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The curious case of Stephon Gilmore: A look at the complexities and uncertainties of an NFL contract

New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been linked to the Seahawks at various points throughout the offseason.

As such, I feel that he is fair game for an article here on Field Gulls.

I am not, however, interested in whether Seattle will trade for him, whether Seattle should trade for him, or what such a trade might look like.

Not today anyway.

What I am interested in right now is his very peculiar contract situation and how he and the Patriots reached their current impasse.

Naturally, I am also interested in how that might ultimately/potentially affect our beloved Seahawks.

Oh, and somewhere in the middle of of all this is a little-known league rule that really hamstrings the Patriots in regard to their options at this exact point in time.

Ready for some fun?


Who is Stephon Gilmore?

For those that aren’t familiar with him, here is a high-level snapshot of Stephon Gilmore’s professional career up to this point:

  • Drafted in the 1st round of the 2012 draft, #10 overall
  • Spent his first 5 seasons in Buffalo (2012-2016)
  • Has been in New England the last 4 seasons (2017-2020)
  • 4x Pro Bowler (2016, 2018-2020)
  • 2x All-Pro (2018 + 2019)
  • Led the league in interceptions (6) and passes defended (20) in 2019
  • Named Defensive Player of the Year in 2019

Worth noting: The last cornerback to win the DPOY award was Deion Sanders 25 years earlier (1994).


Career earnings and contract particulars

For the purpose of this article, I am looking at the actual cash paid by season and/or contract.

To put that another way, the only time I will be mentioning Gilmore’s “cap hit” in this article is ... never.

Why?

Because how a team chooses to spread out the impact from their financial decisions is irrelevant to the player and would only serve to make this article more confusing than it needs to be.

Trust me, it will be better this way.

...

Gilmore’s rookie contract

As the #10 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, Stephon Gilmore signed a 4-year, $12.1M rookie contract on May 17th, 2012. Buffalo exercised the $11.082M fifth-year option on April 28th, 2015.

Total/actual earnings via rookie contract: $23,166,158

...

Gilmore’s second contract

Stephon Gilmore left Buffalo via free agency in 2017, signing with the division-rival New England Patriots who offered him a 5-year, $65M contract with an $18M signing bonus and $40M in guarantees.

Of note:

  • The guaranteed money was more than any other Patriot at the time, including TB12
  • The $13M average put Gilmore at #6 among the league’s corners at signing

Total/actual earnings via second contract: $56,643,222*

...

Current contract status

The asterisk on the $56M+ figure, above, is there because Stephon Gilmore still has one year remaining on the 5-year contract he signed in 2017.

That contract year currently carries a $7M base salary, a $411,765 roster bonus, and up to $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses which gives him a maximum combined income of $7,911,765 in 2021.

None of the money remaining on his contract is guaranteed.

...

How Gilmore’s current contract compares to his peers

From a cash standpoint, there are 24 cornerbacks who will pull down more income in 2021 than Stephon Gilmore.

Twenty-four.

To put some perspective on that, absent any changes in Stephon Gilmore’s situation:

  • Two rookie corners (Jaycee Horn + Patrick Surtain II, drafted at #8 + #9, respectively) are guaranteed to bring in over $5M more than Stephon Gilmore in 2021
  • Caleb Farley (the #22 selection) trails Gilmore by a mere $76,865
  • Ex-Seahawk Shaquill Griffin will nearly double Gilmore’s income in 2021 ($14M vs. $7,911,765)

Note: For those that are interested, the “Bonus Coverage” section at the end of this article will dive into the contract numbers a bit more and look at how they compare to Gilmore’s peers on a year-by-year basis.

...

What makes Gilmore’s contract unusual

As fans, we are used to hearing about teams restructuring a player’s contact. In almost every case, this is done to lower the salary cap hit in the current year.

The most common method for restructuring a contract is to convert part of a player’s base salary to a signing bonus and then prorate that bonus over the remaining years of the contract.

The Patriots went the other direction with Gilmore.

On September 11th, 2020, they gave the reigning Defensive Player of the Year a de facto “raise” by taking $4.5M from his then-$11.5M base salary in 2021 and moving it forward to 2020.

The numbers in the following Tweets (and the related article) don’t line up exactly but I’ll clear that up in a minute.

September 11th, 2020 (Adam Schefter)

September 15th, 2020 (Field Yates)

September 15th, 2020 (Albert Breer)

Breaking it down

Alright ...

The initial report was that the Patriots had given Gilmore a $5M “raise”. Four days later, the actual details became known and there were some pretty stark differences - particularly given how the season played out.

  • Difference #1: The $5M figure was overstated by $500,000.

  • Difference #2: It was technically only a $2.5M raise as his base salary increased from $10.5M to $13M.

  • Difference #3: The other $2M was turned into per-game roster bonuses (in addition to the $500,000 in per-game bonuses that were already included in his 2020 contract #s).

  • Difference #4: The Patriots added a $2M incentive that Gilmore would have earned had he won the DPOY award again in 2020.

Also, as Albert Breer pointed out in his 2nd Tweet, the move carried some risk: “and could lead to a breakup in ‘21.”

Note: We’re going to leave this here for the moment and take a look at the current impasse between Stephon Gilmore and the New England Patriots. We’ll come back to it though.


The current impasse

There are 3 things that are currently combining to provide a somewhat untenable situation in New England.

...

#1: Constant uncertainty

One could be forgiven for assuming that reaching the top of your profession in a given year would provide some certainty the following year.

Trent Dilfer would warn against that, of course, given that he was the first (and thus far only) QB to win a Super Bowl, opt to continue playing, and not return to the Super Bowl team the following season.

Imagine the headlines if Stephon Gilmore hadn’t returned to the Patriots after winning the DPOY award in 2019. Or, just read the actual headline: Breer: Pats explored Gilmore trade multiple times this offseason (9/13/2020).

Obviously the Patriots kept Gilmore - and gave him a raise. But then the 2020 trade deadline approached and Gilmore was again the subject of trade rumors with the Patriots reportedly seeking a 1st round pick and a player.

Again, the Patriots obviously kept him, but ... Google “Stephon Gilmore trade rumors 2021” and you might find yourself wondering what a player’s got to do to get a little “love” from his home team.

...

#2: The actual effect of last season’s contract restructuring

As you’ll recall, the Patriots moved $4.5M of Gilmore’s 2021 base salary to 2020 and added a $2M incentive that he could earn by repeating as DPOY.

Unfortunately, Gilmore only played in 11 games in 2020. First, he spent some time on the COVID reserve list. Then he hurt his knee and missed some time. Then he partially tore his quad and went on season-ending IR.

Obviously he didn’t win the DPOY award. And, as was mentioned, $2M of the $4.5M that was moved forward was turned into per-game roster bonuses rather than base salary.

Thus, Gilmore failed to earn the $2M incentive for DPOY and only received 11/16ths of the per-game roster bonuses.

Bottom line: New England actually saved $625,000 by moving money forward from 2021 - and did so at Gilmore’s expense.

...

#3: New England’s “need” / actual ability to trade him

This one is multi-faceted.

Per OTC, New England currently has about $16M in cap space. Thus, they don’t “need” to trade Gilmore.

Also, Gilmore is coming off a season-ending injury and while indications are that he should be 100% by the start of the season, he is currently rehabbing from offseason surgery.

Per CBS Sports: “... it’s uncertain if he’d pass a physical any time soon to facilitate a trade out of New England”.

Add in rumors/reports that Gilmore wants a new contract (est. $17M+ per season) and it’s a sticky wicket to be sure.


A few more variables

As if everything I’ve written up to this point weren’t enough to make your head spin, I have a few more wrinkles to add to this.

...

Gilmore a no-show at “mandatory” camp

Surprising almost no one, Stephon Gilmore is not attending the Patriots’ mandatory 3-day minicamp.

...

Bill Belichick as evasive as always

When asked about Gilmore’s absence on Monday: “Had a little weather here, we’re working through some travel arrangements. We’ll see what the full level of participation is here today and for this week. I’m sure we’ll have a pretty full roster.”

When pressed about Gilmore’s absence: “Like I said we were kind of scrambling to get things going this morning, so I didn’t really have a chance to see everyone myself, so we’ll see where we’re at.”

...

Per the updated CBA, Gilmore is subject to $93,000 in fines

By skipping the mandatory sessions, Gilmore incurs the following fines:

  • Day One: $15,515
  • Day Two: $31,030
  • Day Three: $46,540
  • Total: $93,085

And, per the updated CBA, teams can no longer waive fines (as used to be somewhat customary in holdout situations).

...

But ...

The Patriots do have the option of considering Gilmore’s no-show an “excused” absence.

Whether or not they exercise that option remains to be seen.

But the “excused absence” option goes away next month as NFL teams can no longer waive fines incurred during training camp (which starts in July).


Possible solutions

Rock, meet hard place ... really, really, hard place.

When the Patriots restructured Gilmore’s contract last offseason, the prevailing wisdom was that he wouldn’t play the 2021 season on that contract - that the Patriots would either sign him to an extension or ship him to a team that would sign him to an extension.

Neither of those things happened.

Either of them still could.

But ...


The Marshon Lattimore “extension”

What on earth does the cap-strapped Saints’ outlaw cornerback have to do with Stephon Gilmore?

I am sooooo glad you asked.

Let’s start at the beginning - March 26th, 2021.

Marshon Lattimore of New Orleans Saints charged with receiving stolen property.

Heckuva headline, right?

It might end up being much ado about nothing, but the legal uncertainty coupled with the looming possibility of a league-mandated suspension made Lattimore receptive to a, um, “unique proposal” by the Saints.

Long story short, the Saints needed cap space to sign their draft picks but had already restructured every single contract that made even the tiniest bit of sense to restructure. So they ... um ... restructured Lattimore’s fully-guaranteed 5th-year option ...

Obviously this made sense for Lattimore since he loses game checks if he’s suspended but a roster bonus would not be affected. Thus, via the restructure, the Saints just “saved” him roughly $544,000 per game if he ends up getting disciplined by the league.

But that’s not all the Saints did.

The Saints ALSO gave Marshon Lattimore a 4-year $120M extension.

Yes, you read that right.

Four years.

One hundred twenty million dollars.

For some perspective on that, Jalen Ramsey currently has the highest APY for a cornerback at $20M per season.

$120M divided by 4 equals $30M.

Per year.

...

Ah, but it’s the Saints and the Saints are the league’s poster child for cap manipulation, loophole discoveries, and just plain understanding the league’s rules better than the league itself.

...

A super-visible, but little-known rule

Article 13, Section 8 (a)(i) of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) reads, in part:

The contract of a Veteran Player may not be renegotiated to increase the Salary to be paid to the player during the original terms of the contract for a period of twelve months after the player’s most recent contract renegotiation.

...

Why is that important?

And how does it apply to Stephon Gilmore’s situation?

I’m glad you asked, but let’s focus on Marshon Lattimore for now; we’ll get back to Stephon Gilmore shortly.

...

Understanding what just happened - and what it means

Let’s unpack this.

  • The restructure of Lattimore’s 2021 contract / 5th-year option dropped his base salary to $990,000 and converted the rest to a $9,254,000 roster bonus which was then spread equally across 2021 and the 4 new void years that the Saints added at a rate of $1,850,800 per year.

  • As a result of the restructure, Lattimore’s 2021 cap hit fell from $10,244,000 to $2,840,800. The $7,403,200 the Saints freed up was enough to sign their draft class.

  • The net difference between what the Saints would have paid Lattimore on his fully-guaranteed 5th-year option and what the Saints will now pay him before he hits free agency (unless he signs an extension) is $0.00.

  • Because the Saints reworked Lattimore’s deal in late-May / early-June, and because the 4 years after 2021 are void years, Lattimore will reach free agency next March (i.e. before 12 months have passed).

  • Per the CBA, the Saints cannot increase Lattimore’s salary in 2022, 2023, 2024, or 2025 until roughly June 1st of 2022 (i.e. long after he’ll have become a free agent - unless they tag him).

However ...

  • By setting the base salaries in 2022-2025 at $30M, the Saints now have the ability to negotiate freely with Lattimore and could, theoretically, offer him a contract that exceeds Jalen Ramsey’s (or anyone who passes Ramsey between now and then).

...

Add it all up and this is what you’re left with:

  1. Without costing themselves (or Lattimore) a penny, the Saints saved $7.4M against this year’s cap while simultaneously helping Lattimore “protect” his income in the event he gets suspended;
  2. The 4-year, $30M extension “resets” the cornerback market - without really resetting it; and
  3. An NFL rule was effectively destroyed in the process.

...

I’m blown away. The Saints are brilliant! Utterly and completely RECKLESS. At least somewhat oblivious to the potential impact their insane maneuvers could (and likely will) have on the other 31 teams. But ... also very, very, VERY brilliant.

Now let’s circle back to Stephon Gilmore and the New England Patriots.


The aforementioned really, really hard place

I can’t help but wonder if the Patriots maybe didn’t think things through as well with Gilmore as the Saints clearly did with Lattimore. Why? Because the Patriots restructured Gilmore’s contract last September - two days before the season started.

That means that the Patriots cannot increase Gilmore’s salary in 2021.

At least not right now. Or during training camp. Not even before final cuts on August 31st. In fact, the first day they could increase his 2021 salary is the day before their season opener against the Miami Dolphins.

Amusingly, we’re going to see a lot of articles in the coming days and weeks that say something like “Worst case, just add a void year and add some money to his contract in 2021.”

But, guess what ... that’s not an option until September 11th.

Oh, and the capper to all of it?

Based on my understanding of the CBA, if the Patriots trade Gilmore, the acquiring team can’t increase his 2021 salary until September 11th either.

Note: The void year comment (above) is a paraphrasing of something said in this article on PFN’s website. They are far from the only site making that suggestion though. And it’s likely to become a common refrain.


What does this mean for the Seahawks?

The short answer is nothing - zip, zilch, nada - because the Seahawks are a well-run organization that refrains from unnecessary cap/contract manipulations and seldom finds itself on the wrong side of a standoff with a veteran player.

That said ...

Maybe JS/PC will decide that Seattle could use a lockdown corner who’s 2x All-Pro and only one season removed from being named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.

If so, everything I’ve written could end up meaning an awful lot.

As is often the case, time will tell.

...

Go Hawks!



Bonus Coverage

Gilmore’s “Cap Number” ranking in relation to other cornerbacks:

  • 2017: #16 at $8,568,750 (#1 was Josh Norman at $20M)
  • 2018: #16 at $8,887,500 (#1 was Josh Norman at $16,937,500)
  • 2019: #18 at $9,170,833 (#1 was Darius Slay at $15,934,375)
  • 2020: #1 at $23,920,833 (#2 was Byron Jones at $17.6M)
  • 2021: #1 at $16,265,603 (#2 is Byron Jones at $16.1M)

...

Gilmore’s “Cash Received” ranking in relation to other cornerbacks:

Note: Gilmore is actually #24 at this exact moment (per OTC), but that’s only because Jaycee Horn has not yet signed his rookie contract with Carolina.

...

Where Seattle’s current outside corners rank in regard to 2021 “Cap Number”:

Note: OTC lists Marquise Blair as a safety but he would be CB #95 at $1,345,452. Ugo Amadi is #120 at $1,011,298. Ryan Neal plays safety for Seattle but is listed by OTC as a corner (Tied #141 at $920,000).

...

Where Seattle’s current outside corners rank in regard to 2021 “Cash Received”:

  • Ahkello Witherspoon: #44 at $4M
  • Tre Flowers: #68 at $2,183,000
  • Tre Brown: #91 at $1,300,664
  • Pierre Desir: #134 at $987,500
  • Damarious Randall: Would be Tied #134 at $987,500 - but is listed as a safety by OTC
  • D.J. Reed: Would be Tied #144 at $920,000 - but is also listed as a safety
  • Jordan Miller: Tied #170 at $850,000
  • Saivion Smith: Tied #213 at $780,000
  • Bryan Mills: Tied #266 at $680,000
  • Gavin Heslop: Tied #281 at $660,000
  • Will Sunderland: Tied #281 at $660,000

Note: OTC lists Marquise Blair as a safety but he would be CB #89 at $1,345,452. Ugo Amadi is Tied #170 at $850,000. Ryan Neal plays safety for Seattle but is listed by OTC as a corner (Tied #144 at $920,000).