Why did the Patriots release Stephon Gilmore? How contract dispute, injury ended his time in New England

Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a penchant for making surprising moves, and they stunned the NFL world with one Wednesday morning. The team is planning to release former All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Gilmore, 31, is in the final year of his deal with the Patriots and hasn’t played while nursing a quad injury. He was due just $7 million in base salary this season and there had been some tension brewing regarding an extension or restructure to compensate Gilmore at a higher rate. He was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, after all, so he felt he was due a raise.

However, the Patriots were reluctant to give him one without seeing him on the field. That was part of what led them to their decision to release Gilmore on Wednesday, though it was far from the only factor.

Why are the Patriots planning on cutting Gilmore? And is there still an opportunity to trade him? Here’s what to know about Gilmore’s Patriots release and where he could end up next.

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Why did the Patriots release Stephon Gilmore?

The Patriots’ decision to release Stephon Gilmore was largely a financial one. The team was pressed up against the salary cap and needed to open up some space to sign linebacker Jamie Collins to a deal.

And as ESPN’s Adam Schefter explained, the Patriots won’t owe Gilmore any money beyond this season since he’s in the final year of his deal. So, releasing him was one of the team’s easiest paths to open up cap space.

The Patriots could have opened cap space by extending or restructuring Gilmore. However, the two sides couldn’t agree to a deal; the Patriots wanted to see Gilmore get healthy and play before committing to him, as NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports.

Meanwhile, Gilmore merely wanted a raise. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year had a base salary of just $7 million in his final year with the team, and the average annual value of his contract as a whole ($13 million) was tied for the 13th-most in the league among cornerbacks. As such, he and the Patriots couldn’t agree on a way to keep him in New England.

It also hasn’t helped Gilmore’s cause that the Patriots’ secondary has performed well without him. The team has allowed just 185 passing yards per game so far in 2021. That’s good for the fourth-best in the NFL, so they appear to be OK without Gilmore — at least for now.

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Why didn’t the Patriots trade Stephon Gilmore?

This is a tougher question to answer and understand. Schefter reports that there will be a “robust” market for Gilmore’s services. If that’s the case, then why didn’t the Patriots elect to trade him?

According to PFF’s Doug Kyed, the Patriots tried to do that. Evidently, the team either found few teams interested in actually making a trade or weren’t happy with the compensation being offered for Gilmore.

That said, Gilmore’s release won’t be official until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday. So, if a team wants to make a bid for Gilmore before then, they could do that, as NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry pointed out.

This is a tactic used by NFL teams to drum up interest in players. It usually occurs during the offseason, but perhaps the Patriots will demonstrate that it can be a useful in-season deal as well. If they don’t and just release Gilmore outright, their decision would surely be a head-scratcher.

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Which teams could sign Stephon Gilmore?

There will be no shortage of interest in Gilmore on the free-agent market. He may be 31, but he has played at a high level in recent years. And in the NFL, you can never have too many quality cornerbacks.

Here’s a quick rundown of the teams that could have an interest in Gilmore.

Buccaneers. This one seems obvious, right? The Buccaneers are hurting at the cornerback position and just signed Richard Sherman. Adding Gilmore to provide depth and experience in a secondary that is allowing a league-high 327.5 passing yards per game would be a smart move.

Packers. The Packers have Jaire Alexander and have gotten solid play out of rookie Eric Stokes, but adding Gilmore would allow the team to play the combination of Chandon Sullivan and Kevin King a bit less. Also, Alexander suffered a shoulder injury in Week 4, so his status moving forward remains unclear.

Cardinals. The Cardinals are 4-0, but they could use some help at the cornerback position. They signed one former Patriot, Malcolm Butler, to help on the outside before the 2021 season. However, he retired on eve of the season. Gilmore could give them a true No. 1 cornerback outside and greatly improve their secondary.

Chiefs. The Chiefs’ defense has been the second-worst unit in the NFL so far this season and is allowing 437.8 yards per game. Gilmore could help slow down opposing passing attacks, so that could fix at least one of Kansas City’s problems on that side of the ball.

Cowboys. Trevon Diggs has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL so far this season and has logged a league-high five interceptions. The Cowboys could use a proven option across from him, and throwing on Diggs and Gilmore could prove very difficult.

Panthers. The Panthers lost rookie Jaycee Horn to a foot injury. Gilmore is from Rock Hill, S.C., and played collegiately at South Carolina. A homecoming could be in the cards.

49ers. The 49ers’ cornerback problems are well-documented and they were one of the teams that considered pursuing Sherman. Gilmore would be a great consolation prize for them.

There will probably be other teams interested in Gilmore as well; it’s simply rare to land an All-Pro in the middle of the season, so Gilmore could create a bidding war and land a lucrative deal. Or he could just choose to play for whichever team he believes has the best chance to win a Super Bowl.

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