The New England Patriots are making all the headlines on Tuesday. Buried beneath the Cam Newton and Mac Jones stunner was another notable piece of news. Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore will be starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, prompting him to miss the first six games of the regular season. Ian Rapoport had it first.
It hurts to lose someone of Gilmore’s stature for nearly half the season. We won’t sugarcoat it. The 30-year-old Gilmore is still one of the elite corners in the game. He plays with great physicality and his football I.Q. is off the charts, which has helped him age gracefully in recent years.
Few teams would have the ability to absorb this blow, but the Patriots have the depth to overcome this loss. We are likely to see J.C. Jackson and newcomer Jalen Mills start on the outside in Gilmore’s absence. Jackson was one of the most impressive cornerbacks in all of football in 2020. His nine interceptions were bested by only one player, Xavien Howard, who led the league with 10. Jonathan Jones should continue to operate out of his regular nickelback position, where he’s been one of the most consistent performers out of any slot defender in the league.
Mills is the wildcard here. He’ll now be throttled into a starring role. Mills was originally signed to provide depth at both safety and cornerback, seeing as he’s played both spots over the years. Mills played more than 1,000 snaps for the Eagles in 2020, where he was used as an outside corner, slot corner, free safety, and box safety.
Simply put, Mills was a luxury signing for a team that has terrific depth in the secondary. His signing is about to be put under a microscope. Mills’ addition meant the team was well protected in case of injury, a scenario that has now become reality.
Behind the likes of Jackson, Mills, and Jones is the newly acquired Shaun Wade. That trade is starting to look better in the wake of the Gilmore news. Wade will provide depth on the back end as a rookie with a high ceiling. The same can be said for former second-round pick JoeJuan Williams, who has failed to seize a larger role in New England’s secondary but has flashed quality traits on occasion. You can do a lot worse than Williams as your CB4.
We’re not saying everything will surely be fine and dandy. Make no mistake. This secondary will be tested without Gilmore. Jackson must repeat the success he had in 2020. Now that he’s the de facto CB1, he could face tougher matchups on the boundary than he did a year ago. On the other side, Mills has to prove he was worth the price tag (four years, $24 million). Both of these things will be put to the test in the coming weeks.
First on the docket is a Week 1 date with the Miami Dolphins, who hope to have a better passing attack in 2021 than they did a campaign ago. It’s an intriguing matchup that should teach us a lot about both of those units.
Few teams would have the depth to withstand losing a player like Gilmore, but on paper, the Patriots appear to be one of those teams.
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