INDIANAPOLIS – The ride on the owner’s private jet had to make an impression, as did meeting with the coaching staff and new defensive coordinator.
But one thing kept catching the critical eye of the NFL’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year as he considered the next move in his decorated career.
Stephon Gilmore kept noticing the players he’d be joining.
“I think everyone knows they’ve got a lot of great players on the defensive side of the ball,’’ he said Monday after signing his two-year, $23 million contract as the Indianapolis Colts’ latest significant acquisition.
There’s linebacker Darius Leonard, tackle DeForest Buckner, Kenny Moore II and Yannick Ngakoue. Each has been selected to at least one Pro Bowl. Leonard and Buckner have All-Pro notches on their resumes.
Gilmore was one of the more accomplished players available when free agency opened March 16, but the wave of mega-deals passed him by. He bided his time. There reportedly were differing levels of interest from the Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills, Las Vegas Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers.
“I just wanted to be patient and weigh out my options and find the right fit for me and my family,’’ he said.
Of course, there needed to be reciprocal interest from the Colts.
Gilmore might have been on their radar when free agency opened, but that interest increased when general manger Chris Ballard acquired Ngakoue from the Raiders. It cost him starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. The position room already was without starter Xavier Rhodes and backup T.J. Carrie, both of whom remain unsigned.
Gilmore was on the list of possible replacements, and the pursuit intensified last week.
Owner Jim Irsay dispatched his private jet to bring Gilmore to Indy, the visit went well and the $23 million contract – $14 million guaranteed – sealed the deal.
“It just felt right,’’ he said. “It was one of those things where it just felt right in my heart to come here, especially with the talent on the team.
“Me watching them from afar last year, what they did last year and was right there.’’
Right there at 9-6 with two weeks remaining before the historic implosion and closing losses to the Raiders and Jacksonville.
“I just wanted to come in and try to help the team get over that hump,’’ Gilmore said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.’’
The defense had its flaws a year ago. There were too many instances when it was unable to come up with that game-ending stop: the second half and overtime at Baltimore, against Tennessee, Tampa Bay or the Raiders. The pass rush was unreliable.
But it ranked 2nd in the league with 33 takeaways – one fewer than Dallas – and was tied for 9th in fewest points allowed (21.5).
Even if Gilmore is unable to approach 2019 levels – six interceptions and 20 passes defensed, limiting quarterbacks to 49% accuracy when targeting him – he’s expected to offer yet another layer to the defense.
His pedigree is undeniable: two-time first-team All-Pro; five Pro Bowl selections, four straight, including during his half-season with Carolina in 2021; Super Bowl champion with New England after the ’18 season.
Complacency, though, seems to have no place in Gilmore’s psyche.
“Every year I play the game, I start over and try to re-establish myself because every year is a different year,’’ he said. “You have to prove yourself every year. So I take that mindset into each and every year.’’
Gilmore turns 32 in September and is heading into his 11th season.
He was asked if he might recreate 2019.
“I’ve got to earn it,’’ he said. “You can’t do that until you put the work in, until you go out each and every week and earn it.’’
The 6-1, 202-pound Gilmore has excelled as an aggressive, man-to-man corner. Bradley’s scheme – Cover-3 with matchup tendencies – will require him to mix zone and press.
“I think zone, to be honest with you, is a little easier because you’re not as stressed,’’ he said. “Obviously you’ve got to rep it each and every day and get better and better, knowing where your help is and things like that.
“With my skillset, I think I can play anything they want me to play if I can play it to a high level.’’
Gilmore added “there’s a time and place for” his aggressive style “whenever that time comes.
“I’m a guy that just makes plays whether it’s making plays on the ball, whether it’s punching the ball out or just being aggressive on receivers. That’s my thing: going into each and every game, making plays, limiting top receivers to a short gain.’’
Gilmore suffered a torn quadriceps at the end of 2020 while with New England, and that lingered into 2021. After the Patriots traded him to Carolina in October, he started three of eight games.
“I feel good now,’’ he said. “It definitely lingered last year, but I was able to make plays still throughout the year.
“But I feel good now, looking forward to this year. Looking forward to jelling with the guys and being the best player I can be.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.