Why you should care
Because the Bills haven’t been awesome since the days of Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie.
Whoever said no man is an island never met Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore. You rarely see the 24-year-old talk during practice, where he stretches, warms up and sprints alone. When he does speak, his voice unfurls as soft as a Southern drawl. He cuts an intimidating figure, though: Blond-streaked dreads spill from his helmet, which sports a metallic blue visor. Add the rugged beard, the Space Age gloves, the black knee braces and white ankle wraps, and the cornerback looks more like he’s suited up for a Predator reboot.
The intimidation is intentional. After all, the Bills are relying on their former first-round pick to grapple one-on-one with some of the league’s best receivers this year — to be, in essence, an island that offers no haven.
“Too many guys can’t do that,” murmurs Gilmore. Hence the battle armor, along with other deliberate decisions, from wearing long sleeves (despite the summer heat) to the blue visor (which distorts his vision) to jogging between drills and running routes 20 minutes after practice’s end. “I try to make practice as hard as possible so that the game is easy,” he says. Call him masochistic, but he’s got added pressure to perform. The Bills recently picked up Gilmore’s fifth-year option through the 2016 season, a cool $11 million deal that pays him like one of the country’s best cornerbacks.
That may not be a bad bet, even if his success is fairly recent. The 6-foot-1 Gilmore allowed only a single touchdown in the final eight games of last season. What’s more, he held opposing quarterbacks to a paltry 50 percent completion rate while nabbing two interceptions. (Cornerbacks are defensive backs who specialize in breaking up passing plays.) His 80.6 percent success rate — a figure that measures how often a corner prevents receivers from gaining yards on pass completions — is one of the highest in the league, topping the numbers put up by “shutdown” corners like Seattle’s Richard Sherman (78.9 percent) and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson (69.6 percent). He’s earned (fully inflated) praise from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who admired Gilmore’s improvement and “productive play.”
But Gilmore is still largely unheralded thanks to playing for a team that’s only the third-most-popular squad in its own state, behind the New York Giants and the New York Jets. That’s true even though he’s drawing comparisons to Darrelle Revis, who turned into the game’s best pass defender with the Jets. Gilmore’s 2012 rookie season was “every bit as impressive as Revis’ 2007 rookie season,” Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit wrote going into last season. “The only difference was Gilmore played in the quieter part of New York.”
Both Gilmore and Revis are physical defenders known for their aggressive coverage. Coming out of college, they had the same 40-yard dash time (a blazing 4.38 seconds) and eerily similar 10- and 20-yard splits. The difference? Gilmore is two inches taller. “The Pro Bowls and all that stuff, they’re getting ready to happen for him,” Buffalo’s new coach, Rex Ryan, tells OZY. Now that Ryan looks ready to redefine the word “blitzkrieg” thanks to the Bills’ brutish defensive line, Gilmore will get the spotlight as he goes solo against the league’s top-ranked wide receivers.
If he can become a playmaker, it will be especially valuable to a team that longs for the glory days of quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas, whose high-powered offense led Buffalo to four straight Super Bowls — Super Bowl losses, of course, but still — in the early ’90s. While those squads had five future Hall of Famers, casual fans forget that they also boasted two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Nate Odomes and Henry Jones. A star corner can all but wrap up a championship: Just look at Deion Sanders, who joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1994 and promptly won them a title, then won another with the Dallas Cowboys the very next year.
Gilmore grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a green pastures, Protestant pastors kind of town that rose (and fell) with the textile industry, breathing football all along the way. There, he first learned how to be an island, a steady rock against the torrid hurricane of five younger siblings in a small home. “I think that’s why I’m quiet,” he says. If you lifted up his left shoulder pad, you would see his family tree embedded in his skin like ink-stained roots. His shyness lingers despite being named South Carolina’s Mr. Football in high school, a Freshman All-American at the University of South Carolina and the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft. “There are some guys who want notoriety,” says Donnie Henderson, the Bills’ defensive backs coach. “That’s not his goal.” Bills safety Aaron Williams puts it more bluntly: “Outside of football, man, you think he’s a loner. But he gets his job done.”
For the most part, anyway. Some Bills fans feel that Gilmore hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status, and a training camp video in which teammate Sammy Watkins wrong-footed him, then broke away to the end zone, hasn’t improved matters. Then there’s the fact that Gilmore has grabbed only six interceptions in his three-year career, an issue compounded at various times by a broken hand and hip surgery. “Playing with a club on his hand for a stretch made it impossible for him to catch the ball,” says Cian Fahey, owner of PreSnapReads.com. “He can show off heavy feet at times, which can lead to some overcompensation.”
Finally healthy, Gilmore might just live up to the hype: In practice, he already is, jamming receiver Tobais Palmer and bullying his way for a freebie interception. He lines up again, and this time tips the pass, which lands in the hands of a fellow defender. Two plays, two picks and another reminder that, at his best, the Bills’ soft-spoken cornerback is a havoc-wreaking island entirely by himself.