Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore will be entering the 2014 season with lofty expectations, as the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was severely hampered by a wrist injury that caused him to miss the first five games of 2013. Gilmore was thrown to the wolves from his first game as a rookie, being responsible for opposing No. 1 wide receivers for the majority of his snaps. While inconsistent, Gilmore showed the flashes and physical tools that had analysts around the country raving going into the 2013 offseason.
After an incredible training camp that heightened expectations for the second year player, Gilmore suffered a fractured wrist that required surgery. After missing the first five games of the season, he had to wear a fairly large club on his wrist for three games, which hampered his most special trait: physicality.
Stephon Gilmore’s Skill Set
At 6’1” 195 pounds, Stephon Gilmore has good size for the cornerback position. His 31 ¼” arms allow him to jam opposing wide receivers and be physical. Has a long, well-built frame and is incredibly athletic.
Gilmore’s 4.40 second 40-yard dash, 6.61 second three-cone drill, and 3.94 20-yard shuttle at the combine would have ranked 4th, 3rd, and 2nd, respectively, compared to the 59 defensive backs at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
While Gilmore is a physical, tenacious and aggressive cornerback, it seems that his overall athletic ability has gone vastly underrated. He has loose hips and great lateral quickness, two traits that are imperative to a cornerback’s success, that allow him to trail, mirror, and essentially lock down most wideout at a high level when in man coverage.
Mike Pettine’s defensive scheme revolved around pressuring the quarterback, most of the time with exotic blitzes. Pettine was only able to blitz as often as he did because of how reliable Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin are in coverage. In the above clip, Mario Williams was credited with the sack, but it was Gilmore’s lockdown coverage that forced Drew Brees to hold on to the ball longer than he should have.
Gilmore’s combination of straight line speed, fluid hips and good hand usage is put on display in the above play against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Off the snap, Gilmore backpedals quickly, re-routing Emmanuel Sanders and gaining inside leverage. He flips his hips and then uses his speed to run stride for stride with the speedy wide out, ultimately eliminating Sanders as a target.
In addition to his coverage ability, Stephon Gilmore is also a great tackler. He consistently shows proper technique and always wraps up ball-carriers , rather than going for the highlight hit. Gilmore is a valuable asset against the run as well, using his hands effectively to get off blocks, while showing great closing speed.
Stephon Gilmore possesses all of the physical and mental traits you look for in a No. 1 cornerback, but he needs to improve in a few areas of his overall game in order to reach his full potential.
He has a tendency to get too high in his backpedal, causing him to lose balance, which often times leads to pass interference or holding penalties as a result of trying to stay in position.
When playing in off-man or some zone concepts, he is extremely vulnerable to comeback routes, as he can overextend in his breaks. He needs to work on staying compact in order to get a quicker jump on passes.
Another notable issue in Gilmore’s game is that he can struggle to “feel” routes, and flip his hips too soon. Because of getting to high or upright, he doesn’t recover quick enough to make a play on the ball.
Stephon Gilmore’s 2014 Season Outlook
At just 23-years of age, Stephon Gilmore already has 27 games of professional experience in the role of a No. 1 cornerback. While his wrist injury definitely postponed some of his development, he really turned it on to close out the 2013 season on a high note.
In his first five games back from the injury, Gilmore surrendered 20 receptions on 31 targets (64.5%), one touchdown, while failing to record an interception and batted away just two passes, while allowing quarterbacks to post a 95.8 passer rating when targeting him.
In the last six games of the year, Gilmore allowed 20-of-45 targets to be caught (44.4%) and zero touchdowns, while intercepting two passes and defending eight more. Quarterbacks put up a 48.1 passer rating when targeting him in that span.
Gilmore’s most concerning issues appear to be coachable, as they’re based on refining technique and displaying it on a consistent basis. Being the elite athlete that he is, there’s not any reason to doubt that he can clean it up.
A play that really highlights Gilmore’s potential is this interception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gilmore uses his strength to position himself with inside leverage against one of the biggest wide receivers in the NFL, Vincent Jackson. Mike Glennon lofts a high pass, with the expectation that Jackson would use his 6’5″ 230 pound frame to out-muscle Gilmore and high point the ball.
Instead, Gilmore maintains leverage before simultaneously jumping and turning his body to pick off the pass.
Stephon Gilmore has already showed flashes of dominance in his first two seasons with the Bills, but if he can be more consistent in his third year, he very well could emerge as the leader in the second tier of cornerbacks behind Revis/Sherman, such as Joe Haden and Patrick Peterson.