This time last year, as the Buffalo Bills were preparing for the 2013 season with their first training camp under Doug Marrone, we were talking about how cornerback Stephon Gilmore - a player that many believed was on the verge of stardom - would need to become the top player in the Bills' secondary with Jairus Byrd in the midst of a contract impasse.
Gilmore fractured his wrist during a preseason game, however, and did not return until Week 6 (the same week that Byrd hit the field). Upon his return, he was wearing a club on his wrist, and took more than his fair share of lumps as he continued to heal and knock the proverbial rust off. By the end of the season, Gilmore was far steadier, but by and large, 2013 was a lost season for him - one in which, at best, he managed not to lose any ground from where he stood following his rookie season.
Today, Byrd - who has been the Bills' best defensive back essentially since he walked into the starting lineup in 2009 - is with New Orleans. Buffalo's secondary is in a period of transition, particularly at the safety position, but they're also looking for a new leader. That makes Gilmore one of the team's most important figures heading into the 2014 season, with an opportunity to step into that top role.
The story for Gilmore is about more than his need to stay healthy, the fact that he needs to become more consistent, and, soon enough, the idea that he needs to start turning in more big plays. The absence of Kiko Alonso at linebacker adds additional stress to Buffalo's top cover men, and it also opens up an opportunity for a new player to lead the team in snaps played. That's something Gilmore did as a rookie, when his 1,056 reps (97.1 percent of total) paced the entire team in 2012. A return to his 2012 level of health could very well mean that Gilmore plays more snaps than any other Bills defender this season.
Pro football teams don't become playoff contenders until their young talent develops. Franchises mired in mediocrity cannot elevate to the status of contender unless the players that they are counting on to become great actually do so. Gilmore is not the Bills' best defender at the moment, by any stretch. But he has the ability and opportunity to do exactly that, and as one of only a handful of defenders that will be on the field in every situation, his development into a quality coverage corner is crucial to the Bills' playoff chances this year.
This post continues a series in which we'll discuss the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. We'll update this list each time a new entry in the series posts.
1. coming July 18
2. coming July 16
3. CB Stephon Gilmore
4. LB Kiko Alonso:(
5. WR Sammy Watkins
6. DE Mario Williams
7. OT Cordy Glenn
8. DB Aaron Williams
9. DT Kyle Williams
10. RB C.J. Spiller
11. DE Jerry Hughes