It’s rare for All-Pro cornerbacks and Pro Bowl linebackers to fall into a contender’s lap in the middle of an NFL season. But, that opportunity presented itself for top-tier teams around the league ahead of Week 5 of the 2021 regular season.
In a string of shocking moves by two of the NFL’s most notable franchises, the Dallas Cowboys cut linebacker Jaylon Smith on October 5, followed by the New England Patriots parting ways with cornerback Stephon Gilmore on October 6.
Smith’s release was more talent-based, as the former Pro Bowler hadn’t lived up to the expectations on the field that built up when the linebacker signed a five-year, $64 million contract in 2019.
The 26-year-old started every game throughout the 2018, 2019, and 2020 seasons, but saw his playing time drop significantly in the early part of his 2021 campaign. He started in just two of the Cowboys’ first four games, registering just 18 tackles in those four weeks.
“We felt this was the time to do it,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Jaylon’s an excellent football player. There’s other factors involved in this decision.”
On the other end, Gilmore’s situation was more focused on the financial side of the equation.
The former Defensive Player of the Year’s five-year, $65 million contract was set to expire at the end of the 2021 season, and the former Buffalo Bills star was looking to get paid after an all-time stretch in the Patriots secondary that led to two Super Bowl appearances.
He didn’t participate in the Patriots’ minicamp in 2021, and it looked as if the two sides were in for a messy breakup one way or another.
Gilmore didn’t play in the first four games of the season after being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list during the preseason, and wouldn’t have been eligible to come off the PUP list until Week 7 at the earliest.
In a statement on October 6, Gilmore confirmed that his time in New England was coming to an end, thanking the fans and organization in the process.
“It is with mixed emotions that I announce my goodbye to this great fan base,” Gilmore wrote. “We enjoyed so much success together and you have been an incredible inspiration for my individual achievements. Thank you for supporting this Rock Hill kid and allowing him to achieve his NFL dreams.”
“I absolutely appreciate and feel strongly about the player and the person,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about Gilmore. “He’s a great kid. Unfortunately, we decided to part ways.”
As a result of a hectic 24 hours, two big names on defense found themselves waiting for a new home in the midst of an NFL season filled with parity, with loads of contenders looking to stay ahead or mid-tier teams looking to make a jump towards the top.
*UPDATE* as of 1:20 p.m. ET on October 6: Before Gilmore’s release could be processed, the Patriots agreed to trade Gilmore to his hometown Carolina Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in dire need of secondary help amid a slew of injuries throughout the first four weeks of the season, and the Balitmore Ravens could’ve solve their own injury issues by adding Gilmore to the roster, as well.
The Kansas City Chiefs have money to use, and need some help to get out of last place after an unimaginable four-week stretch to start the 2021 season. Andy Reid’s offense has experienced Gilmore’s impact firsthand from Gilmore’s tenure in New England, and the franchise could’ve use a defensive threat in such a talented division.
Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers could use Smith’s expertise, especially considering the franchise could be without star linebacker Za’Darius Smith for an extended period of time.
Elsewhere, the New York Giants and Washington Football Team, Smith’s former NFC East rivals, could swoop in on the former Cowboys linebacker to bolster their defense.
No matter how each move plays out, Gilmore and Smith’s new homes will benefit from some of the most shocking regular-season transactions in recent memory, each of which could rock the landscape of the NFL’s playoff picture down the line.