SAN JOSE, Calif. — One chat with cornerbacks playing in Super Bowl 50 suggests one cold, hard reality for the Buffalo Bills. They need to lock up Stephon Gilmore long term and it's probably going to cost them a pretty penny.
Sunday's clash of two cutthroat defenses features two of the game's premier corners in Carolina's Josh Norman and Denver's Aqib Talib. Both players set a tone for their respective defenses.
It's arguably never been this difficult to play the position in the NFL.
“Besides quarterback," Talib said, "it’s the hardest job on the field in my opinion. With the speed of the game and the rules the way they are, the talent at receiver, we play football backwards, man.”
So, here's Buffalo's predicament: Fresh off a career season, Gilmore will enter a contract season at $11 million. Already tight up against the salary cap, it won't be easy for the Bills to get a long-term deal done but surely they realize the significance. The 10th overall pick in 2012 has developed into a reliable student of the game, one who anticipated routes all season and helped mentor rookie Ronald Darby. After a 14-13 win at Tennessee, Gilmore said he knew every route before the ball was snapped. He made plays on the ball, too, with 18 pass break-ups and three interceptions in 12 games.
This bold, instinctive quality is what stood out to former All-Pro Darren Woodson — he even sees some Deion Sanders in Gilmore.
Second-year corner Bradley Roby agrees with Talib. Other than QB, this is the toughest position in the game.
"One false step, it could be a touchdown and you’re going against some of the best athletes in the whole world," Roby said. "You have to stop them while you’re going backwards and they’re going forwards. They know what they’re doing. You have no idea. So it’s like super hard and that’s why the best get paid the big bucks."
Let's take a look at those "big bucks."
Darrelle Revis received a five-year, $70 million contract. Richard Sherman inked with Seattle at five years, $59 million. Joe Haden signed a six-year, $75 million deal. Gilmore may seek a contract in this stratosphere, so it's on Buffalo to prioritize which positions matter most on this roster. Much money is already tied up in running back, tight end, the defensive line and the Bills are still skating by on the cheap at quarterback.
Roby has watched Gilmore from afar andcalls him "athletic" and "tough mentally." That's the trait that warrants millions. Gilmore was burnt early in his career, endured and now is left alone one on one almost exclusively.
"It’s the mental part, it’s the, ‘I just got beat for a touchdown. Forget it. It’s four quarters. Let me do something to change the game,'" Roby said. "You can think like that or, ‘Damn. I just got beat. They are about to come back again. What are they going to run?’ Two dudes could think those things for the same plays and the guy that thinks positive and bounces back and makes another play after that are the best ones."
Talib or Norman? Roby will take Talib because the Broncos "play straight man." He sees the Panthers mixing in zone coverages more often.
"I just think that Aqib has proven himself over the years," he said. "Norman has came out and had a great season, yes, but people love to put somebody out there and he’s the best and whatever, he’s definitely had one of the best years for sure, but you know I’d think, I’d just have to go with Aqib as he’s proven it over a certain amount of time."
So there are holes in Norman's game? "There are holes in everybody’s game. Nobody’s perfect."
Both have turned games upside down with a combined seven interceptions, four touchdowns and three forced fumbles this season. While Talib doesn't believe the rules have changed drastically, he does see officials allowing less "hand fighting" downfield. A rise in penalties is putting more and more pressure on the cornerback to be precise with every step.
The Normans, Talibs, Gilmores must move their feet, anticipate and break on the ball with perfect timing like never before.
As Roby said, this WR-CB battle is like "a mini boxing match every single play."
Soon, the Bills may need to pay up for their heavyweight, too.