With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with South Carolina defensive back Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore left high school as "Mr. Football" for the state of South Carolina, starring at quarterback for South Pointe High School. He enrolled early at University of South Carolina in 2009 and participated in spring drills, securing not only a starting cornerback spot as a true freshman but a role in the Wildcat package on offense.
Gilmore went on to start 39 games and intercept eight passes for the Gamecocks before declaring for the draft after his junior season. A 4.37 forty time and impressive performances in combine drills proved that he had the measurables to match his on-field effort and aggressiveness. If his coverage technique catches up to his other assets, Gilmore could be a very special defender.
Pros: It is unusual to start a cornerback's scouting report by praising his run defense, but Gilmore stands out in this area. He often played the "force defender" role for the Gamecocks, deterring running backs from trying to run to the weak side of the formation by attacking from the edge on that side of the field. Gilmore reads running plays quickly and attacks them aggressively. He is a very willing hitter, though his tackling technique leaves something to be desired. Gilmore will fight through blocks by wide receivers and will pursue plays from behind to make touchdown-saving tackles. Gilmore has seven career sacks and can be a weapon as a corner blitzer.
Gilmore has exceptional speed and can run with top wide receivers. He covers a lot of ground in zone coverage. As a three-year starter, he has learned to diagnose plays when he is in a short zone, and will sit in a spot on the field and wait for an easy interception or pass breakup. Gilmore gambles and guesses sometimes when jumping routes. That can be good or bad, of course, but Gilmore picks his spots fairly well when he gambles.
Gilmore returned a blocked kick for a two-point conversion against Nebraska in the Capitol One Bowl and had an interception return touchdown in 2010. When he bursts into the open field, no one will catch him.
Cons: Gilmore's man coverage technique is very raw. His footwork is not great, and he will lose his receiver at the top of the route. When playing off the receiver, he gets caught flat-footed when the receiver breaks. Gilmore is a long, lean defender who will always have trouble with compact, nifty receivers. In deep zones, he sometimes relies on his pure speed to bail him out when he did not take proper position against a route combination.
Gilmore tries to drop the hammer when tackling in run support, which means he sometimes lunges at the ball carrier's legs and fails to wrap properly. As a result, running backs sometimes bounce off of him and keep running.
Despite his experience as a high school quarterback and Wildcat performer, Gilmore does not project as a two-way contributor at the NFL level.
Conclusion: Gilmore is a safe pick for any team: coaches know they will get a hard working, experienced defender who is tall and runs fast. He can step in as a nickel defender who helps in run support and matches up against taller receivers. Whether he grows into an All Pro or a solid Cover-2 type second cornerback depends on how well he refines his technique, both in pass coverage and as a tackler. He provides a very high potential yield for relatively low risk.
NFL Comparison: Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears
More Shutdown 50:
#12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama | #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy