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Stephon Gilmore expected to sign with Patriots

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In what is becoming a recurring theme in free agency, one of the best cornerbacks on the open market will likely land with the New England Patriots.

Former Bills first-round pick and 2016 Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore is expected to sign with the Patriots, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. Gilmore, believed by some to be the best free-agent cornerback heading to the market, is just 26 going on 27. He finished last season with a career-high five interceptions for 135 return yards. Gilmore also broke up 12 passes and added 42 solo tackles.

Rapoport said the potential deal will eclipse $14 million per season.

The Patriots are also retaining veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch on a two-year deal worth up to $12 million, Rapoport reported.

Retaining Branch is quietly a big deal. The gap-plugger was a key part of New England's defense, a unit that didn't allow a single running back to top 90 yards on the ground last season. Ranked 25th in NFL.com's Top 101 Free Agents list, Branch is playing his best football at 32 years old.

Patriots head coach Belichick makes a living off waiting for defensive players to mature before plucking them at their prime. For the last five years, he's had a front row seat to Gilmore in the AFC East and knows exactly how he'll fit into the system.

Clearly, the investment is safer for Belichick than going after someone like Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye, who was also in contention for the "best corner on the market" moniker.

Pairing Gilmore with budding star Malcolm Butler gives the Patriots undoubtedly the best secondary in the division and one of the best in the AFC. Gilmore also fits New England's soft spoken, workhorse culture well.

Teams looking to unseat New England as Super Bowl champion just got chills. Silently, the Patriots have been wielding their sword throughout free agency negotiations. Set to acquire Dwayne Allen via trade, Belichick sent out the word that he wasn't sitting idly by and picking up veteran scraps. Gilmore gives New England a frontline starter this year and insurance should it lose Butler in free agency next season. For now, New England has been able to hold on to their Super Bowl XLIX star with a first-round tender.

When Gilmore can officially sign after 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, it will be safe to assume that the Patriots are just getting started.

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