Heading into this 2013 season, Buffalo Bills fans appeared to have a sense of reserved optimism. As is the case every year, if you ask around, you'll find a range of opinions on how many games the Bills can win. But you'd most often hear that if the quarterback is decent, the team could reach .500 or better.
Then Stephon Gilmore got hurt.
The former first-round pick will miss up to eight weeks with a wrist injury. If there was one player the Bills could not afford to lose it was Gilmore. And, rightfully so, optimism has taken a serious hit.
Should it? How much will his absence really hurt the Bills' chances at the post-season?
The Bills' defense, which was arguably the worst in the NFL last season, is currently in a state of flux. They have a new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, a questionable front line, unproven linebackers and a converted corner playing strong safety. The only sure thing on D is Jarius Byrd, who's sure-thing-ness has recently been in question as he and his agent battle with the team over a contract.
But the shining light of optimism was Gilmore. The second-year cornerback was terrific at times last season and appeared ready to take the next step, pushing him into the realm of Darrell Revis, Richard Sherman, Joe Haden, Brandon Flowers etc.
How good was he?
Statistically, the South Carolina product was the Bills' best cornerback and in the second tier around the league. Yes, he only had one interception. But judging cornerbacks by interceptions alone is pretty much the worst way to evaluate them.
AdvancedNFLstats.com lists Gilmore as Buffalo's best cornerback in 2012, with an Estimated Points Added of 16.7. The statistic gauges the effect of each play a player was involved in on the game's outcome. So if Gilmore bats down a 4th-and-1 pass, his EPA will go up. If he's torched for a 50-yard touchdown, it goes down.
Compared to the league, he ranked 72nd in EPA, 73rd in Win Probabiltiy Added (similar to EPA) and 10th in pass deflections.
FootballOutsiders, another highly respected statistics website, gave Gilmore a 44% “Stop Rate” on pass plays against. That ranked 32nd in the NFL. Interestingly, he was only targeted 20.1% (ranked 24th in the NFL) of the time by opposing QBs, despite often covering the opponent's No. 1 WR
If you put together the pieces of the stats puzzle, you land pretty much where you would have expected: That Gilmore was a pretty good cornerback last year, but not elite.
There's one other stat, however, that leads us perfectly into the visual analysis: During the final 11 games, the Bills' No. 1 corner allowed just 53.5 percent of passes thrown at him to be completed with zero (!) touchdowns.
The visual evidence backs up the stat, which suggests Gilmore learned on the fly and advanced significantly throughout the 2012 season.
We remember him getting burned several times last year. One of those was this torch job, by Cleveland Browns WR Travis Benjamin. You'll see here in the full highlight that Benjamin is standing all by his lonesome in the endzone.
Benjamin's move on Gilmore is a pretty common one. He takes a step toward the center of the field, then breaks toward the sideline. As you'll see here, the Bills' top pick was looking back toward the ball and reacted late to the move, leaving Benjamin wide freaking open for the TD.
Clearly, Gilmore is a “fool me once” type. Because later in the season, while matched up with a far superior wide receiver Reggie Wayne, we see a similar move. Only this time, Gilmore has his eyes on Wayne, anticipates, and closes on Wayne to break up the pass. Brilliantly played.
How good will he be?
At training camp, Gilmore continued to progress, giving the Bills' young wide receivers fits. WGR's Joe Buscaglia named him the Training Camp MVP, writing “Watching second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore cover up receivers play after play, and practice after practice, it really makes you believe a breakout campaign could be on the way.”
One of the best analysts around, Cian Fahey, who ran the blog Pre-Snap Reads and now writes for Football Guys, broke down every play of Gilmore's 2012 season, then made a prediction for the future:
“As an aggressor, with phenomenal physical traits and refined technique, Gilmore only needs to improve his consistency slightly and prove his longevity if he is to land alongside Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis in that exclusive top tier of NFL cornerbacks. Much like Sherman, Gilmore’s play was overlooked during his rookie season. He has every opportunity to earn greater recognition next year.”
In terms of stats, FootballOutsiders' "Similarity Score," which compares age vs. production compared Gilmore to Charles Woodson. (see in previous FO link)
All the signs are pointing to the Bills' young corner becoming one of the league's best – and their new defensive coordinator was probably banking on it. By now, you've heard the comparisons with Revis Island. From a scouting perspective, the reasons are pretty simple: Size, closing ability, physical play at the line. All similar to the former Jets superstar DB.
The website NFL Philosophy wrote about Pettine's use of Revis. In the article, he shows this telling screen shot. (Revis at the top)
As you see, Revis is literally on an island. He's all alone, one-on-one. Pettine is able to move one defensive back up to the line because he knows Revis does not need help.
This is where the damage to the Bills' chances really comes in. At the moment, Buffalo has very little to count on in terms of cornerbacks. Leodis McKelvin has proven to be below average, Justin Rogers and Ron Brooks look like depth players at best and Crezdon Butler is a complete wild card with a ceiling nowhere near that of Gilmore.
Pettine likely hoped to cover up all the holes by using defensive backs in the pass rush or stacking opponents' No. 2 wide receivers and tight ends with multiple defenders. That's the advantage a shutdown corner gives a team.
Now Pettine will have to overhaul the way he uses his defensive backs or hope to the heavens that McKelvin can handle the load for the first half of the year. Neither option is ideal.
Sure, Pettine lost Revis last season, too. But he was blessed with a well above average No. 2 named Antonio Cromartie. That luxury does not exist in Buffalo. Maybe someday the team will learn the value of depth.
How many points or wins could Gilmore's absence cost the Bills?
It's impossible to predict the impact to an exact figure, but think of it this way: Within the first eight games, the Bills play against Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco and Drew Brees. They also play Andy Dalton, (Jets QB here), Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden. So his presence will be missed in some games more than others.
What do the Bills do now? There's pretty much one player whose shoulders the success of the defense rests upon now: Mario Williams. Without Gilmore locking down opponents' receivers, the Bills will have to rely heavily on getting pressure on quarterbacks. Blitzing is great, but Williams was signed to a $100 million contract to get after the QB. For the first eight weeks, they'll especially need him to earn his dollars.
Should Bills fans' optimism take a hit? Absolutely. But the season isn't lost by any means. There's still the new quarterback and CJ Spiller. There's still Kiko Alonso and an above average defensive line. If anything, we'll find out in these first eight weeks what Mike Pettine is made of and how head coach Doug Marrone handles a crisis. Because, at least in today's football world, losing a potential elite cornerback is a crisis.