Now that it's been 24 hours since the Patriots traded one of the best defensive players in franchise history for a fistful of pizza coupons, it's as good a time as any to ask what comes next. Now that Stephon Gilmore isn't going to come running out of that tunnel to help. Unless by "that tunnel" you mean the one leading out of the home locker room in Carolina on November 7th. And the implied object of the verb "to help" is the Panthers.
The Patriots currently have the league's sixth best defense in terms of points allowed and fifth best in terms of yards. As a passing defense, they've given up the fourth fewest yards at 185.0 per game, and the second lowest passer rating at 67.6. Now, you can suggest that's just because of the schedule they've played. In which case I'll ask why you have to be so terrible and suggest you talk to your spiritual advisor or seek professional help so you can find a way to enjoy life.
The point being, their defense is good. Adding Gilmore would've made them great. In the same way I love my marital bed, but I could make a tremendous upgrade by eliminating no one while adding Elizabeth Hurley. And since both she and Gilmore are out of the equation, what now?
The fact remains that the Patriots have never fielded a championship-caliber team without one elite cover corner. Early on it was Ty Law. Then Asante Samuel. They got lost in the wilderness for a while with a lot of Wilhites and Wheatleys and so on. But then Devin McCourty came in 2010 with the best season by a rookie corner I've ever seen on this team. Then it was Aqib Talib. Darrelle Revis. Malcolm Butler. Then Gilmore. So with him gone for good, it's a good time to take an assessment of what we've got.
Here unquestionably is your CB1. The guy who got the Mike Evans assignment Sunday and will, until further notice, draw the short straw week after week. And despite doing the toughest job on the field every week, he's still got the 11th lowest passer rating when targeted in the league at 54.5, thanks to no touchdowns allowed and two picks. The more he plays like this and the more the team depends on him, the more he's going to deserve when his rookie contract is up at the end of the year. Expect them to franchise him but as some point he's going to get a long term deal that will make him one of the five or so highest paid corners in the game. Let's hope it's here. But that's a problem for Future Us.
Mills has been, after only Matt Judon, the second best free agent signing so far, from either side of the ball. I'm convinced they signed him from Philly primarily for his position versatility. Last year for the Eagles, he took double digit snaps at three different positions 12 times in 15 games. A typical game was Week 1, when he lined up in the box, in the slot, and at free safety for 20 or more snaps each. But the Pats haven't had the luxury of moving him around with Gilmore out. He's been primarily a wide corner, with the lone exception being against the Bucs, when he drew Chris Godwin, which meant 38 snaps in the slot to 34 outside. And he kept a Denver Boot on Godwin's wheel for the most part, limiting him to three catches and 55 yards, 28 of those coming on one chunk play. If we're looking for Gilmore's direct replacement, here he is. And he's held up so far, with a passer rating of 67.2 (according to Pro Football Focus) and no TDs allowed. He's a full time starter though, third on the defense in total snaps behind only McCourty and Jackson.
Like this video shows, as soon as Jones left Sunday Night's game for one crucial 3rd down play, Brady zeroed in on his replacement Justin Bethel like a wolf spotting a wounded caribou. When he came back in, Brady smelled blood and went after him twice, trying to hit Antonio Brown in the end zone twice. The first one had no chance because Jones was on Brown's hip like an old man's phone. And while he was beaten by a couple of steps on the second, the ball wasn't caught at the back line of the end zone. It's the nature of the slot corner position Jones occupies. According to PFF, he's been targeted once for every 4.4 coverage snaps, which is fourth most among all corners. And he's been in the slot for 88 of his 137 total defensive snaps, which is 64.2%. But he's strictly a third corner.
What can you say? He just continues to be an enigma. The 45th overall pick out of Vanderbilt (predicted by me; and I'm not sure how I feel about that) at 6-foot-4, 208 pounds, he was taken to help bolster the coverage against a generation of massive wideouts and hybrid tight ends. But three years in, he barely sees the field and was a healthy scratch against the league's deepest receiver corps last week. He might not be nearly the bust that the one Patriot drafted ahead of him, N'Keal Harry has been, but he's not far off. He's only been on the field in passing situations 36 of his 56 plays from scrimmage, and one of those was as a pass rusher. And his passer rating when targeted is a team worst 145.4. He's nothing more than a deep depth guy, primarily as a run force defender. And it's hard to imagine that's going to change, now or ever.
Here's your total Wild Card. The Patriots acquired Wade from Baltimore after the Ravens took him with the 160th overall pick in the spring. Originally projected as a potential 1st rounder, the 6-1 196-pouder ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and posted a 37.5 vertical at the Combine, but dropped on everyone's boards after terrible 2020 at Ohio State. First because Covid played havoc with the schedule. But also because he dealt with turf toe, knee problems and death in his family. But it's the film that the scouts remember. Regardless, the Pats were said to have him on their board and were disappointed when the Ravens grabbed him in the 5th. Still, he has yet to see the field and didn't practice today. So it's unlikely the coaches trust him enough yet to start dressing him. He's likely to be sitting in the brewing tank, not ready to be served any time soon. But the potential is there for the next CB1 if they can ever harness the potential he showed before last year.
And that is where we are at. Two starters who are playing well. A capable, solid-but-not-spectacular slot guy and pretty much nobody else. Gilmore would've made things immeasurably better, but we've got a 2023 6th round pick where he used to be. All I can say is that, unless they make some sort of dramatic acquisition, Jackson, Mills and Jones better stay healthy.