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Gilmore turns a corner, might be anchor of Patriots defense

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

By KYLE HIGHTOWER

AP Sports Writer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Stephon Gilmore needed little time to get comfortable in a Patriots jersey.

In his second year with the team last season he was an All-Pro. In the NFL title game, he made a key interception against the Rams to earn his first Super Bowl ring.

This spotlight keeps growing. He was named the highest-ranked cornerback in the preseason NFL Top 100 list, which is voted on by players.

Gilmore signed a five-year, $65 million free-agent deal in 2017. He has not only become the anchor in the secondary, he might be New England's most important player on defense.

But for a guy who has spent seven years in the league and never been much of a talker, Gilmore insists he isn't getting wrapped up in any of it. He thinks he has lots of room to improve.

"It's a new year. That's the type of person I am," Gilmore said. "I try to prove myself every year. Nobody cares about last year. If you don't do it this year, if you don't come out and work this year, you're not going to be a good player this year."

This need to improve has been his calling card with the Patriots.

He went through an adjustment in his first season after leaving the Buffalo Bills in 2017. He started 13 games during the regular season and had two interceptions. But he had only nine passes defensed - his fewest since 2014 - and was mostly quiet in the first three playoff games of his career.

Gilmore bounced back in 2018 with a career-high 20 passes defensed during the regular season, the second most in the NFL behind only Chicago's Kyle Fuller (21). Gilmore's previous high was 18 with Buffalo in 2015. He also made his playoff interception, against the Chargers in the divisional round.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't surprised.

"Steph's a hard-working kid that's very committed and dedicated to his craft," Belichick said. "I respect that, and that's the reason why he continues to improve as a player, even at this point in his career. He's always looking to get better at things, and he does."

Gilmore said facing an offense led by Tom Brady in practice has sharpened his game.

"It's helped me out a lot, just seeing his work ethic coming out here each and every day, making everybody better," he said. "I mean, he throws a great ball. So if you're in the position to make a play on his ball, you can pretty much make a play on anybody's ball."

There are questions about New England's defense this season following the free agency departures of defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive lineman Malcom Brown. But big things are expected from the secondary.

Along with Gilmore the unit returns its entire core, including cornerback Jason McCourty and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.

The defense had 18 interceptions last season, second in the AFC. The secondary accounted for 15 of those.

But Gilmore wants no part of predicting what can be done for an encore in 2019.

"We'll see," he said. "We've got to prove it each and every day. It's not going to happen overnight, so it's a lot of hard work to be good in this league."

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Updated August 1, 2019

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