"If you look at Gilmore and you've been around the practices this spring, he's made a leap from year one to year two. And that's very encouraging. Any time you see a rookie going into the second year not step into that sophomore slump, but make a transition and improve, that's always a positive." - Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley on Stephon Gilmore, in June
At one point earlier this off-season, when it was assumed (or at least hoped) that the Bills and safety Jairus Byrd would agree on a long-term contract extension, the hope was that second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore could continue his late-2012 progress and emerge as a legitimate No. 1 cornerback in his second season. That remains the hope, but the contract impasse between Byrd and the Bills could make Gilmore a significantly more important figure heading into 2013.
You have read for months now how Gilmore had an up-and-down rookie campaign, one littered with penalties and big plays surrendered early but significant progress over the last half of the season. You have also read, much more recently, several different articles talking up Gilmore as the next big thing at cornerback; these articles consistently point out that rookie season progression, his ability to handle No. 1 receivers and the fact that coaching and better technique can erase many of his rookie season flaws. There is a lot of hype surrounding Gilmore right now; a lot of it is warranted, and there isn't any reason to try to snuff that out.
What's worth pointing out, however, is that not only is Gilmore expected to make that leap to league-recognized top cornerback, but he'll also be playing a much bigger role as the lynchpin of the secondary if Byrd misses any action. A lineup with Byrd and Gilmore is a lineup featuring two defensive backs that quarterbacks need to think about; if Byrd is out of the lineup, it's on Gilmore to be "the guy" in the Bills' secondary. That's major pressure, especially considering the upheaval and youth at safety behind Byrd.
Consider: only four Bills defensive backs were on the field for more than 50 percent of defensive snaps last season. One of them, Aaron Williams, is switching from cornerback to safety, barely made that cut, and has struggled with injuries in his first two seasons. Another, George Wilson, was released in February. The other two were Gilmore and Byrd - no player was on the field more for Buffalo than Gilmore last season - and Byrd might sit.
Gilmore is already anchoring a younger cornerback group that will feature the oft-benched Leodis McKelvin as a full-time starter on the other side of the field, as well as several young and mostly inexperienced players vying for nickel and dime duties. If Byrd sits, the safeties will have even less field experience (in Williams' case, his will be sort of moot at a new position). Mike Pettine's defensive scheme puts pressure on its defensive backs to cover well, and Gilmore will be the alpha dog in that respect even if Byrd is on the field.
Hype is a tough thing to buy at this juncture of the off-season, with camp right around the corner. There is reason to believe that Gilmore will emerge as a very good player in 2013, and perhaps even ascend beyond that status. But don't underestimate how much pressure is on this 22-year-old's shoulders. Here's to hoping he doesn't crack under the pressure and slide into that sophomore slump.