stephon Gilmore remains one of Bill Belichick's best free agency signings

There’s been plenty of dwelling upon the negative with this transaction. (I’m just as guilty as anyone, writing that Belichick bungled this situation. He certainly did.) When looking at the whole relationship, it’s easy to see how successful Gilmore was with the Patriots. Gilmore made three of his four Pro Bowls with the Patriots, and won Super Bowl LIII, in which he logged an interception. He was a member — and basically the best player — on arguably Belichick’s second-best defense of his career in 2019, just behind the 2001 team.

Gilmore helped Belichick devise defensive game plans that were unique, because he could trust the cornerback to erase any receiver from the game. Gilmore, meanwhile, benefitted enormously from a trip to the Patriots, who developed him from a top corner to the top corner. He made so many sensational plays, including his pass breakup in the AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars, and he shut down so many receivers, from Amari Cooper to DeAndre Hopkins to Antonio Brown.

Maybe things came undone. But that’s the NFL. It’s important not to lose sight of how well things worked for roughly four years.

A sixth-round pick is a bad return for one of the best CBs in the game

OK, we did the good stuff. We did the reminiscing. Let’s get at what’s probably bothering Patriots fans. Belichick got just a sixth-round pick for one of the team’s best players. Matthew Judon is having an excellent season, and has been the top performer on the team. Gilmore was dealing with an injury (more on that later), and was no sure thing to return to form. But considering how much extra time he had to recover, he would probably return at the top of his game, even at 31 years old. The Patriots had been asking for haul for Gilmore just last year, including a first-round pick and a player.

So how did it get to this point?

The truth is that Belichick held on too long, with hopes he could coax Gilmore back on the field before giving him another raise. Gilmore wouldn’t do it. That impasse left Belichick ready to get rid of the cornerback.

Stephon Gilmore was healthy with New England, but seemingly refusing to play

“Gilmore is healthy. He’s been running for some time. He got checked out recently. There’s nothing wrong with the quad,” NFL Network’s Mike Giardi said on air on Wednesday following the news of the trade.

It’s what I’ve suspected. Gilmore wasn’t playing because he was upset with his contract — not because his quad injury and surgery was lagging in recovery. Gilmore even said he would likely be ready for training camp, if necessary. He wasn’t. So Gilmore elected to report to the facility while using his injury as leverage for a new contract. And he was asking for something in the range of Darrius Slay: three years, $50 million.

The Patriots wouldn’t give him that. The Panthers probably won’t even give him that. But good for Gilmore to do everything he could to squeeze money out of his career. These players don’t get enough praise for sticking up to a system that is gamed to prevent billionaires, like owner Robert Kraft, from paying what the players, like Gilmore, are really worth.

Gilmore did everything he could to stick it to Belichick

Belichick is known for his uncompromising approach during contract negotiations. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, for example, has reflected upon how challenging it can be to get money out of the coach and GM, who can go to great lengths not to pay his players.

Here’s what Johnson said:

“Bill will nickel and dime. There was a year that I had — I played 15 percent of the plays the year before, and he came to ask me for a pay cut. He said, ‘Well Ted, you only played 15 percent of the plays.’ ‘Yeah, Bill, did you know I broke my foot in Week 1 so I missed the next 10 games?’

“He doesn’t care about that stuff. So it is hardball, he doesn’t care, he will use the stats against you, and won’t factor in all the things that went into those poor stats. He’s not going to blow you away with an offer. He’s going to make you sweat it out and make you think, ‘Do I really want to leave what I’m comfortable with, or stay here and take less than what other people would offer?’”

Gilmore faced up against Belichick in this difficult situation, and stood his ground, avoiding the penalties and fees that come with a true holdout while also avoiding getting on the field. He didn’t get the money he wanted, but he also didn’t have to play for a deal that he felt was beneath him. There’s something to be said for that.

Surprisingly, the Panthers don't seem to plan to give Gilmore a raise until he plays -- a similar sticking point for the CB in New England

This is why Gilmore didn’t truly win the stalemate with Belichick. No one is giving Gilmore a raise — yet. The Panthers intend to see how Gilmore looks on the field in 2021, just like the Patriots planned to do. That’s odd, because it’s the same contract Gilmore would not play for in New England. But he is willing to play on it in Carolina, per multiple reports.

Weird, right?

This isn't really what Gilmore wanted

Sure, Gilmore gets to go home to Carolina. He was born and raised in Rock Hill, South Carolina. It’s a nice story. But we’ve spent the last few takeaways circumstantial proving his exit was due to a power struggle over money.

Ultimately, he didn’t improve his financial situation. His contract is the same. He’s headed to a Panthers team that isn’t guaranteed to use him as well as the Patriots have done in the past few years. If they don’t give him the extension he wants before he hits the field, then he runs the risk of struggling in 2021. He could look slower after time away from the field. He could be getting back to football shape after the injury. He could struggle with a new system, which he’ll have limited practice time to learn. It might not be as good of a fit for Gilmore. The trade actually increased the level of uncertainty — rather than limiting it.

This isn’t to say he won’t ball out. It’s just to say that it might be harder for him to do so.

Gilmore joins a decorated group of former Patriots who suffered from Belichick's business-like approach

Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Lawyer Milloy, Jamie Collins, Adam Vinatieri and Malcolm Butler.

Now: Gilmore.

Belichick has a history of trading away, cutting or passively allowing a departure of the team’s top player. He’s done this for years. That’s why Gilmore’s departure isn’t surprising. It’s actually surprising Belichick let the cornerback spend so much time fighting for leverage.

It’s almost a badge of honor for these players, a sign of their excellence. Here’s hoping Gilmore can rally his career in the post-Patriots world.

In too many ways, J.C. Jackson is the next man up

Not only is Jackson the replacement for Gilmore, but he’s also looking at a similar situation to the one Gilmore just resolved. Jackson has taken over as the top cornerback since Gilmore suffered his quad injury. He’s in the spotlight with a contract that’s not exactly satisfactory. He is playing on a one-year deal worth $3.4 million in 2021. That’s not enough for one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL — and, yes, that’s what Jackson has become.

He is slated to hit free agency in 2022. The Patriots could franchise tag him. He’s just a bit of a bonehead off the field, stirring up drama talking trash about JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tua Tagovailoa. If the Patriots bypass the tag, it’s either an extension or a trip to free agency. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots and Jackson handle those negotiations.

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