Share this article

print logo

Former All-Pro Woodson sees Bills’ Gilmore in top tier

So many contracts. So little money. Gentlemen, rev up your calculators.

The Buffalo Bills must free up salary-cap space to make competitive offers to left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito by March. At some point, they’ll be making a call on Tyrod Taylor. And then, well, maybe they have a Deion Sanders Lite on the roster.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Stephon Gilmore was having a career year of 36 tackles, 18 passes defended and three interceptions before tearing his labrum in the 12th game. Buffalo picked up the option on the final year of his rookie contract, so he’ll make a cool $11 million in 2016. Beyond this, a lucrative pay day likely awaits Gilmore be it here or elsewhere.

He plays a premium position – cover corners are rare. So the question is, do the Bills pay him like an elite cornerback? One of the greats believes so because he sees Deion-like traits in Gilmore.

Darren Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowler, views Gilmore as at least a “top six” cornerback who is “absolutely” in the upper echelon. Why? He’s a technician. Gilmore reminds him of the Hall of Fame cornerback he played with on the Dallas Cowboys. Both study their opponents like their lives depend on it – and then are willing to take the necessary jump on a route.

“I think this is one of the biggest misnomers about cornerbacks,” Woodson said. “You hear about cornerbacks being the best athletes, great athletes with really good hand-eye coordination. But your special ones – the ones that are really special – are students of the game. I played with the best in Deion Sanders and Deion is highly intelligent. He understood splits. He couldn’t care less about zone coverage. But when it came to man to man, he knew his man better than anybody. He studied more than anybody I’ve ever known as far as the match-up he had.

“That’s what I see in Gilmore. He absolutely gets it. He’s the alpha dog in that secondary – I can tell you that.”

Woodson, now one of the sharpest analysts of the game, keeps in touch with one of the Bills scouts and still studies defensive backs league-wide. Gilmore’s acumen stands out. Back in training camp, Gilmore sat down with The News to explain how he does his job, a process that includes offseason-long film study and a projector screen in his home.

This season, his confidence was sky high. After a 14-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, Gilmore said he knew every route coming his way before the ball was snapped. After a loss to the New York Giants, he wasn’t afraid to say what kind of receiver he truly felt Odell Beckham Jr. was (a “prima donna”). And, internally, he has taken on a leadership role for Ronald Darby and the entire secondary. Further, Rex Ryan’s defense is largely dependent on cornerbacks’ ability to hold up, alone, in coverage.

Woodson loves what he sees. This sounds like a player worth top dollar.

“He’s a guy who just has a ton of confidence in his ability to cover,” Woodson said. “When you have a guy like that, he can match up well with anybody in the AFC East, that’s for sure.

“I think he’s a physically gifted player. I’ve talked to one of the scouts out there that I’ve known for a long time and he says he’s really smart, he’s highly intelligent. He has a really good feel for the game and a high football IQ out there on the edge as far as learning splits and all that. But I see him as one of those technicians in press mode. He’s long enough and smart enough to control a wide receiver. And he does a great job of anticipating routes.”

So what is the magic annual number? In 2016, Gilmore is scheduled to be the league’s seventh-highest paid corner, behind the New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis ($17 million), Seattle’s Richard Sherman ($14.8 million), Dallas’ Brandon Carr ($13.8 million), Cleveland’s Joe Haden ($13.4 million), Arizona’s Patrick Peterson ($13.1 million) and Green Bay’s Sam Shields ($12 million). Then, he’ll be a free agent.

Gilmore is most similar in style to Revis. Whereas a corner like Haden relies on athleticism, Woodson says Gilmore knows precisely “how to control” a receiver and when to break on a ball.

That willingness to bait a quarterback and jump on a route is rare – Woodson sure doesn’t see this skill in Dallas’ current cornerbacks.

“I like the fact that he is extremely confident,” Woodson said. “Hell, I’ve looked at him so many times and thought, if he was with the Dallas Cowboys, that’d be a great fit. He’s totally the anti-Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne, who lack confidence. This guy’s not lacking confidence at all. He cherishes that role of playing you one on one.

“I don’t want to take shots at Brandon Carr, but Brandon Carr hasn’t had an interception since Thanksgiving Day 2013. He’s not getting his hands on balls at all. This guy is willing to take some chances and that’s what you like about him. He’ll take chances.”

So if he were building a team today, Woodson would prioritize the cornerback position third, right behind quarterback and left tackle.

A Gilmore-like talent feeds creativity.

“You can do so much in your coverage as far as flexibility – whether it be blitz, zone, man to man, man/high, Cover 3. When you have a really good corner, he allows things to be so much easier, as far as rolling coverages. Look at the Patriots, they put their top corner on the No. 2 guy and then double the No. 1 guy. There’s so many things you can do with a great corner.

“He’s an alpha dog. If he gets beat, he moves on. Seventy percent of the corners out there are concerned about getting beat.”