'I want to be the best corner to have ever played in this era'
There is only one Stephon Gilmore. The Indianapolis Colts' new cornerback is unlike any of his peers. As he enters Year 11, the former DPOY makes it abundantly clear what motivates him: Greatness.
WESTFIELD, Ind. — This cornerback staring through your football soul before every snap has no time for TikTok. His little sister asks him to join her in videos. Even one of his teammates, Isaiah Rodgers, is all about it. But Stephon Gilmore refuses to give into such BS because, frankly, he’d rather go fishing than waste his time dancing in front of an iPhone. “This new generation,” he says with a hint of disgust, “is different.”
But then something funny happens in this conversation.
Gilmore interrupts himself. He cannot help but chuckle and reveal one of his greatest secrets.
All of you wide receivers posting clips of yourself working out on social media? He’s watching you. All of you. Maybe 10-second footage of your route running earns you thousands of precious retweets and likes and burnishes your brand beyond belief. Maybe you even hired a professional videographer to capture your wheel route in high-def, right down to the beads of sweat dripping down your temples and the veins bursting from your forearms. Right here sits a coldblooded killer weaponizing your own narcissism against you.
Every so often, Gilmore taps a social media app open and studies the best receivers in the game.
“Honestly,” he says, “I’ll see a receiver’s release on Twitter or Instagram and say, ‘Wow. I see how they release now.’ They give you the tips. I’m like, ‘Wow! I haven’t seen this guy’s release. I’ve got to remember that.’”
He cannot stop laughing a hilariously evil rumble of a laugh. Playing defensive back is different — all reaction. But this? “You see exactly what they’re doing,” he continues. “You see it!” The stutter step. The “one jab and go.” The route a specific receiver clearly loves most is (idiotically) revealed to millions, so Gilmore logs all intel into the files of his football mind and applies it to Sundays. Such is his career in a nutshell. The greatest cornerback of this generation is nothing like his peers. Clout? Branding? Gilmore sincerely does not care what anybody thinks about him. He didn’t when he first entered the league as the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and certainly does not now in Year 11 with the Indianapolis Colts.
Which is… not normal.
Not at a position that inherently demands bombast.
By nature, the wildest personalities in the sport are funneled to cornerback. Teams seek an element of arrogance because the job is so infuriating. All rules are set up to fail NFL defensive backs. Flags ‘n fines fly freely as the NFL pushes harder than ever to get theatrical finishes like what we all saw between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead in the postseason. Roger Goodell couldn’t have puppeteer’d a better finish himself. Thirty-something to thirty-something games that flicker fantasy updates on phones across America is the mission. And this reality has spawned an entirely new breed of freak-show wide receivers. Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, DK Metcalf, Stefon Diggs and AJ Brown are all bullies worthy of 15 to 20 targets every game.
The passing game has evolved at warp speed this past decade.
So, yeah. This is bound to screw with the psychology of the men tasked to shadow them.
Cornerbacks with any shot of stopping these receivers must bring a degree of volatility. Richard Sherman declares himself the best corner in the game seconds after sending his team to the Super Bowl and goes off on a “sorry receiver like Crabtree.” Jalen Ramsey, a savage trash talker in his own right, shows up to Jaguars camp in an armored bank truck when he wanted more money. Marcus Peters throws a penalty flag into the crowd. Josh Norman blasts away on Dez and OBJ and vows to let “all hell break loose” when we chat in his living room. Most teams are fine with such swaggering behavior because they know it’s inevitable. Yet, the player who may be the best of them all speaks so quietly that new teammates literally need to lean in to hear what he’s saying.
These corners are all fun, all good for the game. But Stephon Gilmore is nothing we’ve come to expect.
He’s the glitch. He’s far from finished, too.
Five Pro Bowls. Defensive Player of the Year honors. Two Super Bowl appearances with one victory. If Gilmore can conquer the murderer’s row of receivers on Indianapolis’ schedule this 2022 season — through this twilight of his career — then there is zero question: He is an all-time great. From Buffalo to New England to Carolina to Indy, it’s been easy for anyone who speaks to Gilmore to think he’s a borderline mute when, in reality, he says a lot and has been one of the greatest competitors of his time.
He has three kids now, ages seven, five, and 20 months. He turns 32 years old in three days. The average fan mindlessly scrolling through apps all day has left this star for dead.
There’s no dancing around his objective.
“I want to look at myself as one of the greatest corners to ever play the game,” Gilmore says. “I want to be the best corner to have ever played in this era. That’s what drives me every day. I want to be mentioned with Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, those guys.”
If he spent these last 11 years screaming into a microphone, “Gilly Lock” could’ve become larger than life.
Perception doesn’t always meet reality at this position.
“That’s one thing that I don’t like,” Gilmore says. “I don’t think you should have to talk. If you really study the game, you’ll really know how good someone is. I think we have to do more of that. If you go watch myself, if you go watch Darrelle Revis back in that 6th, 7th, 8th year, he was playing the same ball. Richard Sherman. He talks a lot, but he’s good. It should be judged on, ‘How did those guys play?’ and not ‘What did they say?’”
The good news for Gilmore is that he’s still playing, too.
Look closely and his play speaks. Loudly.
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When Jason McCourty first became a New England Patriot, in 2018, he couldn’t understand what Gilmore was trying to tell him. “Huh!?” he remembers saying. “What did you say?”
Very quickly, he realized this was the most competitive dude he has ever played with. Through his entire 13-year career, it was not particularly close. “Gilly Lock!” he screams as soon as this conversation begins. From practice to the rocket’s red glare at 12:55 p.m. (EST) on Sunday to the ensuing three hours, Stephon Gilmore was always in a class of his own.
Start with practice walkthroughs. Gilmore, flat out, refused to let the offense complete a pass. All defensive players across the NFL typically treat this period like the safety instructions droning on and on over an airplane’s intercom system. They sleepwalk. They jog at 25 percent. And there was Gilmore refusing to give the offense any satisfaction whatsoever. He’d either cleanly pick the pass off or — to really piss the quarterback off — volleyball-spike the ball to the turf.
Sunday eventually arrived and McCourty witnessed a “tenacity that was unmatched.”
“It felt like he was the nicest guy off the field,” McCourty says, “but as the national anthem is playing, he’s looking across the sideline on whoever he’s matched up on and he’s building up a hate for the person. Because that would be the way he’d play: There were no friends on the opposing team.”
Pride fuels his game. That’s what made losing so hard early in his career with the Bills. Both Gilmore and McCourty experienced their share of numbing mediocrity before signing in New England. They’d often shake their heads and lament how everyone here in Foxborough never knew how cruel life was on the “other side.” His game reflected such urgency. A matchup did not begin until Gilmore engaged in a hearty shoving match and do not even think about giving him safety help — McCourty realized that much in ’18. Against Green Bay, every time Bill Belichick called for a double-team on Davante Adams, Gilmore would trot to the other side where he’d be left alone. He could not stomach a DB holding his hand on any play.
McCourty, the other corner, loved the stubbornness. The same scene repeated itself so much that it became a running joke: In the huddle, McCourty would stand behind Gilmore because Gilmore was going to trot toward the expected action of the play.
“Gilly wanted all the smoke,” McCourty says. “He was such a master at his craft. When it came to covering people and understanding routes and 1-on-1 play, I haven’t been around anybody better than him. He was the best player on the defense. He goes to where he wants. We’d get a call in the huddle and it’d be a double-team, he might look at me and say, ‘That’s the double one, right? You go Davante. You go to Antonio Brown.’ Whoever it was. ‘I’m going to go opposite.’ That’s what he earned.”
Because if Belichick was going out of his way to smother such a talent with two or three bodies, the rest of the field was susceptible. That’s what Gilmore wanted — the toughest assignment.
Most of the time, Belichick simply glued Gilmore on the best wideout.
“When you want to say, ‘I’m the best at what I do,’” McCourty says, “that’s the challenge play-in and play-out. You have to be willing to step up to that plate. He was. He 100 percent felt he was the best corner in the league and he wanted to prove that. When you turn our film on and you watch him matched up on the best player on the field with no double-team, no help, he’s just man to man on whoever the other team’s best guy is — to the point where we’d put him on somebody and we might double team away from him. When you want to wear that crown, you’ve got to be able to walk the walk and he was always willing to do that.”
No cornerback has thrived through this league’s push for the 38-35 game like Gilmore.
He begins this chat at Colts training camp by pointing out that he shadows the opposition’s No. 1 receiver in man coverage. Not zone. Man. To. Man. And that he has made “big plays in big moments.” And he suggests that folks take a look at the cornerbacks who’ve won DPOY. There’s only been five since 1971 and four are in Canton.
“That’s why I play the game,” Gilmore says. “I want to be considered one of the greats.”
Granted, a cornerback cannot dictate the X’s and O’s in the middle of a game haphazardly. Gilmore reached this point through a maniacal obsession of details. “I perfect my technique to a T,” he says. “I know in my head that once I do that, the sky’s the limit.” This is where his consistent temperament is so critical. He’s the same guy on third and 8 in the fourth quarter that he is in during those walkthroughs.
Gilmore was always a solid corner in Buffalo but turmoil was constant. Through his tenure from 2012- ‘16, Gilmore played for three head coaches and five coordinators (counting brother Rob Ryan). The team toiled around .500 and his game was ignored nationally. That is, until Belichick signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract. This was always such an integral element to building a dynasty. If any player had success vs. Belichick, the hoody made a run at him in free agency. Even Isaiah McKenzie told us last week that New England tried to sign him.
The quiet pro studying film on his own home projector screen. The ruthless, emotionless defensive genius. It was a perfect marriage.
“My career really took off,” Gilmore says. “It was a great feeling to go there with a great coach like Bill teaching me more about the game. There are a lot of smart players in that organization that allowed my game to take another step. I learned a lot there. I was always a student of the game but when I went there, it taught me a lot about the game.”
Whereas Rex Ryan had a fixed scheme — one that confused players — Belichick operated week to week. He didn’t necessarily care what defense he was in, as long as it’d work in that specific game vs. that specific offense. “He wants to do what it takes to win,” Gilmore adds, “and that’s what I respect about him.” Gilmore was no different than most young corners early on. He just… played. Relied purely on his physical attributes. Now, the game was slowing down. Per down, per distance, per alignment, per time left in the game, Gilmore started running the odds in his head like a card counter at the poker table and could predict the routes his man was running.
The first two steps, he learned, are dead giveaways. He let the play come to him.
“And I don’t really have to play that hard,” Gilmore says. “I can put myself into position to make a play.”
Carving out time to watch film with three children has gotten tougher. His son plays flag football. His daughter plays tennis. His wife, Gabrielle, is the rock star behind the scenes running all directions to allow him to even watch film when he gets home from work. Stephon insists she wants him to be considered one of the best ever, too. So, “she’s all about it.” Many times, his son will even watch film right with Dad. It’s gotten to the point where there are no receivers Gilmore fears.
Rather, he adjusts his game accordingly. Some No. 1s are physical bullies. Others are a threat to go deep.
“When you see so much ball, I can anticipate a lot more than I could five years ago,” Gilmore says. “A rookie, a second- or third-year guy won’t see what I see.”
Everything began to click with one play that’ll loop forever in Patriots lore, his picturesque deflection in the 2017 AFC Championship Game.
On fourth and 14 with 1:53 left against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gilmore lined up in the right slot over Jacksonville’s Dede Westbrook and trailed him diagonally across the field. He dove at nearly an 180-degree angle, extended his right arm and tipped the ball away. A ball that was actually thrown on the freakin’ money by Blake freakin’ Bortles who, Gilmore reminds all, was playing “the best game of his life.” If Gilmore doesn’t make this play, there’s a good chance the Jaguars would’ve been in the Super Bowl that season against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Gilmore anticipated that Westbrook would be cutting across the field and — knowing he’d be all alone in coverage — got on his high horse.
“It’s either you make it or you don’t,” Gilmore says. “Thank God I study a lot of film. I knew it was coming as soon as he made that stem inside. I was able to undercut it and beat him to the spot. That was a great feeling. Sometimes you make those plays in those big games — and maybe it’s because I was younger — but you don’t know how big it is. You’re just in the moment, studying and preparing. You look back and say, ‘Wow. That was a huge game.’”
New England lost two weeks later in the Super Bowl. Gilmore loves to remind his new backup QB here in Indy, Nick Foles, that he stole a ring from him. That night in Minneapolis, Gilmore made a vow to himself that if he ever got back to the big game, he’d refuse to lose. And the next year, in Atlanta, the Patriots shut down the Rams to win it all. Gilmore could’ve been the MVP that night. With 4:17 remaining, and L.A. driving to tie, he did it again. He picked off Jared Goff at his own 4-yard line.
One year later, in ’19, he was named the best defensive player in the sport. Those Patriots had the No. 1 defense and he was the No. 1 reason why. McCourty can still picture Gilmore walking around the facility with his eyes glued to a tablet. He was constantly hunting for a clue. Re-re-re-watching clips of his assignment that week all the way through gameday.
“That year was so special,” McCourty says, “because no one did anything against him. The cornerback position is hard. You could have a great game and the guy still has six catches for 70 yards. You shut him down. You didn’t give up any touchdowns, that’s a solid game. But this guy was taking the ball away and holding his guy to one, two, zero catches. That was so impressive. Today in the NFL, all the rules go against the defensive backs. It’s all geared for the offense.”
He finished with 53 tackles (44 solo) with six interceptions, 20 pass breakups, two touchdowns and, as quiet as he is, Gilmore is always honest. He said Zach Ertz cries if he doesn’t get the ball or doesn’t get a call. He sniped back at DeAndre Hopkins on Twitter, saying: “Bro was doubled on only 2 snaps all game and wants to be loud.” As time passes, the more it’s obvious this is the rarest of rare species at corner. Once, a receiver asked Gilmore in the middle of a game if they could exchange jerseys afterward. Gilmore could not believe it. After the play, he told the McCourty brothers what this fool said and that he didn’t give a damn about a jersey exchange.
Translation: He had this receiver exactly where he wanted him.
Says McCourty: “During the game, it was me vs. you. There was nothing else that mattered. There was no helping you up. There was no friendly talking between plays. It was all business. I think that goes into his persona. He doesn’t want to befriend you out there. It’s ‘I want to shut you down.’ He didn’t want double-teams because it mattered to Gilly how many targets were thrown his way and that there weren’t many catches. He didn’t want any confusion of like, ‘We’re doubling a guy, he breaks in, he’s supposed to be yours, but then you let him catch it.’ It was, ‘No. I want it all to fall on my shoulders.’”
By 2020, Tom Brady was a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and the dynasty died.
Even then, a Week 2 battle vs. Metcalf was a gnarly reminder that there’s zero retreat to Gilmore’s game. This was the same player who told me back in 2015 that Odell Beckham Jr. was a “prima donna” and throws juvenile tantrums like a little brother. Gilmore and Metcalf spent the entire game shoving each other into the sternum and neck and… no. The corner didn’t like that Metcalf shoved him a few feet out of bounds, swiftly tossing this bodybuilder of a receiver to the turf to spark a Jerry Springer-style melee.
This raw intensity is all Gilmore knows. There’s never been a difference between Wednesday and Sunday. He was equally amped to square off with fellow Rock Hill, S.C., native Cordarrelle Patterson during practice. Occasionally, Patterson would masquerade as the opponent’s No. 1 wide receiver on New England’s scout team and the two would talk endless amounts of shit to each other about their high school days. “A full-blown argument!” McCourty remembers. Gilmore played at South Pointe H.S.; Patterson a mere six miles away at Northwestern H.S.
All of the DBs loved jawing with Brady. And, of course, there was the all-out fight between Gilmore and Julian Edelman.
He was surrounded by players built just like him.
“The way he feels about New England — we talk about it all the time — a lot of people will say, ‘The place isn’t fun. It’s miserable,’” McCourty says. “Me and him would laugh about it. He went to two Super Bowls. You’re at the mountaintop. You’d have to be out of your mind if you don’t think we had a blast that whole season being able to hoist a Lombardi.”
All good times come to an end, however. For all Patriots.
By 2021, the two sides split.
Thinking back, Gilmore says repeatedly that there’s no bad blood. In October, he was traded to the Carolina Panthers for a measly sixth-round pick and was quite honest. He said then that he was unhappy with how the Patriots handled his quad injury, that he was not ready to play at the beginning of training camp. On WEEI, Belichick fired back in citing the corner’s comments as surprising because the team laid out a rehab plan. He then snuck a quick jab in. “Of course,” Belichick added, “he wasn’t here all spring. So, we really didn’t have any idea where he was.”
Gilmore only has the best possible things to say about Belichick today. He still talks to owner Robert Kraft, too. Plainly, Gilmore says here that the team put him through “unnecessary workouts” and he was not able to return from the injury like he wished. The reason Gilmore wasn’t around that spring was that he knew what he would’ve been getting himself into.
“It’s kind of a respect thing,” Gilmore says. “It’s a business at the end of the day but I think you should respect someone who put the work in. You shouldn’t disrespect someone who’s been there for your organization. But as far as Bill, I love Bill. I love Robert Kraft. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be the player I am now. So, I’m very appreciative. If it wasn’t for those guys, I wouldn’t be the knowledgeable corner I am now. I wouldn’t be a Super Bowl winner. I wouldn’t be the defensive player of the year. So, it was a blessing to go to that organization.”
The last thing Gilmore wants is for anyone in New England to think there’s bad blood. He insists there’s none. Zilch. He’s proud of everything he accomplished and effusively praises Belichick. Coming off of major surgery, though, the Patriots had him grinding away in the weight room instead of easing back into action with a physical therapist. Those are facts — not shade — and it only stunted his recovery. He wasn’t himself.
Asked if he could’ve spoken up in the moment and requested to rehab at his own pace, Gilmore admits he should have in retrospect.
“I’m a person who’s not a ‘me’ guy,” he says. “But sometimes you wish you were that person in certain situations. When you’re always trying to think there’s someone doing something better for you, it’s different. But it’s really hurting you. I should’ve said, ‘I’m not doing it this way. I’m doing it my way.’”
He didn’t. He’s not bitter, either.
This is the business side of the sport that claims just about everybody. Look at Richard Seymour, he says. This Patriots great enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was traded to the Oakland Raiders. Legends past like Lawyer Milloy and Logan Mankins and Wes Welker and, you know, Tom Brady were all ejected from Foxborough one way or another. Belichick would rather part ways a year too soon than a year too late. Usually, he’s proven correct.
“You can’t really blame them,” Gilmore says. “You get older. A guy is coming off an injury. It’s business. You can’t be sensitive about it. You just appreciate it, and keep it moving.”
So, that’s the plan. Keep it moving.
Even as the general NFL public acts like Gilmore is a relic from the past.
He gets it. There are shinier objects elsewhere in the AFC for us mosquitoes to gather ‘round. The Colts also just tied the milquetoast Houston Texans, 20-20, and those gray hairs should be poking through his beard any day now. Players at this stage of their career often strap on new colors for a season and disappear to a television booth.
Still, it should be noted that Belichick’s batting average is far from perfect.
His decision to bid Brady farewell blew up in his face. Perhaps, Gilmore authors his own monumental capstone. Indy needs him. The franchise remains firmly in win-now mode after swapping Carson Wentz for 37-year-old Matt Ryan. All of those wide receivers across the line of scrimmage are only getting faster, stronger, younger. A quick scan at Indy’s schedule teases dates with Terry McLaurin, Davante Adams, AJ Brown, Diontae Johnson, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson and Keenan Allen.
Gilmore takes immaculate care of his body but knows his best chance of erasing these players from the field like old times is by winning with his mind. “The one thing I know I have more of,” he says, “is knowledge. I use that to my advantage.” As Gilmore puts, there are “fans” and then there are true “football fans.” He believes the latter group knows he still can play, while the former has mostly forgotten about him.
Not that he cares. That’s what happens when a player misses half the season with an injury.
“People forget,” Gilmore says. “That’s the thing about this game: You have to prove it every year. I’m looking forward to doing that. I’m still here. I don’t like talking about it. I like showing it.”
The market has only exploded since Gilmore’s groundbreaking deal in New England. Ten cornerbacks now earn at least $16 million per season. Three cornerbacks — Jaire Alexander, Denzel Ward and Jalen Ramsey — make $20M per season. Fine by him. Gilmore loves passing his knowledge down to younger players. J.C. Jackson arrived as an undrafted free agent in New England and Gilmore tried teaching him everything he knew. To see Jackson develop into one of the league’s top playmakers and cash in with the Los Angeles Chargers brought him great joy.
A healthy offseason helps. So does Indy’s propensity to mix in a touch of zone. That’s allowing Gilmore to wield his mind as more of a weapon vs. opposing quarterbacks as he gets older.
McCourty is a retired NFL Network broadcaster now, but still chats with Gilmore. He knows his friend is eager to prove people wrong.
“He pays attention to the doubt that people have,” McCourty says. “We talk about it all the time — a lot of corners are loud and in-your-face and off the field talking about what they can do and who they are. Which I love. I love the Jalen Ramsey talking about it. Jaire Alexander and the way he plays with his scrappiness. But I just don’t want people taking away from Gilmore because he may not be saying it. Each method has its own madness.
“It’s another challenge. You go through adversity. You won defensive player in 2019. After the 2020 season, you’re getting traded. All of those things build up for what can be a beautiful year for him this year.”
McCourty makes an important distinction. There doesn’t need to be bad blood for Gilmore to still possess a massive chip on his shoulder.
“You can understand the business side of it,” he continues, “and have a ton of respect and still feel like, ‘They traded me because they didn’t feel like they could get as much out of me.’ He’ll be motivated. He was the defensive player of the year and everybody’s not talking about it as if it was a decade ago.”
If the Colts are going to contend, it’ll be on the back of their defense. At full strength, this unit features legit playmakers at every level. Yannick Ngakoue joins 2021 first-rounder Kwity Paye to ignite the pass rush. Inside, DeForest Buckner is an All-Pro. Linebacker Shaquille Leonard, formerly “Darius,” and always the “Maniac,” had offseason back surgery but is inching toward a return. All he did was cause 12 turnovers last season. Kenny Moore is one of the sport’s best slot corners. Indy intends to feed running back Jonathan Taylor 25+ times a game, lean on its star-studded defense and squeeze juuust enough magic out of Ryan in the postseason.
Gilmore could be that final puzzle piece.
He calls this defense “loaded.” All of the ingredients a Super Bowl defense needs are right here, and he has not lost one fraction of confidence in his own game. Because, well, there’s nothing Gilmore hasn’t experienced on his island. The plan? “Be me,” he says. There’s no need to change what has worked all these years, even as Gilmore does the math and realizes some of his teammates were in elementary school when he was drafted.
“I’m never going to take this moment for granted,” Gilmore says, “because I can’t play this game forever. I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Another Lombardi is within reach but, first, the Colts need to beat the organization that has had their number: the Jacksonville Jaguars. There’s no need to discuss any trophies if the Jaguars sock ‘em in the jaw again. One year ago, of course, the Jags stunned the football world by upsetting the Colts 26-11. This weekend, they fly back to their house of horrors. This time, with Gilmore. With the player who kept the Jags out of the Super Bowl just five years ago. If Gilmore makes it to Canton one day, his Cirque du Soleil PBU is what’ll play in slow motion on the video board.
He believes he’s got more horizontal deflections in him, too.
Cornerback greats from past eras have aged like fine wine by relying on their football IQ. He’ll do the same.
“My mind is very…” says Gilmore, struggling to find the right word. “I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen every offense. I know what’s coming.”
When we hung out during Colts camp, part of me expected Gilmore to blast away on Belichick, to cite that the coach’s slight as his new flame within. That’s the theme for so many ex-Patriots. Instead, he offers his old coach nothing but love and even points out that he flew to Canton with Belichick for Ty Law’s Hall induction speech in 2019. He's motivated… just not for the reasons many may think.
“I want to be considered one of the great corners to ever play the game. And I think when you watch the film — when you watch the plays that I make — judge it by that. And not off of what someone says or how someone talks or how they hype themselves.
“Watch the film. Watch what I did throughout my career.”
He’ll be watching his own film, too.
On that projector screen inside his home and, of course, on his Instagram feed.
Wide receivers have been warned.
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