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Football Outsiders: Can CB Stephon Gilmore help the Patriots cover the top receivers on the schedule?

Gilmore doesn’t have experience shadowing opposing #1 receivers. He’ll get his chance in New England.

Football Outsiders releases an excellent preview of the upcoming season in their Almanac and the 2017 version is no different. Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard writes the section on the New England Patriots and Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz answered a few of our questions about the upcoming year. You can buy the Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 here.

The New England Patriots had a pretty solid strategy in the secondary for much of 2016: Malcolm Butler would cover the #2 receiver on an island, while Logan Ryan covered the opposing #1 receiver with safety help.

This wasn’t a strict rule since Ryan would often move to the slot, allowing for Eric Rowe to take the field, and because sometimes match-ups dictated Butler to take the #1 receiver (Steelers WR Antonio Brown, Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry). But Ryan was asked to cover the more physical wide receiver and those were often the opposing #1 receivers.

The Football Outsiders Almanac notes that the Patriots ranked 20th in the NFL by DVOA at covering opposing #1 receivers. Ryan is no longer in New England and the Patriots signed former Buffalo Bills CB Stephon Gilmore as his replacement and I was curious to see how Gilmore performed against top receivers in the past.

“The best answer is ‘he didn’t.’” Football Outsider’s Aaron Schatz writes. “Buffalo was one of the teams over the last few seasons that most often has left its cornerbacks on specific sides rather than using the No. 1 cornerback to cover the other team’s top threat no matter where he moves on the field.

“However, the Bills were top-five against the other team’s No. 1 receiver in both 2014 and 2015 before falling to 19th last year. Gilmore’s own charting metrics also fell off last year. They’ve never been top-notch, but he was 75th in adjusted yards per pass last season. Cornerback metrics are notoriously inconsistent, and I’m pretty willing to believe this decline was either a random off-year or part of the overall implosion of the Bills’ defensive scheme in Rex Ryan’s second year.””

Gilmore stayed on one side of the Bills formation so we can’t attribute Buffalo’s success against opposing #1 receivers to a single defensive back. Still, Buffalo was great against top receivers in 2014 and 2015 and Gilmore was a significant part of that success.

And it’s not like Gilmore didn’t want to cover the top receiver; he was hampered by Rex Ryan’s defense and he made clear that he wanted to shadow the best receivers late in the 2016 season. Gilmore is a ballhawk, often taking advantage of the passes that come into his area of the field, but his production definitely fell off last season.

The Patriots face Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Julio Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper, Jarvis Landry, Jordan Matthews, and Antonio Brown this year and the New England secondary will have their hands full.

If Gilmore can be the cornerback that he was in 2014 and 2015, then the Patriots will have greatly improved over an already great cornerback in Logan Ryan. New England has to hope that Gilmore can reach that potential opposite of Malcolm Butler because the slate of opposing wide receivers might be the most impressive that Bill Belichick has ever seen.