FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Stephon Gilmore needed little time to get comfortable in a New England 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 Los Angeles 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 but might be New England’s most important player on defense.

But for a player 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 mostly was quiet in the first three playoff games of his career.

Gilmore bounced back in 2018 with a career-high 20 passes defensed in the regular season, the second-most in the NFL behind only Kyle Fuller of Chicago (21). Gilmore’s previous high was 18 with Buffalo in 2015. He also made his first 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 following the free-agent 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.

But Gilmore wants no part of predicting what can be done 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.”

TOM BRADY called Wednesday a “frustrating” practice for the offense, which was plagued by careless drops and generally dominated by the secondary.

He probably didn’t feel too much better about Thursday’s session.

At one point in team drills, a Shaq Mason false start was followed by a James Ferentz false start, and that was followed by a botched handoff between Brady and Sony Michel.

The offense ran two laps for the series of miscues.

In goal-line drills, the defense overpowered the offense again, stuffing Brandon Bolden and Damien Harris on three consecutive runs. Brady’s play-action pass to Ben Watson was the only touchdown pass of the period.

It wasn’t all bad for the offense, though. N’Keal Harry bounced back with a solid day, and undrafted rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers continues to shine.

MINUTES BEFORE undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers pulled off the best practice by a Patriots wide receiver in training camp Thursday, he sat listening to New England’s best wideout this summer.

Maurice Harris, once undrafted himself, came with a simple message.

“‘Keep doing what you’re doing, man, and you’ll be all right,'” Harris told him. “Obviously there’s going to be a lot of work to do and stuff like that, but I think he’s a great kid. He has amazing ability.”

Amazing was the only word for the rookie on Thursday.

The 6-foot-2 North Carolina State product opened practice by snaring a low pass over the middle to complete a diving grab during a competitive one-on-one drill. Meyers had ripped away from a vicious jam courtesy of J.C. Jackson, then shed Jackson with a head fake. It was his second reception in as many reps.

Less than an hour later, Meyers earned his first starting reps within a team period this summer. The promotion also meant graduating from facing Jackson’s coverage to wily Jason McCourty. Unable to shake McCourty initially on his comeback route, Meyers leaped up and over the veteran for a contested catch before tumbling backward out of bounds.

Jason’s twin, safety Devin McCourty, took notice.

“He’s made some really competitive catches,” Devin McCourty said.

And then came Meyers’ grand finale.

Speeding down the right sideline during another 11-on-11 rep, the rookie put second-year corner Keion Crossen, one of New England’s fastest players, on his left hip while safety Patrick Chung charged over from the middle of the field. All three had eyes on Jarrett Stidham’s incoming spiral spinning toward the end zone.

Only one of them would get a hand on it.

Leaping above both defenders near the pylon, Meyers tipped the pass toward the goal line with his right hand, sidestepped Chung and settled underneath the fluttering ball for a touchdown. It was the best catch of training camp. Really, the play of the summer.

Not long after, it was time for another chat with Harris. A fatigued Meyers needed a pick-me-up. Thursday’s practice, by far the longest of training camp, had begun to wear on the rookie, who was the only bright spot over an otherwise miserable day for the offense.

“I told him to fight through it. That’s what makes you great,” Harris said. “When you’re tired and the other team’s tired, it’s about who fights through it to the end.”


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