Patriots begin work early this offseason

The New England Patriots, usually in hibernation on the first official day of NFL free agency, were front and center on Thursday.

The team reportedly inked free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, to a five-year deal, $65 million deal, with $40 million guaranteed.

Also, they are said to have re-signed defensive lineman Alan Branch to a two-year deal worth about a total of $12 million and safety Duron Harmon to a four-year deal worth $20 million.

The Pats were reportedly also still talking linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

The Gilmore move was totally unexpected as the Patriots were said to be in long term negotiations with their own starting corner, Malcolm Butler, on a long-term deal. However, those talks reportedly have stalled Butler, a restricted free agent to whom the Patriots gave a first-round tender offer of $3.9 million for next season, is reportedly seeking a Gilmore-type deal. A team can sign Butler to an offer sheet and in return give the Patriots a first round pick if the Patriots don’t match that offer.

Would the Patriots keep both Gilmore and Butler? For one year, perhaps, giving them possibly the best corner tandem in the league. Gilmore’s signing is certainly an unusual move but one made for the long term, and the team went into this signing period with about $55 million in salary cap space.

However, rumors on Thursday were rampant that the team was talking with New Orleans about possibly dealing Butler – once he signs his tender offer – to the Saints for speedy wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Brooks has reportedly been on the trading block for the last week or so.

Gilmore was AFC East Buffalo’s top corner, as he had five interceptions to go with 48 tackles. In 2015 he had 36 stops with three picks. However, the Patriots solved him, as his future Patriot and former Bills teammate Chris Hogan beat him on a 53-yard bomb during the teams’ regular season meeting in Buffalo this past season.

The signing of Branch and Harmon keep the Patriots from having to do be super active on the second level free agent market. Branch was arguably the team’s best defensive lineman this past season, and had a total combined 267 tackles with 10.5 sacks the last two seasons with the team.

Harmon is a versatile player who had 29 tackles last year with one interception. He was drafted in the third round in 2013 out of Rutgers, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been known to highly value players from that school.