Bills preview profile: Stephon Gilmore

Gilmore

My photos (above and below) of the Bills’ standout rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore, here shadowing WR Stevie Johnson at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, NY.

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. — In Stephon Gilmore, the Buffalo Bills knew they’d drafted a premier cornerback in April, 10th overall.

“But he’s probably better than we thought he was, I’ll just be honest,” Bills GM Buddy Nix told me a few weeks ago.

How much better? Remains to be seen.

But everybody on the Bills we’ve talked to since late May — coaches and players alike — has raved about his talents, and about the kind of career Gilmore has before him in the NFL.

“Even if he wasn’t on my team — if I was just checking out film on him — you can tell he’s going to be something special,” wideout Stevie Johnson said during spring practices. “I think he’s going to be one of those dominant cornerbacks in the league.”

It’s been a long time since the Bills have had such an impact player at that vital position.

“He’s what we need here — someone who can lock down receivers,” Johnson told me in July.

GilmoreA 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, Gilmore is from rural South Carolina. He played his college ball locally, at the University of South Carolina. He’d have had more than eight career interceptions if teams hadn’t thrown away from him so much.

I’ve conversed with Gilmore a few times now, going back to the day before the draft in New York City. A few things about him stand out.

First, he has huge, strong hands for a defensive back. As well, he has a deep voice but speaks softly, and succinctly. He has a piercing gaze, too. Not menacing, just confident.

Confidence radiates from the 21-year-old.

“He seems pretty cool, right?” Johnson asked reporters in May. “He’s real mellow.”

When I asked Gilmore at St. John Fisher College on the first weekend of training camp what it was like to finally ply his trade against the likes of Johnson — one of the NFL’s more dynamic receivers — he said that when he succeeds against Johnson in practice, it adds to his confidence.

Then he backtracked to make an important point.

“Hey, I’m already a confident cornerback. But he’s a great receiver. Receivers like him, yeah, they’ve got big names, but I feel like I’ve got to go out there and prove myself against them.

“I’m coming out here doing what I knew I could do.”

How did Gilmore develop such a quiet, serious confidence? Nix has a theory.

“The thing about him is, he’s raised in an athletic family,” Nix said. “His parents are athletes and they’ve been through all this, and they know what it’s about. So nothing’s too big for him.

“His demeanour doesn’t change, whether he gets beat or gets an interception.

He comes back and he goes the next play the same way. It’s amazing for a guy his age. He plays like he’s 28.”

The fact he lined up with the first team from the get-go during spring OTAs tells you what his coaches think of him, and expect of him. By early June, defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt already was sold.

“Stephon is getting better every day,” Wannstedt told me. “I couldn’t be happier with him at corner.”

GilmoreGilmore said he prefers playing press-man coverage — when a cornerback lines up in the face of the wide receiver and shadows him wherever he goes.

“They love my size and my speed, that I can press guys,” Gilmore said of his defensive coaches. “That’s when I play the best.”

I discussed with head coach Chan Gailey the prospect of regularly putting Gilmore on an island like that come the regular season, and whether it could hurt his confidence, long-term, should he fail at it too often in Year 1. Is that a consideration?

“I think you look at the person,” Gailey said. “You try to evaluate what he can handle, so you treat every player differently.”

Then Gailey smiled, and his eyes got big.

“And I think you can throw at Stephon whatever you want to throw at him — just off the little I’ve seen … I think he has the mindset to handle whatever you throw at him.”

Sounds like Bills opponents’ wide receivers can expect to have Gilmore in their back pocket for much of the day.

Buffalo wide receiver Derek Hagan said Gilmore’s physicality might be his best attribute, and the one most likely to make him a star.

“He’s come in and he’s trying to be physical,” Hagan said. “That’s one thing playing DB — you can’t be timid at all. You gotta understand that you’ve got to try to re-route a receiver, and that’s one thing I think that really works well to his advantage. He tries to get his hands on us when we’re in our route.

“Sometimes he’ll make a mistake here and there, but you can tell the guy is learning. He’s getting it. And he’s definitely going to be one hell of a player for this team. As long as he keeps working and keeps his head on straight, the sky’s the limit for him.”

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THE 2011 LSU CORNER YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD OF:

The Bills’ other rookie cornerback didn’t even start last fall at LSU.

There were two good reasons.

Ron Brooks backed up both Morris Claiborne — drafted sixth overall by the Cowboys in April — and Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, a Heisman Trophy finalist who last week got kicked off the team then entered drug rehab.

A fourth-round pick, Brooks stands only 5-foot-10. But he’s the quickest DB on the Bills. And while he has a lot yet to learn, he’s been making big plays both in camp and in Buffalo’s two preseason games (with an interception and a few pass breakups).

Brooks has worked his way up to second string.

Ron

Much less-heralded rookie corner Ron Brooks (33) has been making plays not so much with his coverage instincts, but with his blazing make-up speed, such as his PBU on this crossing route to wideout Naaman Roosevelt. (My camp photo from July 27.)

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