FOXBOROUGH — Stephon Gilmore has had so many dominant, lockdown games this season it’s understandable Jason McCourty couldn’t initially remember which particular gem included this fourth-quarter exchange between them.
But the events that led up to it, the series of plays that rendered one wide receiver invisible and one NFL heavyweight cornerback standing? Those are indelible.
Further reflection confirmed it was Week 9 against Green Bay, when the Patriots were able to beat the Packers in large part because Gilmore held Davante Adams to 40 yards on six catches. That Adams had days before described himself as “unguardable” after turning in three straight games of at least 130 receiving yards only highlighted the work Gilmore was doing.
So here was McCourty, on the field, late in the game: “I just said to him, bro, hands down, you’re the best corner I played with — this season you’re having, it’s unbelievable.”
And here was Gilmore, barely above a whisper: “Appreciate it. Appreciate you.”
Stephon Gilmore’s Patriots story was framed at the outset by expectation, a five-year, $65 million free agent contract prior to last season representing a break from Bill Belichick’s customary roster-building philosophy, one built on parsimony, democracy, and disdain for the star-making machine. But for a defensive-minded coach who had won multiple titles with at least one shutdown corner (Ty Law, Darrelle Revis), the onetime 10th overall pick of the draft was good enough to break the mold.
Then Gilmore struggled at the start of his first New England season, and when he found himself on the bench for the second half of an early-season game, the story threatened to veer toward failure to fill those expectations. But if 2017 proved to be about Gilmore’s steady improvement and ultimate justification of the contract (who can forget his levitating pass breakup to clinch the AFC Championship game win over Jacksonville?), then 2018 makes you wonder if Belichick paid him enough.
“He should be considered the best corner in the game,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said.
On Friday, Gilmore was, named first-team All-Pro. The statistical analysis website Pro Football Focus agreed, giving Gilmore its best end-of-the-season grade at the position, citing his league-leading 18 pass breakups and a forced incompletion percentage of 27.8. Gilmore allowed only one touchdown in New England’s final six games, and in only five games overall did he allow more than two completions. He’s the anchor of the back end of the defense, thriving in a man-to-man-heavy scheme that has seen him shut down the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Kelvin Benjamin, Stefon Diggs, Robby Anderson, and Antonio Brown. Gilmore’s one slip-up — Tennessee’s Corey Davis’s beat him for 125 yards and a touchdown in Week 10 — was a big reason the Patriots were uncompetitive in a 34-10 loss. It was the only 50-plus-yard game a receiver had against Gilmore this year.
“Best corner in the league,” McCourty said. “That guy understands what it takes to cover someone. It sounds so simple, but understanding routes as you get into it off the line of scrimmage, understanding the first few steps he’s going on a nine route and knowing, ‘I’m going to wedge him out,’ he just picks up on that stuff so fast.
“His ability to cover in the nine route, the straight go route, when you watch him, he knows. Ball, snap, receiver, and he knows, all right this is going to be the go ball and he just has an intuitive ability knowing when that’s coming. I remember training in one offseason with Revis and his route recognition, off the snap, he knew exactly what the route was. When you watch the best man-to-man corners, it doesn’t matter what the entire defense is doing, those guys just know when they go up against a receiver what that receiver is doing early on in a route.
“He should be All-Pro. No doubt about it.”
Most inspections of Gilmore the player move quickly to Gilmore the person, and how an even-keeled, comparatively quiet professional bucks the conventional cornerback mold of being brash, bold, and outspoken. Perhaps it goes back to his high school days in South Carolina, when he was tearing up records as a dual-threat quarterback, surpassing 1,000 yards both rushing and passing as a senior. Believing his NFL prospects were not best served in the pocket, he looked toward college in search of a new position, and on the advice of his dad Steve, Gilmore took his 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound, track-trained body to the secondary. He graduated high school early, enrolled at South Carolina, and was a starter by the season opener.
“My dad said I’d be a good corner,” Gilmore said this past week, while the Patriots practiced before their playoff bye, awaiting the result of Sunday’s Chargers-Ravens wild-card game to see who they’ll play in next Sunday’s divisional-round game. “You’re tall, you can move, you’d be a bigger corner but you can still move like smaller corners. You could try it.
“It worked out.”
Master of the understatement, that guy. Still, in the wake of the team’s win over the Jets, when he barely let Anderson breathe, Gilmore snuck some personal recognition in his humble answer to whether he’s the best corner in the league.
“I don’t like to talk about myself, you know that,’’ Gilmore said, before adding, “Film don’t lie.”
No, it doesn’t. The film, and the book, on Gilmore says test him at your own peril.
“That’s him. He’s quiet, he’s soft-spoken, but I think what I love about watching him, when you get out there on that football field, he’s quiet but he’s like a quiet assassin,” McCourty said. “That’s what we call him. You see it in games. He’ll be quick to get in a tussle match with somebody, Steph will talk a little bit of trash as well as be out there competing. I think the funnest thing to watch is how we’ll be on the walkthrough and he won’t let his guy catch the ball. He just competes his ass off. That’s his mind-set.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.