NFL Analysis


8 min read

Why Is There No Interest in Free-Agent Cornerback Stephon Gilmore?

October 8, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Stephon Gilmore (21) warms up before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at depth charts around the league, it’s pretty easy to see that nearly every roster could use another cornerback. Most of the NFL's top teams only have one, maybe two, reliable cornerbacks that they can trust in a big game. It’s the one spot where there isn’t enough depth. That is why the lack of interest in former All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore is puzzling.

Gilmore is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year during the 2019 season. He dealt with injuries during the next two seasons but has played 33 games since 2022. Last year, he played with the Dallas Cowboys and was their most reliable cornerback.

He started all 17 games, recording two interceptions and 13 pass deflections. That was the most pass deflections he recorded in a season since his DPOY award five years ago.

So why aren’t teams banging down the door to sign Gilmore to a one-year deal? Couldn’t he potentially shift the balance of power for a contender, especially in the AFC? Well, there are a few explanations for why Gilmore’s market has been pretty soft.

The most obvious answer for why he is still a free agent is his age. Gilmore will turn 34 after Week 1, and there isn’t another 34-year-old cornerback on an NFL roster right now.

In fact, there are only four active cornerbacks on NFL rosters who are 31 or older (Darius Slay, Troy Hill, Antonio Hamilton, and Darius Williams). Cornerback is a young man’s game, and most teams are not interested in 30-year-old cornerbacks, let alone a 34-year-old.

There is also the issue of his declining play. Please don’t take this wrong.

He is still a quality cornerback and could be a starter for most teams. But he is no longer the Defensive Player of the Year (obviously). Here is one example of his declining play that could be a factor for some teams:

While those numbers aren’t poor, he is clearly trending in the wrong direction and can be exposed more frequently than we are used to. During the 2023 season, Gilmore allowed a passer rating when targeted of 82.7, which was a career high, according to Pro Football Reference.

Again, that number lines up with what an average NFL starting cornerback produces, but the fear is his declining play could rapidly fall off sooner rather than later.

Success Rate By Route

Yards per target is a good way to evaluate a player's performance. However, we can examine the numbers even further to see what types of routes have been the most problematic for Gilmore.

Here is his success rate by route during the 2023 season via TruMedia.

The blue arrows/routes are where Gilmore struggles, and the red routes are where he thrives. One of Gilmore's concerns is that he has struggled with in-breaking routes, which is common for older cornerbacks. As they age, they lose the necessary quickness and speed to match top-end receivers, and it's why we are seeing his success rate dip against slants, hitches, and post routes.

The good news is that he is still good on most other routes, including outs, corners, and go-routes. However, any route that requires him to use quickness could be an issue moving forward.

Another issue for Gilmore is he is primarily an outside cornerback. Nearly all of his 1,002 snaps last season came as an outside cornerback. Early in Gilmore’s career, he could play the slot (if needed) due to his exceptional athleticism.

While he can still do it for a snap or two, no team is signing Gilmore for him to play in the slot full-time. By itself, that shouldn’t be an issue, as most teams already have a slot cornerback on their roster. But it does pigeonhole himself into one role or spot on the defense.

Because he has always been a superstar cornerback, his lack of special teams experience makes him more difficult to roster if he isn’t a starting option. Again, that wouldn’t be an issue for most teams, but the combination of his age, declining play, and limited versatility could be why he is still on the market.

It’s also safe to assume that Gilmore will only want to sign with a contender and with a team that will allow him to start. It doesn’t make sense for Gilmore to waste his time on a rebuilding squad at this career stage. That means there are probably only 8-10 teams where he would like to go, limiting his market even further.

It’s also worth noting that Gilmore wants to be paid like a starter. He made $10.8 million from the Cowboys last season, and they certainly got their money’s worth. While it’s not reasonable to expect him to earn that type of deal again, $8-10 million for one year is a lot for most teams at this time of year.

In fact, more than half of the NFL has less than $20 million in cap space heading into the summer. Spending a good chunk of that on a 34-year-old cornerback doesn’t seem particularly wise unless a team is in a win-now window like the Bills, Jets, Dolphins, or Chiefs.

There is no doubt that Gilmore will sign with a team soon, and he’ll likely be a Day 1 starter. But his market has cooled off in a big way in the last few seasons, and now, he is taking his time to find his next team.

Given his age, it’s very likely the 2024 season will be his last, and Gilmore wants to ensure he finds the right situation to end his career. Still, his lack of a market shouldn’t be all that surprising, either.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) fumbles the ball after being tackled by Dallas Cowboys cornerback Stephon Gilmore (21) in the second half at AT&T Stadium. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports.

Potential Landing Spots For Gilmore

There is no doubt Gilmore will sign somewhere before the 2024 season begins. But what team would make the most sense for the veteran cornerback?

Here are four potential landing spots for Gilmore:

Dallas Cowboys

The most obvious landing spot for Gilmore is right back home with the Dallas Cowboys. He had a successful 2023 season with them, and the Cowboys could use more depth at cornerback with Trevon Diggs returning from a torn ACL.

New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer prefers smart cornerbacks who can play man and zone, which makes Gilmore the ideal fit. But if Diggs is ready for Week 1, the Cowboys might not have a starting job available. That is the only reason Dallas might decide not to bring him back. Otherwise, returning to the Cowboys for the final season of his career appears to be the most likely destination.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are in their Super Bowl window and trying to be the first team to complete a three-peat. Kansas City lost L'Jarius Sneed this offseason and could use another outside cornerback to help cover that spot.

Gilmore would give the Chiefs another smart defensive back who can help them make a postseason run. Kansas City could use Gilmore sparingly during the season, ensuring he is healthy and fresh for the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have never been shy about giving aging veterans one more shot to compete. It worked out incredibly well with Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy last season. The Ravens selected Nate Wiggins in Round 1 this year, but they might not want to rush their rookie cornerback on the field any earlier than needed.

Gilmore would be a fantastic fit opposite of Marlon Humphrey, who has struggled to stay healthy in the previous few seasons. With the Ravens trying to catch the Chiefs in the AFC, this is the type of move that could help them get over the hump.

San Francisco 49ers

Much like the Ravens, the San Francisco 49ers aren't afraid to take a shot on an older player, hoping to squeeze out one more quality season. The 49ers are loaded on defense, but cornerback depth is something they lack.

Charvarius Ward is a Pro Bowl cornerback, but the rest of the roster's defensive backs leave much to be desired. Gilmore would fit Nick Sorensen's defense well and give the 49ers a legitimate option opposite of Ward this season.