Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL. It’s hard for anyone to debate that fact, as the former first-round pick has played at an elite level over the past two seasons. However, calling him the best cornerback in football simply doesn’t do him enough justice. After his dominant performance in Week 12, Stephon Gilmore should be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Stephon Gilmore Should Be NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Quantifying the Greatness of Stephon Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore has played at a ridiculous level throughout the first 12 games of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Gilmore entered Week 12 with an above-average 73.2 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus. That grade, while impressive, doesn’t tell the whole story. The Patriots play man coverage at one of the highest rates in the league, and they play it at an elite level. This wouldn’t be possible without Gilmore, as he typically matches up with the opponents’ best receiver and completely takes them out of the game.
When looking at Gilmore’s traditional stats, it’s almost hard to believe just how good he’s been. Through the first 11 games of the season, Stephon Gilmore allowed just 19 receptions on 53 targets for 223 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions, and 10 pass breakups for an 18.04 passer rating. These numbers would be impressive in any era, but they’re nearly impossible in today’s pass-happy NFL. Coverage data is not yet available for Week 12, but it’s safe to assume Gilmore only improved his ridiculous numbers against the Dallas Cowboys.
One of the most common and laziest narratives around New England’s defensive success is that they haven’t played any legitimate competition. While the Patriots have had an easy schedule, Gilmore has stepped up to the plate every time he’s faced off against elite talent. In Week 12, Gilmore completely erased Amari Cooper, holding him without a catch for the first time in his Cowboys career. This wasn’t really a group effort, as Gilmore followed Cooper for 26 of his 30 routes. Put simply, this was a case of an elite player completely eliminating one of the better receivers in the game.
Back-to-back shutouts for Stephon Gilmore for his first time as a Patriot. Now has three this season. Hasn't allowed a catch since Week 9 in Baltimore.
— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) November 25, 2019
The Value of Pass Coverage
Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in football, but he’s fighting an uphill battle to win Defensive Player of the Year. Historically speaking, this award tends to go out to pass rushers in the front seven. The last defensive back to win the award was Troy Polamalu back in 2010. If Gilmore’s going to buck the trend, he’ll have to prove that he’s not only the best cornerback in the league, but undeniably better and more valuable than elite pass-rushers like Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, and the Bosa brothers.
All four of the aforementioned players are among the best at their respective positions, with Donald being a truly unique and unmatched talent. However, one could easily make the case that Gilmore is the best and most valuable of the bunch. Over the offseason, Pro Football Focus ran a study on the relative value of pass rush versus pass coverage. In short, the analytics website found that pass coverage tends to be a better indicator of defensive success, and thus has more value than pass rushers.
Stephon Gilmore is asked to do more than just about any cornerback in football, and he does his job at an unparalleled level. He’s the best at his position and is probably the most valuable defender in the NFL. If that’s not the Defensive Player of the Year, then I don’t know what is.
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