(Note: Profiles of players who participated in the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine are not meant to reflect the opinions or interest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' actual player personnel evaluators.)
Every February, dozens of NFL Draft prospects come to the league's Scouting Combine hoping to force their way into "the discussion." That was certainly the goal of South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore during his four-day stay in Indianapolis this February.
"The discussion," of course, centers around which players have a shot at grabbing one of the 32 coveted spots in the draft's first round. There are some players above the discussion, virtually guaranteed a first-round spot because they are universally regarded as top-10 talent. USC tackle Matt Kalil, for instance, doesn't really have to worry about that discussion, and the same is true for 12-15 others.
Still, there's enough uncertainty about the next level of talent that quite a few more than 32 players can reasonably hold out hope of hearing their names called on the first night of the draft. Young men like Gilmore, who believe their own abilities might be undervalued, come to Indy hoping to get off the first-round bubble.
We should also note, however, that "the discussion," doesn't really exist, at least not where it matters most.
If one is referring to the very entertaining and, in the best cases, informative mock drafts and related coverage, then plenty of discourse takes place throughout February, March and April. A great performance at the Combine can certainly help a player grab and/or solidify a spot in most of the mocks, as has been the case for Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe, he of the freakish size-speed combination.
But there is no draft discussion between NFL teams, for obvious reasons, and all the great press clippings in the world won't help a player if he isn't sitting pretty on the 32 draft boards that will control the action on the fateful weekend. For all Gilmore knows, he might already be on the first-round radar for one or more NFL teams. Other teams might have already set on a lower draft grade that won't be influenced much by a 40-yard dash time or a vertical leap.
Thus, as Gilmore was well aware last month, all he could do was his best during his stay in Indy, and let the chips fall where they may in late April.
"No, I haven't [heard any speculation]," he said on the day before his on-field workout. "I just have to go out here and perform and see what happens. I can't really say what's going to happen. I don't know. I've just got to wait for the draft and do what I can here at the Combine."
So is Gilmore a likely first-round pick, or will he have to sweat out another five weeks on the bubble? Though he's relatively soft-spoken off the field, he confidently stated his belief during the Combine that he is equal to the cornerbacks with the more prominent names in this year's class. Do others see him in the same category, or close to it?
Apparently so, at least for the most part. The idea that Gilmore is one of the players on the first-round bubble may come from the fact that some mocks have left him off entirely. However, more often than not he is forcing his way into same first-round real estate as the likes of Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick and North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins, if not necessarily where LSU's Morris Claiborne sits.
Scouts Inc. ranks Gilmore as the 28th best prospect available on ESPN.com, but the site's two most prominent draft experts have differing opinions. Mel Kiper’s latest mock slots Gilmore in at #23 (to Detroit), ahead of Jenkins, while colleague Todd McShay leaves Gilmore out of the round. On NFL.com, amid a collection of expert mock drafts, only Charley Casserly skips Gilmore; Chad Reuter and Bucky Brooks both have him at 23rd, while Albert Breer says 21st, to Cincinnati. On CBSSports.com, both Rob Rang and Dan Brugler agree with Detroit as a good landing spot, and the Lions' loss of Eric Wright to the Buccaneers probably enhances that opinion. SI.com's Don Banks, who discussed his mock draft with Buccaneers.com during the Combine, is most bullish on Gilmore, putting him at #14, to Dallas. Of course, that was published before free agency began and the Cowboys signed former Kansas City Chiefs CB Brandon Carr, but it's not likely Gilmore would tumble too much farther down Banks' next mock.
Claiborne may be getting the most attention, but any cornerback taken in the first round, particularly among the first 20 picks, is expected to be a special player. Obviously, it doesn't always work out that way, but Gilmore has to convince some teams he has that sort of potential in order to get the draft spot he wants. To clarify what he thinks he can bring to the NFL during his career, he invokes the name of one of the most successful cornerbacks of the last few decades.
"I like Charles Woodson a lot because he can play outside and inside and he takes pride in tackling," said Gilmore, when asked to identify a player after whom he models his game. "He's a smart player. And he blitzes a lot; I like to blitz."
Gilmore's self-assessment, at least in part, is shared by most observers. While Claiborne is a hot prospect because of his elite cover skills, Gilmore is thought to be a strong cover man who has the added advantage of being a very good tackler.
At the Combine, Gilmore measured in at six feet and 190 pounds, which is good size for a cornerback. He has long arms and plays very aggressively against the run. Scouts agree that he is an instinctive blitzer, which could make him a nice defensive weapon in the slot in nickel defenses. He should be good at jamming receivers at the line and fighting through the blocks from those same receivers when the opposing team is running the ball. And he definitely has the "want-to" to be the type of cornerback who helps his team with a physical style of play, in much the manner Ronde Barber has for so long for the Buccaneers.
As a sophomore in 2010, he actually led the South Carolina defense in tackles, with a career-best 79 stops while earning All-SEC honors.
"I like to tackle a lot," he said. "I think most corners don't like to tackle. I like to make plays on the ball and sometimes I try to strip the ball. I'm just trying to be a complete corner."
Even the analysts who give him glowing reports think the former Gamecock is still a little raw, as he didn't start playing defense until he got to South Carolina. However, Gilmore thinks his football background is actually a plus for the position he's now manning. As a high school quarterback, he gained an understanding of the game, and what the opposition is thinking, that now helps him figure out what is coming.
"You understand the game more when you've played quarterback," he said. "You understand what other quarterbacks are trying to do, and that gives you an edge. If you know what the quarterback is thinking, you have an opportunity to make plays."
If Gilmore needed to prove anything when he got to Indianapolis – his boost into "the discussion" – it was his speed. With, size, aggressive play and actual production already on the positive side of his ledger, he wanted to show that he could run with the Claibornes and Kirkpatricks, too. Gilmore absolutely nailed that test, running a 4.40 40-yard dash that was better than every corner in the field except LSU's Ron Brooks and Central Florida's Josh Robinson.
If you're looking for more items to "discuss" when it comes to Gilmore's draft stock, remember that he started for three seasons in the talented SEC, perhaps the most competitive conference in all of college football. He has plenty of experience covering NFL-caliber wide receivers, some of whom of course have already moved on to the NFL. In addition, he comes from a program that has had no problem turning out NFL-ready cornerbacks, from Sheldon Brown to Andre' Goodman to Johnathan Joseph to Dunta Robinson. Last year, the San Francisco 49ers took South Carolina corner Chris Culliver in the third round.
Gilmore is aware that he has a pretty impressive legacy to uphold.
"I'm just trying to work hard and keep that tradition going," he said.
And there's one more thing that may help Gilmore's stock on draft day, though in fact it will also be a good thing for Claiborne, Kirkpatrick, Jenkins and the rest of this year's cornerbacks. The NFL is coming off its most prolific season of offense ever, collectively, and league passing attacks are now routinely putting up four and even five thousand yards a year. That only makes teams even more desperate to find quality cover men who can find a way to stem the tide. Gilmore might work farther up the draft board than almost anyone originally expected without necessarily passing over Claiborne, Jenkins, Kirkpatrick or the others.
"It's a great time to be a cornerback," Gilmore acknowledged. "A lot of teams need cornerbacks and I'm just blessed to be in this position."
Will he be blessed enough to get the call on the first night of the draft, as is clearly his goal? Outside the NFL's 32 draft rooms, he's obviously moved himself quite firmly into the discussion. If the same talks are going on in at least a handful of those 32 rooms, there's a good chance Gilmore will achieve his goal.