PITTSFORD – Doug Marrone equated what Stephon Gilmore did last season to playing with one hand tied behind his back.
That’s as good an analogy as there is to describe how difficult it was for Gilmore to deal with the broken left wrist that basically submarined his second professional year.
Just untying his shoes after a practice was a chore, so imagine the struggle it was trying to jam some of the best athletes in the world at the line of scrimmage.
“Last year, that injury, that was a tough thing to come back from,” Marrone said Thursday after the Bills wrapped up practice at St. John Fisher College. “He’s come out and been like he was in the beginning of last year – prior to the injury. He’s been playing real physical, and he’ll get better and better each day.”
Gilmore feels like he’s back to being the player he was before getting hurt. That’s good news for the Bills, as the third-year veteran out of South Carolina had the look of a shutdown cornerback at times during his rookie season of 2012.
“Just getting back out there and playing the game that I know how to play – being physical – feels pretty good,” he said. “At the same time, I’m trying to be smart, so I can do whatever I can do to help this team win.”
In one way, Gilmore doesn’t fit the mold of today’s top cornerbacks. Mainly, he’s not brash or – in the case of the Jets’ Dee Milliner calling himself the best cornerback in the NFL – delusional about his place in the game. Gilmore instead carries himself with a quiet confidence.
“I want to be the best at my position,” he said. “That’s what I work at every day.”
Upon his return last year, Gilmore played with a club on his injured wrist. For a player who excels in his physical play at the line of scrimmage, the limitations were noticeable. Even after the club came off, Gilmore’s difficulties continued. Games against Kansas City and Pittsburgh particularly were a struggle.
“Obviously playing with a club on, you know, it’s hard,” he said. “Especially playing the way I play. That’s one thing I had to deal with. I think later on in the season, I started feeling like myself again. The last five games, maybe, I started feeling more comfortable.”
By that point, though, the Bills’ season was largely lost. Despite not being close to 100 percent, Gilmore had no regrets about returning to the lineup when he did.
“This is my first love. This is the team that drafted me,” he said. “I’ll go out there no matter what just to help this team. If I feel like I can go out there and make plays to help this team win, that’s that I’m going to do, no matter what the circumstances are.”
A full offseason has gotten Gilmore to the point where he doesn’t think about the wrist any more – the true definition of being 100 percent.
“You go through stuff like that,” he said, “and you learn from them.”
Gilmore expects to have an opportunity to make more big plays in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme. In his first two seasons, Gilmore has three interceptions and 26 passes defensed. To be considered one of the best in the NFL at his position, both of those numbers will need to increase.
“Coach Schwartz is an aggressive guy,” Gilmore said. “He’s going to put us in a position to make plays on the ball. It’s up to us to make them. That’s what we’re out here working on.”
Even though he spends each day at camp trying to beat him, Bills quarterback EJ Manuel is quick to compliment Gilmore.
“Steph is awesome,” Manuel said. “He and I have a great rapport back and forth with each other, just as far as what he’s looking at with me and what I’m looking for in him. We were good friends before we got to the Bills. I played against him in college.
“The communication we have back and forth is good, and I think we’re both benefitting from that. And him going against Sammy Watkins every day, Robert Woods every day and Mike Williams is only going to help him when it gets into the real season.”
Early in camp, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King visited practice and left predicting Gilmore would make the Pro Bowl this year.
If that proves correct, the Bills will have found their No. 1 cornerback, and Gilmore will be on his way to accomplish his goal of becoming one of the game’s best at his position.