Stephon Gilmore kept his focus on the larger picture, one that he wouldn’t let be obscured by the overall defensive disappointment that defined the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season or the balky immobilizer he wore for his injured left shoulder.
“I know I’m an elite corner,” he said earlier this week, as the Bills cleaned out their lockers for the offseason. “I mean, the film don’t lie.”
The Bills’ defense might have made an embarrassing nosedive since 2014, from fourth to 19th in the NFL. It might have gone from a perennial sack machine to sad sacks in a matter of a year.
But Gilmore knows, regardless of whatever issues there were elsewhere, he had the best of his four NFL seasons since the Bills made him a first-round draft pick in 2012. He also did it while being asked to play more man-to-man coverage than at any other time of his career, because that’s what Rex Ryan’s defense requires.
Gilmore and rookie Ronald Darby formed what arguably was the best cornerback duo in the league before Gilmore suffered a dislocated shoulder against Houston on Dec. 6 that would keep him out of the final four games. At that point, he had three interceptions, which would hold up for most on the team, and 18 passes defensed, the second-highest total on the club. He also was credited with 36 tackles.
The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks Gilmore 10th among NFL cornerbacks, while Darby is third. They’re the only pair from the same team in the top 10.
“I see all the corners out there that are supposed to be the top corners, and I know what I can do,” Gilmore said. “Like I say, the film don’t lie. Just keep playing hard for my teammates, and wherever it takes me, it takes me.”
With one season left on his contract, thanks to the Bills exercising the fifth-year option on the deal, Gilmore would like his performance to take him to an extension that puts his pay in line with being an elite talent. His base salary is due to jump from $2.04 million to $11.08 million, which is in the range of the annual averages of the top-paid cornerbacks in the league.
However, Gilmore is looking for what every player wants in his second contract: a long-term agreement with massive guaranteed money. He wants his Marcell Dareus moment.
The NFL’s top-five cornerback contracts belong to the New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis ($70.1 million, $39 million guaranteed), Arizona’s Patrick Peterson ($70 million, $16.25 million guaranteed), Cleveland’s Joe Haden ($67.5 million, $22.7 million guaranteed), Philadelphia’s Byron Maxwell ($63 million, $25 million guaranteed), and Seattle’s Richard Sherman ($56 million, $12.4 million guaranteed).
A fairly compelling argument can be made that Gilmore is playing better than Revis, who was schooled by Sammy Watkins in the Bills’ season-finale, and Maxwell, largely viewed as a disappointment and among multiple questionable moves (he was signed as a free agent from Seattle) that helped get Chip Kelly fired. PFF’s rankings have Revis tied for 28th and Maxwell 74th.
Whether the Bills will feel the same way is anyone’s guess. But if Ryan’s defense is going to be around after the 2016 season, lock-down corners such as Gilmore and Darby aren’t luxuries. They’re necessities.
And they come with a hefty price.
After last year’s offseason spending spree, the Bills have limited salary-cap room and two of their top offensive linemen are due to become free agents this offseason: left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito. The Bills also are expected to do some maneuvering to help create cap space, such as releasing defensive end Mario Williams, whose departure would free up $12.9 million.
Although Gilmore wasn’t mentioned by name, General Manager Doug Whaley made it clear that the Bills’ priority in the coming weeks and months is to keep their best players rather than seek high-priced newcomers from the open market.
“I think right now, with where we are, I think the focus on the offseason would probably be on retaining most of everything that we have,” Whaley said during Monday’s season-ending news conference. “We have some guys coming up that we think will be core to what we need to go forward, so I think that’s going to be the focus.”
“I want to be here for the rest of my career, because I like it here,” Gilmore said. “But you know how this league is. You never know, so just play it by ear, just keep getting better and keep playing the way I know how to play.”
In the meantime, he will continue to rehabilitate his injured shoulder. Gilmore isn’t the least bit concerned that it will pose any problems for his offseason conditioning work.
“I’ve had it before and I’ve bounced back fast with it, so I’ll be good,” he said, referring to a shoulder injury he suffered in last August’s preseason game against Pittsburgh.
Even when finishing a season healthy, Gilmore normally keeps physical activity to a minimum until late February or early March. He doesn’t expect his shoulder to cause any restrictions by then.
“I’ll be running around,” he said.
And probably thinking about his next contract.