Can Stephon Gilmore recapture All-Pro form with Indianapolis Colts?

Stephon Gilmore doesn't like to talk himself up, but he looked good during training camp, and he could be motivated to show he still has something left. Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Stephon Gilmore is known as someone who rarely shared his thoughts. When he did speak, he usually offered nothing more demonstrative than a whisper.

Gilmore’s game has always done the talking for him. His game-clinching interception for the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII spoke volumes. So, too, did his Defensive Player of the Year effort during the 2019 season.

No need to say anything when your performance says it all.

“That’s always been his M.O.,” said Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a high school and college teammate of Gilmore’s. “He could come out on Twitter and start tweeting a bunch of stuff, like really turn himself up. He could do that if he wanted to. But he ain’t that type of guy. He lets his play speak.”

But the quiet types don’t make many headlines, either. So, after Gilmore’s significant 2020 quadriceps injury, his perplexing departure from the Patriots and his undistinguished half-season stint with the Carolina Panthers in 2021, you could be forgiven if you’d forgotten about the five-time Pro Bowl selection.

True to form, Gilmore has again reminded us of his presence with his play. This time, it came in the form of a brilliant training camp performance with the Indianapolis Colts, with whom he signed in March.

“I just feel stronger, my legs feel strong and my body feels good,” Gilmore said. “I’m just looking forward to this season. I’ve got a new slate. A new opportunity to show what I still can do.”

That’s about the boldest thing the 31-year-old Gilmore is liable to say. But he made plenty of on-field statements in training camp, like the day he jumped a route and stunned quarterback Matt Ryan with an effortless pick-six.

“That’s not the first time he’s picked me off,” Ryan said later.

Then, there was the play when he gave rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce a dose of reality the 22-year-old won’t soon forget.

“It was a 2-minute drill and I ran a slant,” the second-round draft choice said. “He blew me up and broke the pass up. Watching it on film, it was just an unbelievable play. The way he just drove on the ball, man. It was just wild to see how instinctive he was. It was definitely a 'welcome to the NFL' moment.

“I’ve never had a play like that made against me.”

If you’ve been watching Gilmore a while, this should all sound familiar. Clowney has been seeing it since they were kids back in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“He could do a 360 [degree] dunk,” Clowney said. “He was a damn good basketball player.”

Not that Gilmore would ever tell anyone. Still, he was a leader in his own quiet way. He set a standard with his work ethic. And the way Gilmore competed, Clowney said, brought a certain energy to practices at South Pointe High School.

Gilmore starred in college at South Carolina, then was off to the Buffalo Bills, who made him their 2012 first-round pick. Gilmore quickly became a playmaker for Buffalo, even if he didn’t have much to show for his efforts. The Bills went 36-44 in his five seasons.

Gilmore flirted with stardom in Buffalo, but he truly emerged after signing with the Patriots in 2017. He was an ideal player for coach Bill Belichick’s defense, one who could erase opponents’ No. 1 wide receivers and enable New England to deploy resources elsewhere.

Gilmore and the Patriots went to back-to-back Super Bowls in his first two seasons with the club. He won Defensive Player of the Year in his third. It was the apex of his career.

Then it all derailed with a torn quadriceps late in the 2020 season. Within a year, Gilmore found himself traded and saw his career go off the tracks for the first time.

While still on the physically unable to perform list at the start of the 2021 season, Gilmore and the Patriots reached a point of no return in their relationship. Gilmore has never talked about the situation at length, but let’s just say he’s not content with the way things ended.

“I was salty, for sure,” he said. “But, I mean, it’s a business at the end of the day. I know that they know what really happened.”

Gilmore told New England reporters last year that “I just didn’t like how they handled my situation, my injury.” The handling of his injury and Gilmore’s contract status led the sides to an impasse. Gilmore and the Patriots agreed a trade was best.

“The situation just, I don’t know, wasn’t right for both sides,” he said.

The Patriots ultimately sent Gilmore to Carolina for a 2023 sixth-round pick in October. Granted, the situation was complicated by his injury and the fact that he was on an expiring contract. But it felt like the kind of compensation a team might receive for a fringe player, not a two-time All-Pro.

Gilmore still holds Belichick in high regard, calling him “a great coach.” But the men have not spoken since.

The stint in Carolina didn’t do much to re-establish Gilmore’s reputation as a player. He saw his playing time limited after returning from the injury, playing less than 60% of the defensive snaps in six of the nine games in which he appeared. But the Colts studied his film prior to the free-agent signing period and saw a player they believed could find his way back to his old form.

“He didn’t play bad for them,” Colts assistant general manager Ed Dodds said. “He just didn’t play a lot.”

And age hasn’t done anything to erode Gilmore’s highly intelligent approach to playing cornerback -- the same approach that led to the play that left Pierce befuddled.

“Even if you’re not quite there anymore, there’s something to be said for seeing it [in advance] because you’re out ahead of the play,” Colts chief personnel executive Morocco Brown said. “You kind of know what’s coming.”

Indianapolis defensive backs coach Ron Milus sees in Gilmore innate abilities few possess.

“There’s a lot of corners in this league,” Milus said. “They can play man-to-man and do a good job, and maybe it’s an incompletion. But he’s got an ability to play man-to-man with his back to the ball and have a sense of when to turn and make a play on the ball.”

As for Gilmore himself, he isn’t saying much -- no surprise. But his actions can tell us a lot. He’s employing an obsessive approach to staying healthy these days. It seems to be working because he didn’t miss a single day of training camp. During special teams periods, Gilmore religiously hopped on an exercise bike to stay loose. Then, he spent 12 minutes after each practice submerged in an ice tub at a comfy 28 degrees.

“Every single day,” he said.

You might conclude that Gilmore doesn’t care what people think, given his soft-spoken nature. Perhaps you assume he’s oblivious to those who still wonder what kind of player he’ll be in 2022.

According to Clowney, you’d be wrong.

“People think he’s at the end because he got hurt,” Clowney said. “I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, ‘OK, let me show ‘em.’”