For decades the Patriots were the class of the NFL. Every season they were a virtual lock to not just make playoffs but to be in it until the end; one of the last teams standing. This past season was a return to the normal life of an NFL franchise; battling for a playoff spot while often having to settle for mediocrity.
The departure of Tom Brady coupled with the numerous COVID-19 opt-outs left a team that was largely devoid of top tier talent and had many back-up types thrust into prominent roles. Enter an off-season spending spree never before seen by the Pats. A roster that was lacking in overall NFL talent was injected with big free agents such as Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne. While offense is often the sexy splash that fans yearn for, the additions made on the defensive side of the ball most likely will be the ones that make all the difference for the Patriots.
The Pats got a bona fide pass rusher with three down starting ability in Matt Judon. They got a versatile chess piece in Jalen Mills, one that you know is going to be deployed in a myriad of ways to keeps offenses guessing. The re-acquistion of Kyle Van Noy and the return of Donta Hightower will bring explosive play making and veteran leadership back to a defense that was solely lacking in both departments last season. Young bucks Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche have real star potential and hopefully avoid any sophomore slumps. But the key for this defense to be dominant, and not just good, is keeping Stephon Gilmore.
You’ve probably heard that a good pass rush can make life easier on the defensive backfield, while a good secondary can afford the pass rush extra time to get home. When you marry those, you get the makings of an elite defense. The Pats will have an explosive pass rush this year. Between the raw ability of the players they have in their front seven and the ability for Belichick to scheme pressure packages, it won’t be a rarity for opposing quarterbacks to spend a good portion of their Sundays on their backsides. The secondary without Gilmore has the makings of a quality group, one that could benefit from the improved pass rush ahead of them, but one that would probably be defined as “bend but don’t break.” The coupling of the secondary players without Gilmore with this front seven would provide an above average NFL defense. Putting Belichick in charge would probably push it into the good-to-great tier. But why settle for good to great? Didn’t we just spend an entire season settling?
Keeping Gilmore would push this defense into the elite category. He is a premier corner in the league. A guy that you can use to lock down half the field or put the straps on an opponent’s number one wide receiver. And the secret is already out that the Patriots defense is much better with him. Last year the Pats allowed a completion percentage of 64.3% with Gilmore on the field. That number rose to 69.1% when Gilmore wasn’t available. The numbers don’t stop there. Passing yards per attempt increased from 7.2 with Gilmore to 7.7 without. The most important metric for any defense though is touchdowns versus takeaways. Stopping scoring opportunities and providing extra opportunities for your offense are hallmarks of complimentary football-a Belichick favorite. The Pats defense last year struggled doing this against the pass when Gilmore wasn’t on the field. With Gilmore the Pats defense allowed eleven passing touchdowns while getting thirteen interceptions, without Gilmore the defense allowed eleven passing touchdowns while only getting five interceptions. What’s more concerning is Gilmore was active for eleven games, meaning the defense allowed one passing touchdown per game while he was active versus 2.2 touchdowns against when he wasn’t.
Gilmore makes this defense better. Period. There is no debating that. The additions made this off-season have the potential of making this an extremely difficult group to go against. Keeping Gilmore would make this group ascend from difficult to go against to Sam-Darnold-seeing-ghosts level good. And Darnold wouldn’t be the only QB to be seeing ghosts going against the Patriots defense. The Pats offense isn’t built to be a 40 points per game match up nightmare. It’s been constructed to win at the line of scrimmage, stay ahead of the chains, and operate a passing game that controls the middle of the field. Pairing a ball control offense like this with a dominant level defense is the best way the Pats will be able to win games. Pairing this offense with a better-than-most defense is a way to stay in games and ultimately come up short in the win/loss columns. Sound familiar?
Pats fans and players were nowhere close to satisfied after a 7-9 campaign last year, letting Gilmore go would keep the Pats in the NFL purgatory of competitive but not great teams. Being just fine would’ve been an acceptable goal for this franchise twenty-one years ago. Being just fine now is an embarrassment for the team that just dominated the league for twenty years. There’s no reason to go back there, just pay the man.