By John Wawrow
If defensive end Mario Williams and Buffalo's new-look pass-rush can't play havoc with opposing quarterbacks, the Bills added insurance in their defensive secondary.
In an indication of how serious the Bills are in rebuilding their defense to confront the NFL's growing trend of pass-happy attacks, the team selected South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore with the 10th pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night.
"First of all, I don't think you could ever have enough good corners in the NFL, and more so today than I believe 10 to 15 years ago," coach Chan Gailey said, noting how it's not unusual now for offenses to use five-receiver formations. "We've made a conscious effort to upgrade our defense in the offseason ... and it's going to pay dividends, I believe, in the long run for us."
Listed at 6-feet and 193 pounds, Gilmore was a three-year starter and left college after his junior season. He's got considerable speed after being timed at running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. And he's regarded as an explosive hitter.
In 40 games — all starts — with the Gamecocks, Gilmore finished with eight interceptions, including four last season, seven sacks and 15 tackles for a loss.
Gilmore was the second cornerback selected in the draft, after Dallas traded up to the sixth spot in order to take LSU's Morris Claiborne. Though ranked second among cornerback prospects on most draft lists, Gilmore was rated by The NFL Draft Report as "the most complete cornerback."
The NFL's scouting report notes Gilmore has good hands, great field vision, outstanding leaping ability and perfect timing. His instincts to play the position are likely the result of Gilmore having played quarterback in high school before making the switch to cornerback upon arriving at South Carolina.
In Buffalo, he's expected to immediately compete for a starting job in what's becoming an aging defensive backfield. Drayton Florence, a nine-year NFL veteran, is in the final year of his contract. Terrence McGee, also a nine-year veteran, has been injury prone.
Aaron Williams, a second-round draft pick next year, has a chance to also compete for a starting job this season.
Gilmore's selection comes after a busy offseason in which Buffalo made one of the biggest splashes in free agency by signing Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract. The Bills then continued improving their pass rush by signing Mark Anderson in free agency.
"They have a great defense, and they are just looking for a piece to help them be an even better defense," Gilmore said, during a telephone conference call. "I hope I am that piece."
Upon hearing his name announced, Gilmore had a blank reaction, failing to smile as he made his way on stage.
Gilmore explained his reaction as something that came from him knowing he was going to be picked early in the first round, and likely by the Bills.
"I was happy on the inside," he said. "I was just so happy from my head down, and thanked the man above. It's a blessing."
Playing in the SEC provided Gilmore plenty of experience facing NFL-caliber talent. At South Carolina, he's had the chance to defend against A.J. Green, who was drafted fourth overall last year by Cincinnati, and Julio Jones, who was drafted sixth overall by Atlanta last year.
Gilmore becomes the first cornerback the Bills have selected in the first round since drafting Leodis McKelvin with the 11th pick in the 2008 draft.
The defense continues to be a big offseason priority in Buffalo, for a team that's coming off a 6-10 finish and missed the playoffs for a 12th straight year — the NFL's longest active drought.
The Bills defense has ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in yards allowed in six of the past seven years. That includes last year, when Buffalo finished 26th, while allowing a franchise-worst 5,938 yards. The 434 points the Bills allowed were the second-worst in franchise history.
"It wasn't all the pass rush," general manager Buddy Nix said in assessing the Bills' troubles on defense. "We need some help in the secondary. And we've said this before we start this that we'd like to take two corners in the draft, so we got one of them."
In addressing a defensive need, Gailey acknowledged the decision to draft Gilmore was a nod to how much confidence he has in his Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense.
"I think those guys have earned what they've gotten," Gailey said. "I think they have proven they can make plays."
That doesn't mean the Bills are set on that side of the ball, as Gailey acknowledged the Bills still hope to address needs at left tackle and receiver.
Barring trades, the Bills have nine more picks over the final two days of the draft.