Rex Ryan is an aggressive and cutting-edge defensive play-caller and designer. That has always been the case, and it will continue to be the case in his first season as head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
During the 2014 season, his New York Jets defense sent extra pass rushers on 33.1 percent of pass plays, the 10th-highest percentage in the NFL. This was a conservative figure for the usually-much-more-aggressive Ryan, whose play-calling necessarily became more conservative as his starting cornerbacks in New York were routinely abused by opposing quarterbacks. Case in point: in two games against the Jets, former Bills quarterback Kyle Orton had a quarterback rating of 139.3, completing 69.4 percent of his passes at 9.6 yards per pass with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. It might have been significantly worse had Ryan left his corners exposed more often. That Ryan managed to coax his outmanned defense to a Top 10 finish a year ago says a great deal about his coaching ability.
Still, Ryan blitzed. He'll blitz in Buffalo, too, even though he has the NFL's best four-man pass rush at his disposal. A more aggressive pass rush scheme will necessitate more aggressive coverage schemes, and that is my roundabout way of explaining why I believe Stephon Gilmore is the fourth-most important player on the Bills' roster entering the 2015 season.
Buffalo's secondary had a breakout campaign in 2014 - and that was true for Gilmore, too, as he enjoyed his best season as a pro - precisely because the Bills relied heavily on their four-man pass rush to do the heavy lifting. Departed defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz did not blitz early and often, allowing him to structure unique coverages to keep quarterbacks on their toes while three Pro Bowl defensive linemen pursued them. It was a strong mixture that led to the Bills finishing in the Top 5 in team defense last season.
Ryan's Bills outfit will more closely resemble the unit that Mike Pettine, a Ryan disciple, ran in Buffalo in 2013. (That was a Top 10 defense, too, by the way.) Their pass rushes will be more diverse and complex. The difference between the two approaches: Schwartz preferred to scheme complex coverages and rely on the individual talents of his pass rushers, while Ryan's scheme emphasizes the rush and relies heavily on the individual talents of his defensive backs. That's especially true at cornerback, where press-man concepts are the name of the game.
Gilmore was better for Schwartz than he had been for either Pettine or as a rookie under Dave Wannstedt. He was a far more consistent performer than he'd ever been, suffering through far fewer poor performances than he had both as a rookie and in his injury-shortened 2013 campaign. But he also was not necessarily a stand-out performer; teams did not throw his way often, which speaks to quality coverage, but Gilmore has not proven himself to be much of a playmaker yet when the ball does come his way.
Progress is progress, though, and Gilmore has improved in each of his three NFL seasons despite some extenuating circumstances (namely, lost time and effectiveness to injury, and playing in three different defensive schemes in his first three seasons). But the former Top 10 pick also possesses elite physical traits, particularly as a press corner, and has been on the fringes of the "next big thing at cornerback" conversation for over two years now. In Ryan's system, the Bills need him to realize that potential sooner rather than later.
The Bills picked up Gilmore's fifth-year contract option in late April, meaning that the fourth-year pro is now under contract for the 2016 season - at an $11.082 million cap charge. All of that is guaranteed. It can be very fairly argued that the 24-year-old Gilmore has not yet earned that kind of a pay day - but Ryan's presence, and the level of responsibility being thrust on Buffalo's top cornerback, will give him the opportunity to earn every cent of his 2016 raise, plus much more down the line, this season. After three years of unmet expectations and steady progress, 2015 is feeling a bit like a make-or-break season for Gilmore.