After being traded at midseason, cornerback Stephon Gilmore is on track to reach unrestricted free agency for the second time in his career. Will he re-sign with the Carolina Panthers? If not, where are Gilmore’s potential landing spots around the NFL?
Stephen Gilmore’s free-agent profile
The last time Gilmore hit the open market, he signed a five-year, $65 million deal with the Patriots that made him one of the highest-paid corners in the league. Five years later, he should be able to exceed that $13 million annual average value. However, a $13 million salary on a projected 2022 NFL-wide salary cap of $208 million wouldn’t mean nearly as much as it did on a $167 million cap in 2017.
What’s changed? Gilmore is still an excellent player. He made the Pro Bowl again this season. But he’s also entering his age-32 campaign. He missed half of this past year while recovering from a quad injury suffered in 2021. While Gilmore is likely to command $14-16 million annually, it will likely be on a short-term deal.
The Panthers acquired Gilmore from the Patriots in October in exchange for a 2023 sixth-round pick. While Carolina should have the cap space to compete in the free-agent market, Gilmore shouldn’t be considered a priority. The Panthers also traded for a much younger former first-round CB last year in C.J. Henderson. He should team with Carolina’s 2021 first-round choice Jaycee Horn as the club’s starting outside cornerbacks next season.
Stephen Gilmore’s landing spots
If the Panthers aren’t a realistic option for Gilmore, where could he go? Here are a few ideas.
New York Jets
If it feels like the Jets have been searching for cornerbacks since Darrelle Revis left town, it’s because they have. Dalliances with Trumaine Johnson and Morris Claiborne aside, New York hasn’t found an established presence in the defensive backfield. In 2020 fifth-round pick Bryce Hall, Gang Green appears to have landed on at least one competent corner for the 2022 campaign. But they could certainly use another option.
General manager Joe Douglas has nearly $50 million in cap space to spend this offseason, and the Jets should be active on the free-agent market. Gilmore obviously wouldn’t be a long-term asset for New York. Yet, he’d give them a veteran in a secondary that’s full of young players. He could also serve as a tutor for Hall, helping the 24-year-old further emerge in his second NFL season.
Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels overlapped with Gilmore in New England, so he’s seen what the 31-year-old can do up close. New Vegas defensive coordinator Patrick Graham also spent time with the Patriots. Graham didn’t work directly with Gilmore, but the DC will bring his New England-esque scheme to the Raiders. Gilmore would be able to help other members of the Vegas secondary adapt.
The Raiders found something in rookie slot corner Nate Hobbs, who excelled in 2021. But they might have problems on the outside. Casey Hayward was one of the league’s best corners, but he’s now a free agent. Even if Las Vegas is able to re-sign Hayward, they’ll need another CB. They can’t afford to have Brandon Facyson starting any more games.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs haven’t shown a ton of interest in paying for cornerbacks. In fact, they’ve spent money or invested draft picks just about everywhere else on their defense. At CB, they’ve relied on Charvarius Ward (a former UDFA who is now a pending free agent) and 2020 fourth-rounder L’Jarius Sneed. They’ve also mixed in former first-round castoffs like Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker.
If Kansas City doesn’t re-sign Ward, Gilmore could make sense as a replacement. Even if they do bring Ward back, Gilmore may represent an improvement over Sneed. If the Chiefs aren’t able to re-sign safety Tyrann Mathieu, then reinforcing their cornerback unit becomes all the more imperative.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers clearly need to improve their rush defense after ranking 31st in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play against the run. Nearly every mock draft seems to have gargantuan Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis going to LA at pick No. 17.
But head coach Brandon Staley strikes me as someone who prefers to build up his coverage units before bolstering his defensive line and linebackers. While the Chargers just re-signed Michael Davis to a three-year deal in 2021, he played poorly enough last season that he could be a candidate for a post-June 1 release. Gilmore and Asante Samuel Jr. would make for a formidable outside CB duo. Plus, Gilmore has enough experience in multiple schemes that he’d be able to adapt to anything Staley asks of him.
The Cardinals don’t have a ton of cap space at first glance. But they have enough veteran contracts — Budda Baker, D.J. Humphries, J.J. Watt — that can either be restructured or extended in order to create more breathing room. Arizona’s defense was excellent in 2021, but they could be due for some regression, especially in the secondary.
Byron Murphy will return as the club’s slot corner next year, but it’s unclear what the Cards will do at outside cornerback. Fourth-round pick Marco Wilson got torched for a 120.9 passer rating in his rookie campaign. Robert Alford hadn’t played since 2018, is entering his age-34 season, and is a free agent.
Gilmore could lock down one side of the field for Arizona. That would allow defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to get more creative in his coverage shells. It would also give Baker and fellow safety Jalen Thompson more flexibility in their coverage areas. If the Cardinals want to overtake the Rams in the NFC West, adding a corner like Gilmore is a good place to start.