Stephon Gilmore: An Elite Cornerback Lost in the Failings of the Buffalo Bills

Stephon Gilmore needs to get more love for his displays as a rookie.

By exploring every aspect of players such as Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, this cornerback series has so far unveiled the unknown about players that everyone in the NFL knows about. Even players such as Brandon Flowers, Joe Haden and Carlos Rogers are relatively well-known players in the NFL today, but even though Stephon Gilmore was a top 10 pick in the 2012 draft, he is a relative unknown.

Gilmore was drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the 10th overall pick last year. Landing in Buffalo was always going to hurt his exposure, despite an off-season full of excitement that ultimately resulted in all-too-familiar disappointment in the regular season. Couple that with the fact that he was the second cornerback, behind Morris Claiborne of the Dallas Cowboys, and third defensive back, when you include Mark Barron to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, taken in that draft, and it’s easy to see why Gilmore wasn’t a Pro Bowl consideration.

Very few defensive backs are Pro Bowl considerations with just one interception in a season, not least a rookie who can’t fall back on an already established reputation. However, the Pro Bowl has increasingly become a flawed process for rewarding players, especially when it comes to defensive backs and offensive linemen. Just because Gilmore didn’t have a Pro Bowl season or win defensive rookie of the year, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL last year.

One of the best cornerbacks in the NFL last year, not one of the best rookie cornerbacks in the NFL last year.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays:
Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn’t part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn’t follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays(duh!). Including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages:

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an alysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arms reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

Shut Down:

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them towards the sideline, suffocating the space they have to catch the football in. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

In Position:

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be ‘In Position’, a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

 

 

 

It was another rookie who had the most success against Gilmore.

Wide Receiver Success-Individual Matchups

No.

Player

Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps

Percentage

1 T.Y Hilton 3/6 50%
2 Brandon Gibson 2/4 50%
3 Santonio Holmes 3/7 42.9%
4 Andre Johnson 5/12 41.6%
5 Jordan White 2/5 40%
6 Michael Crabtree 3/8 37.5%
7 Sidney Rice 4/11 36.4%
8 Jeremy Kerley 3/10 30%
9 Stephen Hill 3/10 30%
10 Steve Breaston 3/10 30%
11 Reggie Wayne 3/10 30%
12 Brandon Lloyd 10/36 27.7%
13 Larry Fitzgerald 5/19 26.3%
14 Jonathan Baldwin 3/12 25%
15 Greg Little 1/4 25%
16 Kyle Williams 1/4 25%
17 Mario Manningham 1/4 25%
18 Brian Hartline 9/37 24.3%
19 Justin Blackmon 6/25 24%
20 Chris Givens 5/27 18.5%
21 Kevin Elliott 1/6 16.6%
22 Braylon Edwards 1/7 14.2%
23 Kenny Britt 1/7 14.2%
24 Josh Gordon 1/18 5.5%
25 Michael Floyd 0/4 0%
26 Kendall Wright 0/4 0%
27 Dwayne Bowe 0/5 0%
28 Deion Branch 0/5 0%
Totals 79 / 317
Averages 2.82 / 11.32
25.7%

*Those with less than four snaps against Gilmore were not included.

Gilmore started from Week 1 as a rookie.

Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: New York Jets
Total qualifying plays: 18
Failed coverages: 7
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 8

Gilmore struggled in his debut as a professional. He gave up some easy receptions to Stephen Hill early on, one in off coverage and one when Hill bounced off of his aggressive coverage. On every snap across from each other, Gilmore and Hill were enjoying an all-or-nothing matchup. When Hill was free, he was free, when Gilmore won the battle, he wasn’t an option for his quarterback.

The biggest play between the two came at the start of the second quarter, when Hill beat him for a touchdown.

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Gilmore is lined up in off coverage across from Hill at the bottom of the screen. He is on an island, with the safety on his inside shoulder responsible for the tight end lined up to the same side of the field, Jeff Cumberland.

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Gilmore backpedals slowly at the snap, keeping his eyes focused on Hill. After 11 yards of running straight at the defensive back, Hill shakes his hips and glides to the outside to try and spring himself free down the sideline.

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Because of his aggressive nature, Gilmore moves forward when Hill shakes his hips as he expects the receiver to curl back towards his quarterback. When he doesn’t do this, Gilmore tries to sidestep towards the sideline while controlling his momentum to block off Hill while he tries to turn his hips all in the same motion.

However, Hill, as shown by the red line, is already getting past Gilmore so any efforts to block his route downfield will require pass interference from Gilmore.

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Because of his failed recovery attempt, Gilmore stumbles and eventually falls to the ground.

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Even though Mark Sanchez’s pass hangs in the air as it comes down the field, Gilmore still isn’t able to get back into a position from where he can prevent Hill from catching the ball into his chest. Gilmore’s discipline let him down on this occasion, but as we will see, it was a rare occurrence rather than the start of a trend.

Gilmore also had a good battle with Santonio Holmes in this game. He had safety help on a number of snaps, but Holmes still found ways to create separation with one very crisp double move and when the cornerback stumbled coming out of a break.

Week 2: Kansas City Chiefs
Total qualifying plays: 29
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 7
In Position: 16

Outside of a handful of snaps against Dexter McCluster and Dwayne Bowe, Gilmore spent most of his day trailing Jon Baldwin and Steve Breaston. Compared to his debut, Gilmore looked like a completely new player in this game. He still showed off his inexperience when he was twice out of position at the snap giving up easy receptions in the flat, but he started his day out by shutting down Breaston with incredibly physical coverage before coming close to his first career interception when Dwayne Bowe slipped at the top of his route.

For the most part, Gilmore played controlled coverage and his physical style overwhelmed Baldwin and Breaston. He repeatedly suffocated space from the two receivers as they tried to beat him deep down the sideline, while still maintaining his balance to contest most curl routes. However, it was a snap at the goalline against Dwayne Bowe that offered up the lasting memory from this game.

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With just 47 seconds left in the second quarter, the Bills held a 21-0 lead. The Chiefs had arrived at the Bills’ goalline after a methodical drive that started deep in their own territory. Gilmore is lined up alone at the top of the screen with Bowe and he will get no help as the Bills send an aggressive blitz with one-on-one coverage outside.

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Bowe is running a fade route, but he initially hesitates coming off the line of scrimmage before taking a hard step inside to try and create space between the defensive back and the pylon. Gilmore doesn’t bite on the fake, but he is still in a tough situation because Bowe is one of the most physical receivers in the league even though he doesn’t have the same height as an AJ Green or Calvin Johnson.

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Bowe works his way towards the sideline, with his head coming back to the football almost immediately. He is not looking to gain separation from Gilmore, but he is trying to outmuscle him for position on the football so he can go up and snatch it at it’s highest point. Gilmore sticks to Bowe though and keeps fighting with his hands to prevent Bowe from fully extending with both hands.

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Matt Cassel slightly overthrew the pass, so without that ability to fully extend over Gilmore, Bowe has no chance of making a play on the football. He wishfully throws one hand into the air, but Gilmore’s presence prevented him from even locating it to try and make the one-handed reception.

Week 3: Cleveland Browns
Total qualifying plays: 26
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 16

The Browns have a very physically gifted wide receivers who rely on their combination of size and speed to beat defensive backs. Gilmore is a very, very strong defensive back who has the straight-line speed and agility to stick to anyone in the NFL, therefore, the Browns got next to nothing from him in man coverage. He was beaten three times, once when he turned the wrong way on a short slant, the other when Greg Little’s hesitation caused him to bite on a fake outside when Little was going inside and another when Mohamed Massaquoi’s quick feet allowed him to win on a slant at the line of scrimmage.

Gilmore showed off his awareness against man coverage later in the game, as he completely shut down Little when he tried to run the same in route from before, but Travis Benjamin was able to get in the endzone when Gilmore showed off his lack of intelligence in zone coverage.

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Gilmore is lined up at the bottom of the screen over Travis Benjamin. Just before the snap, he dropped off into this off coverage position, giving up the underneath.

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Gilmore dropped off because he is responsible for the outer deep third to his side in a zone coverage. The deepest safety comes across to play center field, a safety and linebacker drop into areas ofver the middle while the outside linebackers fall into the flat. Gilmore’s priority here is not Travis Benjamin, but rather the space behind him from the closes hashmark to the sideline.

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Gilmore is already beaten at this point. His hips are facing his own goalposts and he is too far infield to get back to Travis Benjamin who is running a deep out route.

Benjamin

As Benjamin comes down the field, Gilmore has drifted inside on his own accord creating massive space behind him. Couple that with the fact he must turn the wrong way, losing sight of the receiver, and Benjamin comes up with a very easy touchdown reception. Benjamin didn’t need to use his speed to outrun Gilmore, he didn’t need to run a crisp route to confuse the defensive back or even make a difficult reception. Gilmore’s poor technique and lack of understanding of how the play developed against the called defense made him look like a fool.

Week 4: New England Patriots
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 12

After his failings in zone coverage against the Browns, Gilmore announced himself as an elite man defender in this game when he essentially shut down Brandon Lloyd on 15 snaps. Lloyd came free once, when he ran a post before catching the ball with Gilmore on his back, but even on that play he was forced to endure some very aggressive coverage from Gilmore.

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Late in the first quarter, Gilmore is lined up in press coverage against Lloyd at the top of the screen. The Bills initially show off a cover-2 look, but before the snap the safeties rotate so that one is in the box and the other is playing deep center field. This puts both Aaron Williams and Gilmore in tough spots as one of them is guaranteed to be without safety help, so both must presume that they are playing on an island(because they can’t see where the safety moves as they cover their receiver).

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 22.17.38

Despite essentially playing on an island, Gilmore is very aggressive with Lloyd from the start and begins to close off his space as he runs down the sideline. As the second section of the above image shows, Gilmore is level with Lloyd and not overplaying the deep threat or allowing Lloyd a step downfield to cover any comeback routes. Instead, when Lloyd tries to break back to the ball on a comeback route, GIlmore is in position to make a play on the football if he is agile enough to turn around and strong enough to take away Lloyd’s advantageous position.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 22.18.22

Without hesitation, Gilmore quickly snapped his head back to the football, planted his foot in the ground and got in front of Lloyd to knock the ball away. Despite this being one of the more difficult assignments for a cornerback, Gilmore was able to put himself in a position where he was more likely to intercept the ball than give up a reception.

Gilmore’s combination of awareness and physical attributes allow him to repeatedly make outstanding plays in man coverage.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 22.43.16

In the fourth quarter of the same game, Gilmore is covering Daniel Fells running into the flat at the goalline. Gilmore has perfect position on Fells again, but crucially, he has his eyes on the quarterback and is watching the play develop. Gilmore sees Tom Brady looking to his side of the field and he feels Rob Gronkowski running in behind him.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 22.45.14

Rob Gronkowski has beaten George Wilson and Tom Brady has made a throw  that should give him an interception. However, as soon as Brady let the ball go, Gilmore had read it’s trajectory. He didn’t hesitate in coming off of Fells to cut off the pass to Gronkowski and had the athleticism to high-point the football. He couldn’t come up with the interception, but prevented a certain, easy touchdown for the Patriots.

Week 5: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 9

Gilmore primarily stayed on the right side of the secondary, moving inside to the slot twice when the 49ers brought two receivers to one side. He gave up a curl route to Randy Moss early, as he looked to run down the sideline too soon, before Michael Crabtree took advantage of the defensive backs swapping assignments in man coverage to get free down the sideline. Crabtree showed off excellent feet on a slant route to lose Gilmore again, before a blown assignment from the young cornerback afforded Crabtree an easy touchdown reception down the sideline.

Week 6: Arizona Cardinals
Total qualifying plays: 27
Failed coverages: 8
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 15

If there is a prototypical cornerback who can contain Larry Fitzgerald, it may be Gilmore. Fitzgerald finished with five successful routes on 19 coverages, and even though he wasn’t given many jump ball opportunities, he was forced to work for whatever he got. Fitzgerald beat Gilmore on one curl route when Gilmore allowed his momentum to carry him down the field, he had another successful curl route when he fought through Gilmore after the cornerback read his intentions, he came free on two post routes as Gilmore appeared not to understand how to play his assignment on both occasions, while a backshoulder throw and an in route made up the rest of his positive plays.

Gilmore’s willingness and ability to stay tight to Fitzgerald in a variety of areas of the field saw him repeatedly squeeze Fitzgerald over the sideline on deep balls, while he didn’t give up anything easy underneath.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 23.01.18

On this play, Gilmore’s sheer strength is shown off. Fitzgerald doesn’t run a strong route as his break is rounded rather than a sharp angle. This allows Gilmore to move inside quickly and be on his shoulder as he moves across the field. Even though Gilmore has reached this point, more often than not Fitzgerald is able to use his upper body strength to hold off the defender and make a relatively easy reception. On this occasion though, Gilmore uses his upper body strength to knock Fitzgerald out of position giving the pass a clear route to his hands instead of into Fitzgerald’s chest.

Not many cornerbacks possess that physicality with his coverage ability and other physical traits. In fact, of the top cornerbacks who have already undergone this analysis, only Richard Sherman has the same physical coverage style as Gilmore. That style is invaluable when it comes to defending the league’s best receivers.

Week 7: Tennessee Titans
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 7
In Position: 9

Gilmore carried over his momentum from his excellent performance against Larry Fitzgerald into the Titans game. Except for one play, he was perfect in man coverage. On that one play, Kenny Britt avoided his press at the start of his route, before using his straight line speed to run free on a deep crossing route.

Week 8: Houston Texans
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 9

There were times when Kevin Walter, Keshawn Martin, Owen Daniels, Arian Foster and James Casey couldn’t get into their routes because of Gilmore’s physicality and none of the group beat him in coverage. Only Andre Johnson could really cope with his talent.Gilmore split time with all of the Texans’ receiving options early on in the game, but once Johnson had a huge play against Aaron Williams, Gilmore was moved into a role that saw him follow Johnson around the field.

Gilmore and Johnson battled hard as Gilmore made some outstanding plays in single coverage with no help, while Johnson also turned him the wrong way and forced Gilmore to slip at the top of a curl route.

Week 10: New England Patriots
Total qualifying plays: 31
Failed coverages: 10
Shutdowns: 7
In Position: 14

Gilmore had another strong outing against Brandon Lloyd as the receiver only ever got free when he ran very precise routes or he was taking advantage of different aspects of the coverage scheme. Twice, Gilmore was called for pass interference in his own endzone. The first appeared to be very harsh, as Gilmore appeared to have established position on a slant route at the goalline. However, that is a trait of Gilmore, he plays excellent, tight, physical coverage, but he often doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to pass interference.

There was no doubt on the second pass interference penalty. Gilmore chased Llyd down the field close to 60 yards into the back of the endzone. Tom Brady extended the play well past the expected time any play should typically last, but Gilmore wasn’t looking back at the quarterback as he chased Lloyd down the seam. Gilmore blatantly knocked Lloyd to the floor when he was in the back of the endzone. It appeared inexplicable at first, but considering the length of time the play had lasted for, it’s likely that Gilmore thought Brady would have left the pocket because the play had lasted so long.

He couldn’t look back at the play, so he never knew that Brady was just benefiting from ridiculously good pass protection/terrible pass-rushing.

Week 11: Miami Dolphins
Total qualifying plays: 23
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 15

Gilmore followed Hartline around the field in this game, but the receiver primarily stayed to one side of the field either way. Hartline only came free underneath, once against off coverage, twice with expert double moves, one on a very well-run in route and once as the benefactor of a pass interference call on an out route. It was clear that Hartline didn’t have the physical traits to really extend Gilmore.

Week 12: Indianapolis Colts
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 8
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 9

The presumption with wide receivers who are speed reliant but not selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft is that they need time to develop as route runners. That doesn’t appear to be the case with T.Y Hilton. Hilton ran outstanding routes to manipulate Gilmore and come free down the field. Outside of one play from LeVeon Brazil who used a sharp turn to come free on a comeback route, the only other plays Gilmore surrendered were underneath against off coverage and a slant when he tackled Reggie Wayne short of the endzone to force a field goal attempt.

Week 13: Jacksonville Jaguars
Total qualifying plays: 32
Failed coverages: 7
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 23

Outside of one pass interference penalty down the sideline, Gilmore reduced the Jaguars’ receivers to underneath routes if they wanted to catch the football at all. He spent most of his day following Justin Blackmon around the field and got the better of the matchup more often than not.

Week 14: St. Louis Rams
Total qualifying plays: 32
Failed coverages: 7
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 22

Gilmore’s interception came in zone coverage and Chris Givens couldn’t beat him deep with his speed in 27 attempts. Gilmore did bite on a Brandon Gibson double move on one occasion allowing Gibson to get free behind him down the sideline.

Week 15: Seattle Seahawks
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 11

Gilmore trailed Sidney Rice for most of the game and contained him for the most part. Rice had the physical traits to fight off from Gilmore’s coverage style, but he lacked the consistency in his route runner to create space for his quarterback. On the occasions when Rice did beat him, he typically did it with a crisp route, best exemplified by two deep out routes that he ran to perfection early in the game.

Week 16: Miami Dolphins
Total qualifying plays: 15
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 7

Hartline had more success against Gilmore this time around, but Gilmore’s better physical talents limited any impact the receiver could have.

Week 17: New York Jets
Total qualifying plays: 23
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 18

Little-known Jordan White gave Gilmore the most problems in this game. White ran some very crisp routes to create space underneath on two occasions, but only Jeremy Kerley could get anything off him on other occasions. Kerley ran a double move underneath to create space outside when Gilmore pulled him back for the defensive pass-interference penalty. He also caught a deep-ball against him, but Gilmore’s coverage forced a perfect throw from Mark Sanchez.

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This is the kind of position that Gilmore constantly finishes plays in. It’s either a perfect pass for a completion, an okay pass for an incompletion, or a bad pass for a chance at an interception when quarterbacks try to throw down the sideline. This is why Gilmore doesn’t give up big plays seemingly at all when in man coverage.

He keeps his body in a position that allows him to suffocate the receivers’ space, while also being in position to read the flight of the football and react to any varied change in the route.

2012 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 366
Failed coverages: 87
Shutdowns: 62
In Position: 217
Gilmore’s success rate for the season: 76.2%

In Slot:
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 8
Gilmore’s success rate: 61.9%

 Left cornerback:
Total qualifying plays: 97
Failed coverages: 27
Gilmore’s success rate: 72.2%

 Right cornerback:
Total qualifying plays: 248
Failed coverages: 52
Gilmore’s success rate: 79%

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Verdict

When I broke down Casey Hayward, it was clear that the Packers were helping the rookie defensive back slowly adjust to the professional level. Hayward played inside primarily and received safety help on the majority of his snaps. Gilmore was thrown into the deep end from day one. He started against the New York Jets in Week 1 and played over 1,000 snaps during the 16 regular season games he started.

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Image courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Instead of playing a role like Hayward’s, Gilmore played a similar role to a 2011 rookie who followed a very different path to the NFL but had a similarly impressive, but unheralded first season in the NFL.

Because of their contrasting levels of notoriety on the national stage, it won’t be a popular move to compare Stephon Gilmore to the Seattle Seahawks’ star cornerback Richard Sherman. However, not only do Gilmore and Sherman share very similar styles on the field, the quality of Gilmore’s game from his rookie season is enough to separate him from the cluster of cornerbacks who have so far fallen short of Revis and Sherman’s top cornerback tier.

Gilmore is a liability at times in zone coverage, but he should improve with experience in that area and a defense will happily play over 95 percent of their plays with him in man coverage. Whereas most teams wouldn’t be happy to do the opposite with a player who has an inverted skill-set. When it comes to just man coverage however, he has that aggressive style, overwhelming physical talent and the technique to shut down 99 percent of the receivers in the league and fight the select few who have achieved stardom.

Unlike Patrick Peterson, Gilmore has loose enough hips to stick to smaller, quicker receivers who excel running underneath and intermediate routes. Unlike Brandon Flowers, Gilmore can move around the field without suffering a serious drop in performance. Unlike Carlos Rogers, he isn’t reliant on his teammates to put him in good positions. Unlike Joe Haden, he has refined his talent to attain the majority of his potential.

Despite playing in Dave Wannstedt’s vailla defense, Gilmore was routinely asked to take care of top talents at the receiver position with minimal or no safety help. Couple that with the Bills’ anemic pass-rush and Gilmore’s statistical prowess should look even greater than it does in numerical form.

Gilmore is a proactive cornerback who defensive coordinators would happily build their coverages off of. He hasn’t earned the reputation of other defensive backs because of the team he plays for and because he doesn’t come up with interceptions on a regular basis. The youngster does have the potential to lead the league in interceptions, but his aggressive coverage looks to prevent the other receiver from catching the ball first and foremost, while the lack of a consistent pass-rush gave him fewer opportunities to jump routes.

He only had one interception last year, but added four forced fumbles. Fumbles are very difficult to predict, but Gilmore forced his fumbles after receivers caught the ball when he located it and punched it free with his hands. His overwhelming physicality means he should be able to continually separate the football from overmatched receivers in space.

As an aggressor, with phenomenal physical traits and refined technique, Gilmore only needs to improve his consistency slightly and prove his longevity if he is to land alongside Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis in that exclusive top tier of NFL cornerbacks. Much like Sherman, Gilmore’s play was overlooked during his rookie season, while he has every opportunity to earn greater recognition next year with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

Pettine will see some Revis’ traits in Gilmore and could look to use his coverage ability in more aggressive ways. This, with the benefit of what will presumably be better coaching, could elevate Gilmore to previously unforeseen heights.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

9 thoughts on “Stephon Gilmore: An Elite Cornerback Lost in the Failings of the Buffalo Bills

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  4. Awesome db breakdowns, it’s nice to see positions that aren’t “sexy” get some credit for the job that they do. You mentioned Gilmore was under appreciated because he was the 3rd db drafted, but after reading your breakdown I wonder if the cowboys made the right choice with Claiborne 6th. Any thoughts?

    • I haven’t studied Claiborne in-depth yet, but I was a big fan of what I saw on broadcast last year.

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