FOXBORO, Mass. — Stephon Gilmore has established himself as the NFL’s top cornerback by squaring up — and, more often than not, shutting down — opposing No. 1 receivers on a near-weekly basis.
He’s about to face one of his toughest challenges yet.
Speaking at his locker Wednesday, the New England Patriots star essentially acknowledged he’ll be shadowing Amari Cooper when the Dallas Cowboys visit Gillette Stadium this Sunday — a difficult assignment even for a cover man of Gilmore’s caliber.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” Gilmore said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Since his blockbuster trade from the Oakland Raiders last November, Cooper leads all NFL receivers in touchdown catches with 13 and trails only Michael Thomas, Mike Evans and Julio Jones in receiving yards (1,611). In 10 games this season, he’s caught 56 passes on 79 targets for 886 yards (fourth in the NFL) and seven scores (T-fourth). His yards-per-target average of 11.2 ranks second behind Stefon Diggs among players with 50-plus targets, and his Pro Football Grade of 89.9 is the second-best of any wideout behind Tyreek Hill.
Simply put: Cooper is extremely talented, and he’s in the midst the best season of his career — a career that already includes three Pro Bowl selections.
Asked where the 25-year-old Alabama product stands in the NFL’s hierarchy of elite wideouts, Gilmore replied: “He’s at the top.”
“He’s a great receiver,” said Gilmore, who covered multiple pass-catchers, including tight end Zach Ertz, during Sunday’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles. “He can run every route. He’s strong after the catch. He makes big catches. He’s definitely at the top — one of the best receivers in the league.”
The Detroit Lions limited Cooper to three catches on eight targets for 38 yards this past Sunday, but he’s posted some monster stat lines this season, including an 11-catch, 147-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10 and an 11-226-1 bonanza against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. (The Cowboys lost both of those games.)
“He makes big catches, tough catches, even when a guy’s covering him,” Gilmore said. “He’s fast, quick. When you’re one of the best receivers in the league, you can run every route and make everything (look) the same. … He makes everything look like a go ball, then chops his route off. He makes everything look the same, and he has a good quarterback (Dak Prescott) who’s throwing him the ball that makes him better. I’m looking forward to it.”
Cooper has posted these gaudy numbers despite being hindered throughout the season by various lower-body injuries (foot, ankle, quad, knee). He was on the field for just 55 percent of Dallas’s offensive snaps against Detroit but is expected to play Sunday, according to team owner Jerry Jones.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick raved about Prescott this week but attributed the Cowboys’ remarkable offensive improvement to Cooper’s integration. Dallas currently ranks first in total offense, passing yards per game and yards per pass attempt and fourth in scoring after finishing 20th or worse in all four categories in 2018.
“Statistically, what they’ve done in the passing game since they’ve gotten him — I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but he’s certainly a big part of it. You can start with him,” Belichick said before rattling off Cooper’s bona fides.
“He’s got great speed, he’s a big-time vertical threat, run-after-the-catch is very good. He’s a sharp route-runner, he can get in and out of cuts. He’s a tough guy to cover, got a great quarterback, good offensive system. He can kill you on short catch-and-run plays. He can run all the intermediate routes, which are hard to cover, and he can certainly kill you down the field in single coverage on the outside or on inside routes if you don’t have a middle-of-the-field defender. And he’s got a quarterback who can get him the ball in all of those situations very accurately.”
And Cooper isn’t the only Dallas wideout who will test New England’s dominant secondary. Second-year pro Michael Gallup has 42 catches for 678 yards and three touchdowns despite missing two games, and veteran slot receiver Randall Cobb (35-495-3) has surged of late with back-to-back 100-yard showings.
The Cowboys are the only team in the NFL with three wide receivers over 490 receiving yards, and all three are averaging more than 14 yards per catch.
“They’ve got a good football team,” said Gilmore, who has a matchup with Houston Texans stud DeAndre Hopkins looming next weekend. “They’re one of the most talented teams we’ve played this year.”
Thumbnail photo via Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports Images