INDIANAPOLIS – The mentality Stephon Gilmore is bringing to the Colts is the reason he’s been so good for so long.
Gilmore plays arguably the most volatile position in the NFL.
Few cornerbacks are able to keep their spot among the best in the game for a long period of time. Far more play like stars for a season or two and then lose their grip, derailed by injury or scheme change or the sheer unpredictability of the position they play.
Gilmore has already proven his worth. Five Pro Bowl nods. Two first team All-Pro nods. A Defensive Player of the Year, an award only six cornerbacks have ever won.
But he does not approach each season like a made man.
“Every year I play the game, I start over and try to re-establish myself,” Gilmore said. “You have to prove yourself every year.”
Gilmore, who will turn 32 in September, can find plenty he has to prove in his 11th season in the NFL. A new team, a new defensive system and a new set of expectations await him in Indianapolis as Gilmore tries to put the torn quadriceps he suffered at the end of the 2020 season fully behind him.
Traded from New England to Carolina – in part because of his injury, mostly because of a contract dispute – Gilmore played good football in 305 snaps with the Panthers, but he acknowledges now that the quadriceps was never quite back to full strength in 2021.
“It definitely lingered last year, coming throughout the season, but I was able to make plays still,” Gilmore said. “I feel good now.”
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Fully healthy, Gilmore took a patient approach to free agency, intent both on finding the right situation and the right compensation for his abilities.
When the Colts came calling with a two-year deal worth $ 14 million guaranteed and up to $ 23 million overall, Gilmore made the trip to Indianapolis, visited with general manager Chris Ballard and the receiving coaching staff and found a fit in a Colts defense with Pro Bowlers at every level, surrounded by young, up-and-coming talents.
Gilmore built his reputation as one of the rarest commodities in the NFL, a lockdown cornerback capable of shutting down the opponent’s best wide receiver in man-to-man coverage.
New Indianapolis defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is known for playing a system steeped in the Cover-3 zone.
But the perceived gap between scheme and player was not much of a consideration for Gilmore.
“The pieces on defense were the more attractive thing,” Gilmore said. “My skill set, I think I can play anything they want me to play.”
Gilmore is experienced enough to know the fit in Bradley’s Cover-3 system is better than a lot of people might think.
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For starters, playing in zone is often easier for an experienced cornerback with the smarts to recognize what an offense is trying to do, but Bradley has also shifted the priorities of the Cover-3 that’s become his calling card. Initially a landmark-based scheme that primarily asked players in the secondary to focus on a specific area of the field, Bradley has shifted the system to a Cover-3 match, a zone that ends up looking a lot like man-to-man after the snap.
“Pre-snap is the key for us,” new Colts defensive backs coach Ron Milus said. “We give ourselves pre-snap indicators to where we know if we’re going to have to match a route quicker, based on formation, based on release of a back, based on whatever that key may be.”
That fits Gilmore’s style of play perfectly.
“My main thing is studying the offense, figuring out what they’re doing, try to make my job a lot easier if I can,” Gilmore said.
The other piece of Gilmore’s game that instantly fits the defensive culture the Colts have built is his history of creating turnovers.
Gilmore has 27 career interceptions, six forced fumbles and has twice reached 20 passes broken up in a season, deflecting throws into the air for his teammates to take away.
“Making plays on the ball, whether it’s punching the ball out or being aggressive on receivers,” Gilmore said. “That’s my thing, going into each and every game. Making plays, limiting top receivers to a short gain, that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career. “
A long career like Gilmore’s has also taught him that most coaching staffs are smart enough to realize it’s better to ask a player to do what he does best, a process that Milus has said drives the adjustments Bradley makes within his Cover-3 scheme.
“It’s still based on personnel, depending on what we have,” Milus said.
What Indianapolis has in Gilmore is a star who feels strong, who knows what it takes to stay on top of his game.
The kind of cornerback the Colts believe they can count on.