BOSTON (CBS) — Leading up to the start of training camp, we’ll be breaking down each position on the Patriots roster. That is proving to be a little more difficult than usual with the team’s cornerback group.
There is a lot up in the air with New England’s cornerbacks at the moment, considering we don’t know if the guy at the top of the depth chart will be here when training camp arrives. Or if he’ll still be here when the season arrives. It’s not ideal to have no idea regarding the team’s top corner and one of its best players.
But that is the situation that the Patriots and Stephon Gilmore find themselves in, with the two sides engaging in a game of chicken regarding Gilmore’s contract situation. Gilmore wants more money this season, or a long-term extension, and at the moment, the Patriots don’t appear to be in any rush to give him either. Gilmore is on the books for just over $7 million (after $5 million was given to him last season), which is a huge bargain for a former DPOY. But the Pats are probably leery about giving him any more money or years due to a quad injury that ended his 2020 season early. Gilmore went under the knife in the offseason, and it remains to be seen if he’ll be ready to go when the regular season rolls around.
It’s quite the standoff at the moment. With Gilmore, the Patriots defense has the potential to be a really special unit in 2021. It should still be a good defense without him thanks to the team’s depth and the versatility of a handful of players, but likely not as good without one of the best corners in the game locking down opponents on a weekly basis.
Gilmore will probably be back in the defensive backfield come Week 1, but there remains a chance the Patriots deal him away so someone else can give him the payday that he wants. We’re all patiently waiting for that domino to fall.
Stephon Gilmore (?!?)
Offseason Additions: Mills (free agency)
Offseason Subtractions: Jason McCourty (signed with Miami in free agency)
We’ve said enough about Gilmore, so let’s take a look at everyone else at the cornerback position. J.C. Jackson could easily take over that top corner slot, since he’s been playing like a top corner the last two seasons. That could be the product of him playing across from a guy like Gilmore, but Jackson appears to be the real deal — and he just so happens to be playing for a contract.
Jackson played 84 percent of defensive snaps last season and rewarded the team for all that playing time with a team-high nine interceptions. He was one off Xavien Howard’s league-leading 10 picks for the season. He’s already a darn good corner, and should get better in his fourth NFL season. But that increased playing time last season also led to a lot more passes flying his way, and 59 percent of them (49 of 83) found their intended target. That will have to improve whether Jackson is the top corner or New England’s No. 2 guy.
Jonathan Jones is as solid as they come in the slot, though he now has some competition in newcomer Jalen Mills, who can play just about anywhere on defense. Mills could be the No. 2 guy if Gilmore holds out or is hurt, he could play some safety, or he could find himself in some slot situations. It’s really no surprise that Bill Belichick added a Swiss Army Knife-type player to the secondary this offseason.
Michael Jackson, Dee Virgin and Myles Bryant will all be playing for a roster spot this camp and preseason, though the uncertainty around Gilmore should help their situation.
Corner was one of the better positions on the Patriots last season, and that was with Gilmore playing just 11 games. With Gilmore, it will be one of the better secondaries in the NFL. Without him, it will still be pretty good, just not at the level of greatness it could be. With Gilmore, the Patriots defense has a chance to be something special, so it would be extremely disappointing if the unit doesn’t have that opportunity because of a contract dispute.