Analysis: Stephon Gilmore brings experience, skill to Panthers

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When Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer told reporters he would “be in on every deal” earlier this year, he wasn’t joking around.

© Getty Images This one certainly comes as a surprise. Albert Breer is reporting that New England shopped Gilmore in August. After a brutal start to the season, it’s possible the Patriots will be looking to sell again. Gilmore may have been roasted by D.K. Metcalf a few weeks ago, but he’s still the best cornerback in football and therefore by definition worth a look. While it’s true Carolina’s corners have performed better than expected this season it was a low bar and injuries and COVID-19 have thinned their rotation. More importantly, getting an elite corner like Gilmore would offer defensive coordinator Phil Snow a foundational piece to build around. It’s hard to think of a defender who could improve this team’s long-term outlook more.

Last week, a significant injury exposed the lack of depth in Carolina’s secondary. With 2021 eighth overall pick Jaycee Horn sustaining a right foot injury that sent him to injured reserve, speculation arose around how the team would fill the major void.

That hole lasted four days. The day the team placed Horn on IR, they traded for second-year cornerback C.J. Henderson, a young and talented prospect the organization has been eyeing since the 2020 pre-draft process.

Today, though, the Panthers made an even bigger splash in the trade market, acquiring corner Stephon Gilmore from the New England Patriots in exchange for a 2023 sixth-round draft pick. Beyond just replacing Horn for what could be the remainder of the campaign, Carolina is improving their secondary enough to win now and in the future.

Including the newest additions, names like Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye are in the exciting mix as well, highlighting the team’s defensive backfield. With injuries, though, each player figures to see the field on a different timetable.

Here’s our projected outlook for the Panthers’ cornerbacks for the remainder of this season and beyond.

Right now: Youth takes over on the outsides

Active: A.J. Bouye, C.J. Henderson, Donte Jackson, Keith Taylor Jr., Rashaan Melvin, Stantley Thomas-Oliver III

Starters: Donte Jackson (outside), C.J. Henderson (outside), A.J. Bouye (slot)

Inactive: Jaycee Horn (injured reserve), Myles Hartsfield (injured reserve), Stephon Gilmore (PUP)

Analysis: The loss of Horn will hurt the Panthers badly, at least for now. With the newly-acquired Gilmore on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list until at least Week 7, the team must rely on the inexperienced but talented Henderson to hold down the fort opposite Jackson.

So far, the defense has rotated players like Taylor and Melvin at that position, but Rhule should begin relying more heavily on Henderson as he continues to get acclimated to Carolina’s system.

The veteran Bouye has played primarily in the slot, leading the team with 23 snaps at nickel in the team’s Week 4 loss to Dallas. We expect him to stay there despite recent injuries.

Later in the season: The first return from injury

Active: A.J. Bouye, C.J. Henderson, Donte Jackson, Keith Taylor Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Stephon Gilmore

Starters: Donte Jackson (outside), Stephon Gilmore (outside), A.J. Bouye (slot)

Inactive: Jaycee Horn (injured reserve), Myles Hartsfield (injured reserve)

Analysis: With Gilmore elevated to the active roster from the PUP list, we project the team to send Melvin back to the practice squad.

Gilmore, once healthy, should take over Henderson’s spot as the primary starter opposite Jackson. We could, still, continue to see a rotation at the position based on matchups and game flow.

With players getting healthy midway through, Carolina has the potential to continue having one of the premier cornerback groups in the league heading into the postseason, should they qualify.

The offseason: Two top corners could hit the market

On the roster: A.J. Bouye, C.J. Henderson, Corn Elder, Jaycee Horn, Keith Taylor Jr., Madre Harper, Myles Hartsfield, Rashaan Melvin, Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Troy Pride, Jr.

Pending free agents: Donte Jackson (UFA), Rashaan Melvin (UFA), Stephon Gilmore (UFA)

Analysis: This offseason, the Panthers have a pair of notable unrestricted free agents.

The team may try to retain both, with Jackson likely being a priority. We noted Jackson as a contract extension candidate this past offseason, so the Panthers should hope his price tag doesn’t see a significant increase now that they’ve waited an extra year. As for Gilmore, the two sides are reportedly content with letting the 2021 season play out.

The team should also get Horn and Hartsfield back from temporary injured reserve late into the season, with Pride, Jr. on season-ending injured reserve and looking to rejoin the team during the offseason. Harper and Elder are on the Panthers’ practice squad right now, so they could have a chance to compete for a roster spot this offseason, too.

Between Jackson’s strong start to the season and Fitterer’s magic working the phone lines, the Panthers could have one of the league’s scariest defenses that keeps getting better every week, especially as young players develop and injured ones continue to heal.

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