By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots paid a top-of-the-market price to land free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Thursday. More specifically, they paid a premium price to land a cornerback like Gilmore.
The team’s newest cornerback will inevitably draw constant comparisons to Malcolm Butler, regardless of whether the two are teammates in 2017 and beyond. But while either Gilmore or Butler would have the upside of a No. 1 cornerback, they are not the same kind of player.
For the Patriots’ 2017 schedule, in particular, they are going to need big, physical corners who likely need to cover comparably big receivers in press-man. Gilmore offers one of the best skill sets in the NFL for doing just that. He excels at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and playing tight man-to-man coverage against bigger receivers. As good as Butler has become in the last two seasons as the Patriots’ No. 1 corner, at 5-foot-11 he’s still better suited facing smaller, quicker receivers one-on-one.
Butler has a better chance of excelling in coverage against receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. or Antonio Brown. But in 2017, the competition at that position gets bigger – literally.
The Patriots’ 2017 schedule is filled with teams with big, talented outside receivers, in some cases teams with multiple big outside receivers. That’s where the Patriots turn to Gilmore, who is listed on the Bills website at 6-foot-1. That may be a generous measurement, but Gilmore often plays even bigger than his actual size and has the tools to match up with just about any kind of receiver one-on-one. He will certainly be an upgrade in that department over Eric Rowe.
As recently as 2016, Gilmore has had his share of good days against some of the big receivers the Patriots face in 2017. When Gilmore faced the Miami Dolphins in Week 7, he mostly covered DeVante Parker (6-foot-3) and held him to three catches for 20 yards, earning a solid 77.6 grade on the day from Pro Football Focus. Parker fared much better in Week 16 when he made four catches on seven targets for 85 yards and a touchdown, but Gilmore was not covering him when he went 56 yards to the end zone.
Against the Oakland Raiders in Week 13, Gilmore mostly lined up against Amari Cooper (6-foot-1). Cooper made just two catches on four targets on the day; Gilmore was not covering Cooper when he caught a 37-yard touchdown pass, burning Kevon Seymour on a double-move.
Gilmore also had his share of down moments in 2016. Most notably, against the Patriots in Week 8, Chris Hogan burned him badly for a 53-yard touchdown catch down the left sideline. Gilmore immediately turned and yelled at safety Johnathan Meeks for blowing his coverage, but later apologized for his outburst – despite insisting he didn’t actually get burned.
Gilmore’s periodic struggles in 2016 led to increased scrutiny from his critics. He’s been paid handsomely and is stepping into a locker room filled with veterans who will expect him to hold himself accountable. Thus, the pressure could be even higher on Gilmore to play even better and be more consistent than he was in his final year in Buffalo. With the ridiculous run of big, talented receivers that the Patriots are set to face in 2017, they’ll be looking for the “good” Gilmore to show up every single week.
The aforementioned receivers for the Dolphins and Raiders pop up once again. Gilmore also gets likely rematches against the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3), whom he faced in 2014, and the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins (6-foot-1), whom he faced in 2015. The New York Jets won’t have Brandon Marshall in the fold, which could leave Gilmore to cover the likes of the 6-foot-3 Eric Decker or the 6-foot-2 Quincy Enunwa, who caught a touchdown pass over Butler in Week 12. There’s also now-former Bills teammate Sammy Watkins (6-foot-1), who should present a formidable challenge.
The Patriots have perhaps the most significant wide receiver challenges against the NFC South teams that are on the docket for 2017. Gilmore has never faced the Falcons’ Julio Jones (6-foot-3), and you saw how tough he is to cover in Super Bowl LI. He also gets to deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans and the Carolina Panthers’ Kelvin Benjamin, both 6-foot-5. Gilmore previously matched up against Benjamin in a preseason game in 2015.
The New Orleans Saints also boast two formidable young receivers in the 6-foot-3 Michael Thomas and 6-foot-6 (!) Brandon Coleman. Assuming the Saints still have the smaller, speedier Brandin Cooks, the Patriots may put Butler on him and let Gilmore deal with the bigger Thomas and/or Coleman.
Honorable mention goes to the Chargers’ Dontrelle Inman (6-foot-3) and Tyrell Williams (6-foot-4), the Steelers’ Martavis Bryant (6-foot-5), and the Chiefs’ Chris Conley (6-foot-3). In other words, the outside receivers just never let up on the Patriots’ schedule. Butler likely would not have been able to hold up against all of these guys one-on-one and they certainly couldn’t depend on Rowe to cover them consistently. The Patriots simply needed a guy like Gilmore to be able to cover these offenses effectively.
It remains to be seen if Gilmore can buy into Belichick’s system, compete as hard as Butler would, and play at a high level more consistently. But like with many free-agent signings in New England, you can safely bet on Belichick to get the best out of him in year one. Next season would sure be a good time to get Gilmore’s career year.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.