Originally written on Buffalo Wins  |  Last updated 4/27/12

Photo credit to Jerry Lai / US Presswire

The speculation is over. The Buffalo Bills draft choice on Thursday evening came and went without incident, without trades, and without much delay – ending with the selection of a player that they no doubt coveted in South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Even in the room that I was in to watch the draft – amongst friends and acquaintances who know their Bills and their collegiate ball as well as anyone – there was some skepticism and an air of confusion. This morning, that’s not an uncommon sentiment with Bills fans, but it’s an easy one to understand and clear up.

 

Part of the reason that few knew a lot about Gilmore is that, throughout much of this draft process, the media has had a fixation on Morris Claiborne (Dallas), Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati), and Janoris Jenkins (Still on the board). It wasn’t until a few weeks back, when Jenkins and Claiborne’s off-field issues were becoming apparent, that the chatter about Gilmore had begun to ramp up. Make no mistake, though, he’s not a prospect who had an overnight rise simply for the sake of having more top prospects at the position to talk about.

 

Gilmore, who will turn 22 just days following the team’s home opener in September, is regarded as one of the most heady and athletic cornerbacks in this year’s incoming rookie class. As a high school star at South Pointe High in South Carolina, he starred as a quarterback and defensive back, learning the tendencies and roles of everyone on either side of the ball to better understand his duties on the field. Leaving South Pointe as the second-best rated recruit in the state, Gilmore chose the nearby University of South Carolina to further his football career and never looked back. During his initial spring with the Gamecocks, he showed that his athleticism and ball skills would not only be better served as a defender, but as a starter. In a rare occurrence for the illustrious Southeastern Conference, Stephon Gilmore went on to start his entire true freshman season at cornerback. Knowing the talent level shared throughout the SEC, it was an incredible show of confidence in the youngster for head coach Steve Spurrier to put all of the weight on his shoulders so early. In his three years at the school, Gilmore remained atop the depth chart to start forty games for the Gamecocks, compiling 181 tackles, seventeen pass break-ups, and eight interceptions.

In man coverage, his impressive footwork and field awareness allows him to mirror and cut off his assignments early on in their routes which takes top targets out of the play early and forces quarterbacks to look elsewhere. The footwork, both placement and fluidity, give him the opportunity to adjust to inside cuts without missing a beat. He’s got an aggressive punch to jam at the line and can stay with a wideout down to his hip movement, but may have some issues in knocking larger professionals off of their routes with the slight frame he currently possesses. Zone coverage is where he truly excels, though. Through his extensive film work, which coaches and teammates constantly praise him for, Stephon acclimates himself with opponent gameplans and learns their tendencies like few others, which assists him in making proper reads. This allows him to make great breaks to move up and stop underneath routes in short order. He’s showcased a great ability to break things down in zone, reading both the quarterback’s eyes and the break of receiver’s in his zone, which has brought upon his reputation as a playmaker who teams try to avoid. The only real knock on his zone skills are that he loses fluidity when changing directions sometimes, freezing in his break while he tries to diagnose routes. In the NFL, that will be exposed in a major way if it can’t be coached out.

In college, Gilmore was able to utilize his size, strength, and athleticism which were ample and often superior qualities at that level and allowed him to dominate in coverage. He will need to work on his technique over his career, though, because without being technically sound, those qualities that were much to his benefit as a collegiate may not be good enough in the pros and will likely lead to him being exposed by veterans who know how to take advantage with their own technique and heightened ability. In that same regard, he doesn’t have the elite speed that is sometimes looked for when attempting to recover from being beaten off of the line or after losing ground to a double move in the open field. It doesn’t happen often, but he does occasionally let his man get by and, in those instances you’d better hope you’ve got a safety over the top or else you could be looking at a big play for the opposition – something that the Bills defenders are no strangers to. Thankfully for Gilmore and the rest of his new teammates, he possesses a very short memory on the field and doesn’t let plays of that nature affect him on later series.

Still, with the proper support and technique, things like that can be downplayed and covered up. Teams will continue to look away from him if he continues to express the aggressive ball skills, wide-receiver quality range, and great hands. Turnovers and dropped passes can come in bunches when he knows he has help, making quarterbacks pay for poor throws by having the smarts to undercut routes and get in the way of the ball. When teammates are bringing down a ball carrier near him, Gilmore has a tendency to get into the scrum and attempt to strip the ball. The fact that he gives turnovers as much attention as he does but doesn’t overdo it, only going for it when a gaff won’t result in a big play, is impressive for such a young player.

Photo credit to Gerry Melendez / Motor City Times

One of my favorite things about him – and I’m sure something that helped to sway the team in their motion to take him – is Gilmore’s willingness and overall effectiveness in run support. He seeks out contact and brings a certain physicality that is often amiss when discussing top-level cornerbacks. In this regard, he is very reminiscent of a young McGee, and it’s been said that he has the skill set to play safety, as well. When a play is unfolding in front of him Gilmore will explode towards the ball carrier, tackling with force and form and without regard for his own safety. When he gets lined up correctly, he cuts down on and floors running backs with ease, but may struggle in the open field with strong-running NFL backs, especially if he doesn’t take the best angle. His quick feet and hands are used well to evade receivers blocking on the fringe in order to get into the backfield, where his best tackling is done. At South Carolina, Gilmore was constantly brought on blitzes where he would and could line up big hits from the blind side, often to cause a turnover.

If the Bills want to get the most out of Stephon, they could certainly utilize him on special teams early in his career, as he was a standout on both coverage units and while returning punts for the Gamecocks. He’s very elusive in the open field, but has a tendency to dance east to west even with holes open rather than taking the lanes and moving downfield. That, hopefully, won’t ever truly matter as the team has their return specialists in place with Spiller and Rogers proving effective in those roles throughout 2011.

It should be easy, with the incredible work ethic and drive to improve that this kid has, for him to quickly move up the depth chart early on. With aging vets Terrence McGee and Drayton Florence penciled in as the starters, improvement was clearly needed at the position and Nix got that in Gilmore. Though he absolutely has potential to be a starter right off the bat, don’t equate that to him always covering a team’s top receiver. Part of Stephon’s game that intrigued scouts so much goes back to his ability to shift to safety, and that’s his mid-zone coverage and breakup ability. With tight ends like Dustin Keller, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski tearing up the middle of the field every time they face this team, it was clear that a more consistent option was needed than leaving Bryan Scott on the field as a linebacker to attempt to stay with them. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if, at least throughout his rookie campaign, Gilmore were assigned in some games solely to tight ends like the aforementioned that are featured components in their team’s offenses. Something needed to be done to stop the bleeding, as AFC East tight ends alone have accounted for over eight hundred yards and fourteen touchdowns against us in the past two seasons.

Photo credit to Scott Halleran / Getty

While quiet and reserved, Gilmore is a vocal leader and well respected by coaches and teammates alike. His extensive experience against top-level talent, maturity both on and off the field, and confidence stemming from his film work will make the transition smoother than many and should help him to have an impact early on. Though he could use more bulk on his 190 pound frame, it shouldn’t be any problem for him to do so under the training regimen that is in place from strength and conditioning coordinator Eric Ciano. Gilmore brings a tenacious attitude and full effort on every play, which will help him to gain his teammate’s respect early on, and the improved defensive front will aid in covering up some of his rough spots in coverage.

Considering the amount of movement atop the first round, especially prior to Buffalo’s selection, Nix should be applauded for not overreacting and giving up anything extra to get the man he wanted in the first place. To net someone that is this NFL-ready and still developing all while reserving your latter picks is admirable. Stephon Gilmore has great upside and should have an important role in Buffalo’s success – or lack thereof – towards a playoff push in 2012 and beyond.

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