Stephon Gilmore begins backpedaling before the ball is snapped. He knows that Robby Anderson, lined up as the third receiver in from the left side of the Jets’ formation, is going to run an over route. So Gilmore takes the liberty of running it for him, tracing a deep arc across the field.
Gilmore is playing man coverage, but he’s so confident in knowing where the ball will go that his eyes aren’t on the man he’s covering—they are locked on the quarterback. Sure enough, when Sam Darnold’s pass comes out—hurried yet again by the Patriots’ zero blitz—the 29-year-old cornerback is on the receiving end. “I knew what was coming,” Gilmore says after the game, unable to stifle his grin. “I was the receiver on that play.”
It was New England’s third interception in a 33–0, Monday night win in Week 7, and Gilmore’s third of the season. The defense that carried the Patriots to a Super Bowl LIII victory—which Gilmore helped seal with a pick—is even stronger this year, allowing a league-low 7.6 points per game and lifting the team to an NFL-best 8–0 start. Through communication and the trust established among a unit of savvy veterans, the 11 defenders on the field operate in concert; play calls come to life just the way Bill Belichick drew them up. But in his aggressive scheme, there’s no question that Gilmore’s ability to blanket the opponent’s best receiver is indispensable.
There’s also no question about who is the best cornerback in the NFL. Ask his teammates; or Darrelle Revis, who held that title last decade; or players leaguewide, who voted Gilmore first at the position (and 22nd overall) in this year’s Top 100 players list on NFL Network.
The stereotype of the shutdown corner is one of a brash, outspoken star. That’s not Gilmore, but his quiet demeanor should never be mistaken for a lack of confidence. “If you watch the film, you know,” he says matter-of-factly, his voice barely audible over the din in the visitors’ postgame locker room at MetLife Stadium.
You know . . . that Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL?
“Yeah,” he says, as that grin creeps across his face again.
* * *
Belichick has built a six-time champion by rarely, if ever, paying players what other teams would. New England regularly lets homegrown starters in line for a huge payday walk, filling their roles with bargains, and almost always sits out the gold rush in the beginning hours of free agency. But in March 2017, after his rookie deal with the Bills had expired, as Gilmore was being courted by the Bears and the Titans in the early free agency negotiating period, the Patriots called. When they signed him soon after to a five-year, $65 million contract with $31 million guaranteed, the shocker wasn’t the size of the deal but that Belichick was actually ponying up market rate.
Coming out of the University of South Carolina as a junior, Gilmore thought the Pats liked him before the 2012 draft—but they never had a chance, because Buffalo took him 10th. He had faced the Patriots eight times over his first five seasons, giving New England plenty of snaps to see what they missed. And each January, as Gilmore and his family headed down to Charlotte for the offseason, his AFC East rivals began another march through the playoffs.
He ached to know how they did it. “I know they’ve got a great quarterback, but these other guys are always in position to make plays,” Gilmore recalls thinking. “Five years in Buffalo, you see that and you are like, I don’t know what it is. What are they doing different? Then, to actually get on their side, is totally different.”
The way in which Gilmore has blossomed from a good player in Buffalo to the best at his position in New England is a case study in how the Patriots win. He got off to an inauspicious start in Foxboro. The team was 2–2 and Gilmore was in the hot seat as the new—and highly paid—member of a secondary plagued by communication issues. Then he suffered a concussion, missing three games.
There was more to adjust to than simply learning a new defense and new teammates. “Even when you do good, they still find something that you didn’t do so well,” Gilmore says. “They never really say good job, so you can’t be complacent. It’s hard sometimes. Only certain people can handle it.” That first year he and receiver Brandin Cooks, who had been acquired in the offseason from the Saints, bonded over the demands of the Patriot Way. They’d check in on each other throughout the week and go to Celtics games to relax.
But Gilmore soon found his groove. To cope with the intensity of the practice regimen, he started staying at the stadium until past 7 p.m. some nights, building in extra stretching and soft-tissue work to cope with the intensity of the Patriots’ practice and lifting regimen. The offensive and defensive starters face off during practice deep into the season in New England, and given that Tom Brady doesn’t even like his passes to be tipped in a walk-through, Gilmore relished picking off an out route during a red zone period his first season there. He changed his diet, cutting out sweets and dairy, lowering his body fat to around 5%. At 6' 1" and 202 pounds, with track-star speed and quickness rare for an athlete his size, he has maximized his physical gifts.
But his biggest gains have come on the mental side. In Buffalo, Gilmore studied film on a projector at home. But the Patriots watch so much footage during the day that often Gilmore has nothing more to see at night. “Sometimes we even watch the same film 10 times in a row, and it’s like, I already watched this,” he says. “But you are not going to forget it in a game.” That’s how he knew Anderson was going to run the over route. It’s also why he told safety Duron Harmon during the Super Bowl to cheat over to his side of the field if Cooks (traded to the Rams two offseasons ago) was lined up as the lone back-side receiver in a tighter split. Sure enough, on the play before Gilmore’s interception, they saw that formation. Harmon crept that way and was in prime position to help break up the pass.
Gilmore calls Belichick the smartest coach he’s ever had. During a game last season at an outdoor stadium, Belichick told him to trail his receiver when going a certain direction, because the wind would limit how far the ball would travel. Gilmore learned to undercut routes in the red zone instead of making the receiver run through him to take advantage of the shorter, tighter field. And midway through the 2018 season, with the help of his coaches, he had a major breakthrough in his man coverage techniques.
Gilmore says he used to play every receiver the same way—“straight up,” regardless of an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses—but last year he tried approaches that weren’t comfortable. In a Week 8 win over the Bills, matched up against big-but-plodding Kelvin Benjamin, Gilmore let the receiver run past him, confident that he could catch up and prevent Benjamin from coming back to the ball, his preferred M.O. (Benjamin caught two of his seven targets that day.) Since Gilmore’s arrival in New England the coaching staff has stressed having nuanced plans of attack, specific to the receiver he’s facing. “But last year is when I really trusted it,” Gilmore says. “I just wish I would have known that earlier.”
A week later, after Gilmore helped hold shifty Packers receiver Davante Adams to just 40 receiving yards, fellow cornerback Jason McCourty told him what has since become common knowledge: “You’re the best corner in the league, hands down.”
“It became easier for me,” Gilmore says. “I am more patient, not panicking. The more and more you cover people, the more you can tell what they are going to do. Trusting it, and trusting your speed, and knowing who you are going against, because you can’t play everybody the same.”
Gilmore’s latest assignment, in a 27–13 win over the Browns on Sunday, was Odell Beckham Jr., who made just five catches for 52 yards (most of them coming on a 31-yard catch late in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided). Afterward, Belichick explained that each week Gilmore asks for the biggest challenge in coverage and says he’ll be ready to handle it. Then he drew uncharacteristically high and public praise from the stolid coach: “I love Steph.”
* * *
As a dual-threat quarterback and defensive back at South Pointe High in Rock Hill, S.C., Gilmore was named South Carolina’s Mr. Football in 2008; then South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier managed to keep him in-state. Gilmore saw Gabrielle Glenn, an All-America sprinter, around campus a few times and finally introduced himself, but he was too shy to ask for her number. Instead, he followed up via Facebook message, saying it was nice to meet her. They soon began dating, and married in 2014. (They have two kids, son Sebastian and daughter Gisele.) At the beginning of Gilmore’s NFL career, Gabrielle would get on him about any completion he’d give up. A short gain? “No,” she’d tell him. The good news for Stephon—and Gabrielle—is that getting beat rarely happens now. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a woeful 36.0 passer rating when throwing in his direction. (For context, spiking every throw into the dirt would result in a 39.6 rating.) Gilmore has allowed a 44% completion rate and no touchdowns, in addition to his three interceptions, one of which was a pick-six. “You’re definitely playing like I was trying to get you to,” Gabrielle tells him now, proudly.
During his five years in Buffalo, Gilmore had three different coaches and four defensive coordinators. When Rex Ryan arrived in 2015, many expected the former Jets coach to use Gilmore the way he had used Revis. But the Bills’ staff relied less on man coverage than coaches had in New York; they kept Gilmore on the right side of the formation rather than let him follow the top receiver. “[The Patriots] demanded more of him,” says Dennis Thurman, Gilmore’s defensive coordinator for his last two seasons in Buffalo. “They needed him to handle the responsibility they placed on him, and in return he is paying them back for believing in him. He had to prove he was worthy of that contract, and now I think he has outperformed it.”
Gilmore did become a Revis—just for the world champions. During New England’s Thursday night game against the Giants, in Week 6, Revis tweeted that Gilmore “by far is the best corner in the game right now.” (Says Gilmore, “He knows what that looks like, so it’s a big compliment.”) Patriots great Ty Law told Gilmore after the Super Bowl that he’s happy Gilmore is representing number 24 (Law’s old number). And when Gilmore intercepted a pass intended for Cooks in the fourth quarter, Johnathan Joseph got the chills. It wasn’t just because the Texans’ veteran and two-time Pro Bowler grew up in Rock Hill, but also because he knows what it’s like to be back there on an island.
“The more he was able to get on the big stage, and he was able to go against those topflight guys, the more he stepped up to the challenge,” Joseph says.
Gilmore has always pushed himself, dating to when he’d practice his backpedal in his family’s backyard at age five. But he credits his coaches and teammates in New England for demanding the most of him. “It makes you physically, mentally, emotionally tough,” he says. “It’s worth it, in the end.”
Looking back, Gilmore’s signing wasn’t so out of character for the Patriots. He is a bargain considering what he has become: the best cornerback in the NFL. And finally even he can smile and admit it.
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