After a prolonged holdout, fruitless contract negotiations, and a stint on the PUP list, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and the New England Patriots have finally parted ways.
The star Patriots corner had been the subject of trade rumors for over a year, though they’d petered out following his training camp holdout and placement on the PUP list. That logjam finally broke Wednesday morning when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots would release Gilmore. However, since any release wouldn’t become official until 4 p.m. ET, teams had time to negotiate a last-second trade package, though that list was limited to teams with enough cap space to take on Gilmore’s outstanding $5.8 million in salary after he returns from the PUP list in Week 7.
Enter the Carolina Panthers, who won the Gilmore sweepstakes after sending a future sixth-rounder to the Patriots. One of the league’s biggest surprises, the 3-1 Panthers have relied on a dominant defense. However, as with all early-season surprises, their performance has felt a little fraudulent. That suspicion intensified after their loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Carolina lost rookie corner Jaycee Horn right before the game—he’s been the Panthers’ ace in man coverage, and without him, they were forced away from man and into zone drops. Dak Prescott diced up those zones, and when the Panthers tried to play man, Prescott picked on veteran Rashaan Melvin and the newly acquired C.J. Henderson.
Like all great defenses, the Panthers do tons of fun scheme stuff, creating disruption and turnovers; but like all great defenses, they still need to be able to step up and win one-on-one matchups when the moment calls for it. They hope Gilmore will help them do that. In 2019, he was one of the most productive and dominant man-coverage defenders we’ve ever seen with six interceptions, 20 passes defended, and 5.9 yards per target allowed, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors. He took a step back in 2020, but it’s common to expect some regression in the season after a player wins that award. While the gaudy interception and PBU numbers fell away, Gilmore still surrendered only one touchdown in coverage in 2020, after zero in 2019 and 6.7 yards per target off of 5.9. Plus he was targeted less frequently in man coverage in 2020 (7.6 percent of snaps) than he was in 2019 (10.5 percent of snaps). That step back wasn’t really all that big.
The Patriots didn’t trade Gilmore because of his poor performance last season—even at 30, he’s a very good corner. They traded him because that’s what Bill Belichick does: When very good players hit their peak and start demanding top money, he looks for opportunities to move on.
Usually, the Patriots get more in return on the trade: a first-round pick for Richard Seymour in 2009, another first-round pick for Brandin Cooks in 2018, a second-round pick and Jonathan Cooper for Chandler Jones in 2016, a third-round pick for Jamie Collins, who—lo and behold—is back in New England this season. They’ve been trying to trade Gilmore since at least the 2020 offseason when his value would have been much higher. But the Patriots slow-played the Gilmore trade market, and when Gilmore tore his quad last December, his trade value plummeted. A 2023 sixth-round pick is a pittance for a player of Gilmore’s ability.
Despite losing that elite man-cover corner for parts of the 2020 season and into early 2021, the Patriots defense is more than capable of succeeding without Gilmore. An improved pass rush in 2021 has taken the onus off of the defensive backfield to sustain coverage over long dropbacks without a pressured quarterback. After a dalliance with zone coverage last season, the Patriots are back to playing heavy man coverage—they’re currently playing it at the fourth-highest rate in the league, according to Sports Info Solutions. J.C. Jackson looks ready to step into the elite tier of man-coverage cornerbacks, while free-agent addition Jalen Mills and incumbent Jonathan Jones offer inside-outside versatility. The Patriots are 11th in the league right now in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and tied for fifth in net yards allowed per coverage snap. A healthy and productive Gilmore helps every team, but the Patriots don’t really need that much help right now.
So the Patriots can get away with offloading Gilmore. For the Panthers, the risk is a little greater. Gilmore makes their defense better, but immediately becomes that unit’s best player. Young risers in Shaq Thompson, Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, and Derrick Brown have joined solid role players in Morgan Fox, Haason Reddick, and A.J. Bouye to execute an aggressive scheme, but the Panthers’ defense has been punching above their weight. By adding Gilmore, the Panthers are gambling that the defense can stay good enough to power a playoff push.
If Gilmore isn’t up for the task, the Panthers didn’t lose much in draft capital, though dropping $6 million in cap space is nothing to sneeze at. They also lose an opportunity to develop and evaluate Henderson. And in 2022, Gilmore will hit free agency, leaving the Panthers with a difficult choice in the offseason: either extend Gilmore on the basis of a few games with the team, or extend Donte Jackson, a homegrown corner who is younger and presumably healthier than Gilmore. Carolina was supposed to be a young team looking for growth and development—now, its early-season success may be pushing it toward more aggressive moves, with the hope of building a contender around Sam Darnold over the next two seasons (the length of his remaining contract).
Gilmore’s a great player, and trading a sixth-round pick for a great player is always a good move. But New England has come out the better in a lot of these deals, and Gilmore’s right at that precipice at which great players start to rapidly descend. The Panthers are pushing their chips in on the idea that he has enough usable years to round out the remaining gaps on their contending roster; only time will tell us whether their internal faith is warranted.