Tom E. Curran

Patriots 2024 roster reset: Would a Gilmore reunion make sense at DB?

New England could use another elite boundary corner opposite Christian Gonzalez.

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Editor's Note: With the beginning of NFL free agency looming on March 13, our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran is resetting each Patriots position by assessing their 2023 performance, laying out their 2024 contract status and ranking their offseason priority on a scale of 1 to 5.

Curran has covered quarterbackswide receivers, running backs, tight ends and offensive linemen. Next up: defensive backs.

The Patriots were one of the best defenses in football in 2023. Every week they knew their offense might not get to 10 points. Every week, they knew they were going to be on the field more than almost any other defense in the league because of their offensive impotence.

It was a banner season that ultimately went to waste. And it was even more impressive given that they were battered by injury and hampered by foolishness.

The best defensive player through three games was rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez. Then he got hurt early in the Cowboys rout and was lost for the year. The most impactful pass rusher, Matthew Judon, saw his season end in the Dallas game as well.

Meanwhile, second-year corner Jack Jones – arrested at Logan Airport in the offseason – was released in early November after becoming increasingly prickly. Gonzalez and Jones were ticketed to be the team’s boundary corners in the summer.

Who played the most snaps at corner? Myles Bryant (851). Next was the always steady Jonathan Jones who played 730 snaps (he missed four games early in the year) and then J.C. Jackson (439), Jalen Mills (459), Shaun Wade (348) and Alex Austin (211).

Jackson had to be added near the trade deadline because of all the injuries. It wasn’t long before he got sideways with the Patriots as he had with the Chargers.

Through it all, the defense held up. And a lot of thanks for that can be given to the stability of the safety crew, where Jabrill Peppers and Kyle Dugger comprised the best position duo the team had. Their production and availability allowed rookie Marte Mapu an apprentice season as the heir apparent as a hybrid safety/LB.

Bright spots in 2023

Since 2013, the Patriots used first-round picks on Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, N’Keal Harry, Mac Jones and Cole Strange. That’s a rough stretch. But they got it right at the top in Bill Belichick’s final season as football czar with the drafting of Gonzalez. He’s got Pro Bowl/All-Pro potential.

Bryant was another bright spot at corner. He’s a depth guy but he played his ass off. And Wade had some moments too after really just taking up a roster spot in his first two seasons here.

Peppers was an absolute beast all season in his second year with the team. I thought he was the team-wide MVP. It wasn’t so much the numbers – 78 tackles, two picks, eight PBUs, five TFLs and a sack – as it was the attitude and aggressiveness with which he played. He’s a “different speed” kind of player.

Dugger also had another excellent year. He played 1,115 snaps, didn’t miss a game, was used liberally as a blitzer (45 times) and had 109 tackles. Both he and Peppers were very good both against the run and in coverage.  

Mapu showed flashes in the snippets of time he was on the field in the regular defense.

Disappointments from 2023

Jack Jones was a dice-roll when the team drafted him in the fourth round and it didn’t work. Too bad. He’s talented. The Gonzalez injury was one of the more disappointing things to happen all year. Same with Marcus Jones, who was gone two weeks into the year after his promising rookie year.

Other than that, it’s hard to say anyone in the secondary was a disappointment relative to the expectations you’d have for them.

Contract statuses for 2024

On Tuesday, the Patriots put the transition tag on Dugger, meaning they’ll pay him $13.8 million if he stays. He can test the market. If he gets a better offer, the Patriots can match or lose him with no compensation. The franchise tag was $17 million and – as good as Dugger has been for them – he’s not yet an All-Pro level player.

It will be interesting to see if the league views him as a $17 million-per-year-type player or if the Patriots hit the mark with the $13 million-per-year offer that was reportedly on the table. They can work out a new deal and drop the $13.8M cap hit but that’s now on the books.

Peppers, meanwhile, has a $3.1 million base and a $6.4 million cap hit.

One player you may have missed joining the team was former Cardinal Marco Wilson, claimed off waivers on December 29. A fourth-rounder in 2021, he started 11 games for Arizona before being cut. He really stunk in 2023, but he’s just 25 and played pretty well his first two seasons. He’s got a $3.3 million base since claimed players’ contracts travel with them.

Gonzalez has three years left on his deal (four if the Patriots pick up his fifth-year option in early 2027) so there’s no intrigue there.

Alex Austin, Bryant and Jalen Mills all have expiring deals. No other secondary players are making more than $1 million.

Offseason priority (Scale of 1-5)

It's a 3. The Patriots’ top priority needs to be adding another boundary corner opposite Gonzalez. Jonathan Jones was called on to work out there and answered the bell, but he’s better suited inside, as is Marcus Jones.

The Patriots have so many offensive needs that it could take a minute for them to look at defense. When they do, they’ll see a draft with nearly a dozen corners ranked in the top 100 players by some experts.

The easiest thing to do? Bring Stephon Gilmore back. Even at 34, he was still an upper-tier player in ’23 for the Cowboys. He’d cost upwards of $8 million per year, though.

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