He's always been an elite physical talent, and it's that ability that made him a top 10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft almost three years ago. In his third season with the Bills however, Stephon Gilmore was able to put all the facets of his game together and finish his 2014 campaign in convincing fashion.
From Rock Hill, SC to Orchard Park by way of South Carolina, these photos capture the career of Bills CB Stephon Gilmore.
Blessed with an unrelenting work ethic, Gilmore was often seen taking extra reps after practice against Buffalo receivers. What most don't see is the time he has put in on the mental side of the game. Veteran Corey Graham has witnessed it first-hand, primarily because as the elder statesman in the secondary Gilmore often seeks him out for answers.
"I would say out of everybody when it comes to studying and being on the same page and finding out what our opponents are going to do he comes to me the most," said Graham of Gilmore. "Steph comes to me about a lot of stuff. I've seen him learn a lot about this game from the start of the season until now."
Gilmore had two major obstacles to overcome this season. First and foremost he was returning from offseason hip surgery that kept his reps in spring practices severely limited. His practice reps at training camp were also closely monitored and he appeared in just three of the team's five preseason games. For a player that thrives on the preparation he puts into his game on the practice field, it was a challenge to have his game sharp for the start of the regular season.
Perhaps even more critical was learning how to adjust to the new emphasis by officials on illegal contact and defensive holding this season. For a physical corner like Gilmore it was a major adjustment.
"He's a press corner and gets his hands on people and tries to latch on. So he had to adjust," Graham said. "I think he had to adjust to it because the refs were calling it in the preseason and he had to figure out what he could get away with and what he couldn't."
By midseason Gilmore had made a successful alteration to his game without sacrificing what makes him so effective as a pass defender. The results since Week 8 made that fact obvious.
In his first six games of the season (he missed the season opener) Gilmore allowed 22 completions on the 27 passes thrown in his area (81% comp.) for 335 yards including four touchdowns against one interception. That was good for an opponent passer rating of 142.5.
In the last eight games of the season Gilmore allowed 21 completions on 42 attempts (50% comp.) for 216 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for an opponent passer rating of 53.27.
Five of his six pass breakups on the season also in the second half of the season.
"Gilmore has had a real good year," said New England head coach Bill Belichick. "I think that he's improved a lot over the course of the season. They've gotten very productive play from him."
"There are times now where I don't even have to tell him anything," said Graham. "He already knows what's going on. He's doing a great job and I expect him to continue to do well because he puts in the work."
For those teammates who have seen him perform from the first day he stepped onto an NFL practice field the development into a top flight player has been readily apparent.
"What he does on the field is no surprise to me or any of our teammates," said safety Aaron Williams. "Since he got here, he's been making plays. He's continuing to grow his skills and his craft. I think he's had the best year of his career so far."