WESTFIELD, Ind. (AP) — Stephon Gilmore arrived at training camp two weeks ago with an impressive resume — and something to prove.
After two injury-filled subpar seasons in New England and Carolina, the 31-year-old cornerback chose Indianapolis to revive his career.
So far, it looks like a winning match.
“I feel good, I feel strong, I finally feel like myself,” Gilmore said at the team's camp complex, nestled between the cornfields in suburban Indianapolis. “I like the vibe here, I like the guys, I like the coaches. Everybody here does everything to help the team win. That’s one thing I’ve noticed.”
Gilmore has learned plenty of lessons over a decade-long career, none more valuable than detecting the difference between teams built to contend and everyone else. It's one reason he took nearly a month to sift through the free agent suitors before signing a two-year deal with the Colts.
On paper, Gilmore saw a promising defense on the verge of becoming an elite unit, an offense led by new quarterback Matt Ryan and defending league rushing champ Jonathan Taylor and an opportunity to shore up one of the Colts' most glaring weaknesses, pass coverage.
On the field, Gilmore has been one of Indy's most productive players. He’s dominated the one-on-one matchups with rookie receiver Alec Pierce and has blanketed virtually anyone who dares to challenge him.
His instincts also appear to be back and Gilmore's penchant for routinely batting away passes has become contagious in this young rebuilding secondary.
New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley welcomes the impact Gilmore has made as does Ryan, the league's 2016 MVP, who has been victimized more than once by a familiar foe.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the first time he’s picked me off,” Ryan said after Gilmore made an acrobatic interception during Sunday's practice. “He’s got excellent pattern recognition, really good — savvy, good ball skills. He’s talented, and he’s one of those guys who sometimes can put a seed of doubt in your mind of what he’s going to do.”
That's been Gilmore's trademark for most of his career.
He earned a Super Bowl ring during Tom Brady's final championship run in New England by batting away 20 passes and was selected as the league's 2019 Defensive Player of the Year with 20 more passes defensed, tying for the league lead with six interceptions and returning two for scores.
But winning consistently has proven elusive for the former South Carolina star.
He endured four losing seasons and never made the playoffs during a strong five-year run in Buffalo. After appearing in back-to-back Super Bowls each of his first two seasons in New England, the Patriots suffered a rare wild-card round loss in 2019 before the bottom fell out.
Gilmore's 2020 season was derailed first by a positive COVID-19 test, then a torn quadriceps and finally by a rare Pats' postseason absence. When the injury lingered through the next summer's training camp, he landed on the physically unable to perform list and was eventually traded to Carolina.
There, he had 13 tackles and two interceptions in eight games and earned his fourth straight Pro Bowl selection despite not playing like one of the league's top coverage guys.
So when Gilmore became a free agent, he took his time, weighed his options and when the Colts finally came through, it was an offer Gilmore couldn't refuse. The Colts haven't regretted it, either.
“From a quarterback’s perspective, he’s the kind of cornerback you fear because of the way he sees the game,” coach Frank Reich said. “He knows what’s coming before it’s coming. He’s so quick to recognize routes, concepts and then he has the ability to make plays on the ball and turn it over. That’s what we’ve seen from start to finish. We love him.”
Playing the ball and sticking to receivers was Gilmore's trademark long before joining the Colts.
He starts this season with 27 interceptions and 116 passes defensed, tied for seventh and fourth among active players still in the league last season.
And now that he's healthy, back in a system where he can thrive and working with four Pro Bowl teammates on defense, Gilmore believes he can be back on top of his game this season.
“I asked him how it was and how the guys were in the locker room, the vibe,” Gilmore said, describing a spring conversation with another Pro Bowl cornerback Kenny Moore II. "He said all good things. I’m happy I made that decision. I think I’ll be a great player for this team."
The Colts are counting on it.