Camp Countdown presented by M&T Bank will examine some of the more pressing issues facing the team on the field as they make their final preparations for the regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We'll address these subjects one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully probe for some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 30th and the Sept. 13th opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium against Indianapolis.
It's been a much anticipated NFL career that has been met with fits and starts. Stephon Gilmore's talent and ability has never been questioned, but production and results have been interrupted more than once by injury.
A broken wrist in the 2013 preseason along with offseason hip surgery leading up to the 2014 season stunted his progress as a top flight cornerback in the league. Now entering his fourth NFL season, Gilmore is poised to have the most successful campaign of his career.
"I think the young man has got a big upside, but he's pretty darn good now," said head coach Rex Ryan. "I think Gilmore is a young man who is getting ready to be mentioned with some of the better ones in the league."
Here are some of the reasons why Gilmore's game could reach All-Pro caliber in 2015.
As mentioned above, injuries have kept Gilmore from exploding onto the NFL scene as a premier cornerback in this league. Though he is coming off another offseason procedure this year, which kept him from participating in team work this past spring, Gilmore insists his situation going into training camp this summer is far better than last year.
"I'll be full go at camp," Gilmore told Buffalobills.com. "I feel great. I felt good in June. This is one of the offseasons where I'm coming in healthy and can run and do everything, so I'm just trying to be smart and doing whatever I can now so it can help me in the long run."
That wasn't the case last summer when his reps were limited and closely monitored in training camp. He also only appeared in three of the team's five preseason games. It forced him to use regular season games as his final tune-up to reach top playing form. Now he'll have the opportunity to use training camp and the full preseason to do so, which should lead to elite level play right from Week 1.
"As long as I put the work in and get the reps I'll be fine," Gilmore said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to be at my top going into the season."
"Hopefully for him he's had his bad run of physical injuries and what not and we can keep him healthy and keep him going in the direction he's going," said defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. "I mean the sky is the limit. He's a talented individual."
Perhaps even more important than Gilmore's health is his football intelligence. Though he missed time in each of the last two seasons due to injury he never took a day off from learning the game from his coaches and the veterans in the secondary room.
Veteran DB Corey Graham told Buffalobills.com that Gilmore was the one who sought his counsel most about playing cornerback. Gilmore saw an opportunity to learn from a proven veteran and bent his ear any chance he had.
Evidence of those lessons came in the second half of Gilmore's 2014 season. Now heading into his fourth NFL campaign, Gilmore feels the mental side of his game has finally caught up with the physical side making him a wiser cornerback.
"I'm way smarter," Gilmore said. "The first couple of years I was going off of straight athleticism. Corey came along and Leodis (McKelvin) and (Da'Norris) Searcy last year all of them helped me out in terms of being smarter in the game. I don't have to use my athleticism every time. I can use my brains to help me out to make a play."
Matching his wits with his high caliber skill set means Gilmore might be able to do everything from confusing a receiver to baiting a quarterback to make a throw he shouldn't. It only figures to raise Gilmore's game another notch.
No team in the NFL has more sacks than the Bills over the last two seasons. Buffalo has 111 in that span with a defensive line that boasts three Pro Bowl talents and a fourth responsible for 20 of those sacks. The Bills pass rush has the chance to wreak even more havoc this season knowing Rex Ryan's propensity to blitz and send additional pass rushers.
One of the primary beneficiaries of all that pass pressure is Gilmore.
"It helps me out a lot because I obviously like to play physical at the line of scrimmage," Gilmore said. "They've got to get the ball out so that allows me to play even more physical. The ball has to come out fast so that allows me to make plays."
"I'll tell you what he is and I'll say this quietly, he's a shutdown corner," said secondary coach Donnie Henderson. "He can take one half of the field away. Whatever side he's on that's been eliminated.
"People question his ability a little bit. Look at how many times they throw the ball at him. Look at how many catches they get and find out the yardage accumulated by the receiver and you won't see too many 30 or 40 yards for a whole game."
Stephon Gilmore has played in a version of Ryan's scheme before. Back in 2013 Gilmore played in former coordinator Mike Pettine's system, which largely resembled Ryan's. The problem was he played most of it one-handed due to the large club on his left hand to protect his fractured wrist that season.
In Ryan's scheme, which is deemed to be considerably more aggressive than Pettine's was in Buffalo, Gilmore's skill set matches perfectly.
"I think this defense fits me as a player," Gilmore said. "It allows me to play how I want to play, get my hands on my receiver, no help sometimes, help sometimes. It's going to give me a good opportunity to show what I can do."
Knowing Ryan's system also has more elaborate pre-snap disguises benefits Gilmore as well. Any delay in recognition by the opposing quarterback means another potential opportunity for a takeaway should the ball come his way.
"The disguises they have for us now are more extreme," he said. "The opponent really doesn't know what we're in. Sometimes it looks like one thing and it ends up being something else so that's going to help us out. As long as we work our disguises and they do what they do up front it's going to allow me to play at a high level."
Most observers are expecting Gilmore to be thrust into a role similar to the one Darrelle Revis played in Ryan's defense back when the two worked together with the Jets. Gilmore isn't going to assume that, but welcomes the opportunity to do so.
"I'll definitely take it if it comes," he said. "We'll see by the end of the year wherever I stand. I prefer to let my play do the talking and go out and do what I can rather than talk about it. I'm looking forward to this season. I think it's going to be a good one."
Buffalo's coaching staff is hoping for that too.
"We expect him to play at a high level because he's talented enough to do so," said Ryan. "Gilmore is going to be one of the elite cornerbacks in the league. I believe that."