Once considered an overpaid free-agent acquisition, New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been everything the team had hoped for.
The reactions to the New England Patriots’ 2017 free-agent signing of cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal were largely skeptical. The sticker shock was real as Gilmore was coming off a rough season as the Buffalo Bills had transitioned to more off-zone coverages.
What was overlooked by skeptics was how Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would utilize Gilmore’s extreme strengths and integrate him into his defensive scheme. Though Belichick has historically struggled to identify quality cornerbacks in the draft, he’s been much more successful with current NFL players.
We’ve been reminded of this now two years after signing Gilmore.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound corner had one of his best seasons in 2017 with the Patriots, but the early results brought some buyer’s remorse as Gilmore struggled with pattern match assignments. Multiple times he had failed to carry his man upfield on post-dig combinations, which requires Gilmore to stick with the deep post. When that happens, the result is a big play or touchdown.
Oddly enough, some of Gilmore’s best plays have come on the zone snaps he’s been given as he’s been much more instinctive and adept at recognizing route patterns than in the past.
Belichick wisely pivoted after the first month in 2017 and had Gilmore primarily focus on playing press-man. The results have been great. I charted Gilmore as one of the 10-best press-men in the league because of his ability to stick closely to his assignment through the apex of the route.
Despite most of the league’s cornerbacks suffering a downward trend as offenses explode, Gilmore’s on pace to have his finest season yet in terms of consistency and positioning. And he’s done it while facing a brutal schedule, and assuming a role that Belichick hasn’t given since Revis’ prime years with the team.
Gilmore’s shadowed the opponent’s top receiver almost every week, including DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Corey Davis, and Sammy Watkins. Hopkins and Davis were able to put up quality numbers in their matchup, but otherwise there’s a case to be made that Gilmore has been the best corner in the AFC this year even if his two interceptions pale in comparison to others.
I charted Gilmore to allow a completion rate of 48 percent for 207 yards and four penalties in press-man last season. Entering Week 13, Gilmore’s on a pace to best those marks. He’s allowed only seven completions on 24 targets for a total of 99 yards, one touchdown, and three penalties for 22 yards.
In terms of consistency and success rate, which is more predictive of his quality and technique considering how fluky production can be, Gilmore’s improved from being “in position” 76 percent of the time to 78 percent. That’s not a huge difference, but would have been good enough to bring him from 16th-best in press-man in my 2017 Corner Handbook to eighth-best despite having a bigger workload than all but one corner.
Gilmore has traditionally struggled more with speed than power but that hasn’t been the case this season, and that’s one reason why he’s been able to add versatility to his resume this year. Very few corners shadow in the league but Belichick has had him assume this massive ask. He’s had 24 qualifying slot routes on the season, and the numbers show he’s highly effective.
He’s been at the hip of his man or in better position a whopping 79 percent of those snaps, which would’ve ranked first in the league last year. It’s still a limited and volatile sample size but it’s not as if he’s been exposed inside. He’s given up only five receptions for 66 yards and one 34-yard touchdown.
Belichick’s defensive philosophy when he has a great cornerback is clear: allow the star to make plays on an island, and support the weaker corners with help over-the-top and underneath whenever possible. It funnels targets to where he wants, making the offense react to the defense.
But with Gilmore moving around now, the margin for error on communication is nil, and yet this defense has thrived in recent weeks. Shadowing a receiver strains the rest of the defense’s positioning due to match-up hunting with different alignments. It’s not a surprise the Patriots haven’t missed a beat, but rather how well Gilmore specifically has responded.
Once known for his communication breakdowns and busted coverages, Gilmore is now the best player in a solid secondary.
His AFC competition for All-Pro votes is stiff, but less menacing than a year ago. Miami’s Xavien Howard has seven interceptions and has become a ballhawk despite not being the most consistent player in coverage. Chargers corner Casey Hayward has recovered from a slow start and had a strong season once again. And A.J. Bouye continues to be the better of the two star corners on the Jaguars.
Each is deserving. But when the race is so close, being a quality player in shadow assignments should mean something. The term is often overused and incorrect, but Gilmore’s been everything the Patriots paid for, and now even more.