Defense may not necessarily live up to the cliché of winning championships anymore in the NFL, but it’s pretty easy to make the argument that defense will almost certainly be the key to the 2021 season in New England.
Given New England’s questions at the quarterback position, it’s likely the Patriots will need a high-end defense to succeed in 2021, certainly to find a way to return to playoff-contender status.
Based on history, especially with successful Bill Belichick-coached defenses in Foxborough, the Patriots will need a true No. 1 cornerback to buoy the back end and hopes of having a high-end defense in 2021. Think Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Darrelle Revis, et al.
The good news is that they have that No. 1 cornerback on the roster and the depth chart, just not on the actual field when last we saw it this spring.
While we can quibble about the rankings, Stephon Gilmore is still truly one of the best cornerbacks in football.
He’s also in the midst of a contract holdout that doesn’t seem to be getting nearly the attention it deserves with the Patriots barely two weeks away from kicking off the 2021 season with training camp opening at Gillette Stadium.
Let’s recap. The Patriots need a good defense to be a good football team this fall. Nearly all good defenses, certainly in New England, need a No. 1 cornerback to be good. And the Patriots only real option to have a real No. 1 cornerback apparently needs a new contract if he’s to strap on his helmet and join his rebuilt, retooled team for a possible bounce-back season.
Therefore, by some math property we all learned way back when for the SATs and most of us have long since forgotten, the Patriots chances for success this season hinge on Gilmore’s contract situation.
It sounds overly simple. Because it kinda is and it kinda isn’t.
The Patriots have limited depth at cornerback even with Gilmore atop the depth chart. Despite what you may have read in recent years on some well-known stat-based websites New England has no one close to Gilmore’s caliber ready to step into the No. 1 cornerback role if need be.
J.C. Jackson is what he is. He’s good. He’s really good as a No. 2 cornerback. Bumped up to No. 1, though, as was the case when Gilmore was hurt last fall, and Jackson has proven he’s not yet elite despite his proficient interception numbers.
Gilmore, on the other hand, was the first cornerback in a quarter of a century to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Gilmore has been there and one that in terms of making plays to get the Patriots to the Super Bowl. Remember the pass defense in the AFC title game against the Jaguars?
He’s made plays to win Super Bowls. Remember him single-handedly making sure the Rams didn’t get into the end zone?
He’s been the foundation upon which elite defenses of the recent past have been built. Remember his work early in the 2019 season, the kind of stuff that led to bad Boogeymen nicknames?
Even approaching his 31st birthday, coming off a quad injury that may not yet be 100-percent and after a year that wasn’t as impressive as his prior DPOY campaign, Gilmore is what Jackson can still only aspire to be.
That’s the simple part, realizing that Gilmore is not only the kind of player the Patriots need but actually the only real option for what New England needs at this point. Forget about those Richard-Sherman-is-still-a-free-agent arguments.
The question is whether Belichick’s team of negotiators (remember it’s supposedly a more collaborative effort these days!) and Gilmore can reach an agreement on how much a No. 1 cornerback is worth. That’s the rub.
“I just want what I’m worth,” Gilmore told ESPN last week.
We all know that should be more than the $7 million salary Gilmore is scheduled to earn this fall in the final season of the five-year, $65 million contract he signed as Belichick’s biggest-ever free agent addition back in 2017.
Will Gilmore get back to work in the back end of the defense for a mere bump in salary that would bring him more in line with the top cornerbacks for 2021?
Will it take a more extreme deal at his point in his aging career, like an extension including significant guaranteed money, to get Gilmore into a uniform again?
Could a trade – which has been rumored and reported dating back to last offseason – still be a consideration?
ESPN also reported that Gilmore and the Patriots are expected to “have discussions” on a new deal as training camp draws closer.
As quarterback Cam Newton says, “double-duh.”
But what will those discussions lead to?
Because if they don’t lead to Gilmore taking his spot as the key cog in the back end of the Patriots defense, then dreams of a resurgent, competitive season in New England could be over before they even begin.
It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. The Patriots’ hopes for success in 2021 could very well hinge on the way that Gilmore’s contract situation plays out in the coming weeks.
Getcha salary cap spreadsheets!
And cross your fingers, Patriot Nation.