Acquiring Stephon Gilmore from New England Patriots shows Carolina Panthers believe future is now

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer lives three doors down from Stephon Gilmore in a rural area south of Charlotte. They occasionally ran into each other as late as July, when the then-New England Patriots cornerback was recovering from surgery on a partially torn quadriceps.

Never did they discuss being more than neighbors.

That ended Wednesday when Fitterer sent a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Patriots for the four-time Pro Bowl selection from nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The Patriots were prepared to release Gilmore at 4 p.m. ET, but the Panthers beat several other interested teams to the punch by acquiring a 31-year-old veteran who can help them make a playoff run, beginning with a Week 7 game against the New York Giants, when he comes off the physically unable to perform list.

That’s what this was all about.

The Panthers (3-1) believe they can be a playoff contender, maybe a Super Bowl contender, this season.

That belief took a hit when first-round pick Jaycee Horn suffered three broken bones in his foot during a Sept. 23 road win against the Houston Texans. The cornerback faces two to three months of recovery from surgery.

Fitterer tried to lessen the hit last week by trading for Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback CJ Henderson, a 2020 first-round pick who has similar skills and body type to Horn.

But the Henderson trade was more about a long-term plan if he works out.

Gilmore, a first-round pick by Buffalo in 2012, is about the now. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder won NFL Defensive Play of the Year in 2019 and will be inserted into a young secondary that needs veteran experience.

“CJ is for the future,’’ Fitterer said. “Stephon is to win now.’’

It made too much sense for Fitterer, who brought to Carolina the “I want to be in on all trades’’ philosophy he learned during his time with the Seattle Seahawks' front office.

He has now made 13 trades since becoming the general manager in January. That’s the second-most in the NFL behind the Texans during that span -- and two more than the Panthers made combined from 2018-20.

Here’s why the Gilmore trade makes sense:

Gilmore is a good fit

Gilmore has been one of the best man-to-man cover corners in the league. Horn, despite being a rookie, was headed in that direction before his injury. Henderson, 23, is still learning.

In Gilmore, the Panthers get a player who has 25 career interceptions, including a career-high six in his last healthy season in New England (2019).

They get a player who will allow defensive coordinator Phil Snow to play more man-to-man and use more exotic blitzes by a defense that already is second in the NFL with 14 sacks through the first four games.

Without Horn in Sunday’s 36-28 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Panthers didn’t have a sack, didn’t put a lot of pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott and allowed a season-high 245 yards rushing. This from a team that had given up 45 rushing yards a game in the first three contests.

Carolina went from the No. 1 defense in the NFL to third.

No wonder Snow was smiling when he walked into practice after the trade Wednesday.

Financially sound trade

Gilmore will cost the Panthers only $5.8 million this season. That’s a drop in the bucket for a team that came into the day ranked second behind Jacksonville with $19.2 million in cap space.

If Gilmore plays well and proves worthy of an extension, the Panthers have room to give him that without hurting the rest of the roster. If he doesn’t play well, all they lose is a late-round pick in 2023.

Again, this is about now. Long-term, the priority is to sign Donte Jackson to an extension to play opposite Horn and Henderson.

Nonetheless, Jackson said the trade shows "they're confident we can win now.'''

If Gilmore plays well and wants to continue playing at Carolina, that would be a bonus.

Homecoming for Gilmore back in the Carolinas

This not only sends a message to the team that the Panthers are serious about winning now, it sends a message to the Carolinas that they’re serious. That’ll attract more fans to the stadium.

It also is an easy move for Gilmore, a former Mr. Football in South Carolina, who led South Pointe High in Rock Hill to the 2008 state title as a senior before going to the University of South Carolina.

His presence will let the rest of the NFL know the Panthers are in a win-now mode which could help Fitterer attract more star players to Carolina in the future.

It’s just unlikely they’ll be neighbors, but Fitterer is on the lookout for a left tackle with Cam Erving possibly out this week with a neck injury.

“Maybe during Halloween I’ll go knock on the doors and ask,’’ Fitterer said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, I haven’t found one, yet.’’