Over the next couple weeks on WFNY, I will be breaking down the film on all seven draft picks of the Cleveland Browns. As fans, we often rely on mainstream draft analysts to give us certain traits and characteristics that we use to form our opinions. Rather than simply tell you positives and negatives, the goal of this series is to better inform you by showing evidence, in GIF form, of the skills each prospect possess and areas they each must improve upon.
With the eighth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select…Justin Gilbert? In all the pre-draft discussion, no one had considered the possibilities of trading down from four to nine, then back up to eight, only to select a cornerback. If the Browns were to trade down to the range of the late top-ten, analysts and Browns fans alike believed they would target wide receiver Mike Evans or an offensive tackle. All parties presumed that the first selection would fill an offensive hole be it at tackle, quarterback, or wide receiver, but the selection of Justin Gilbert absolutely destroyed this idea.
Given the justified belief that Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Greg Robinson, Johnny Manziel (at fourth overall), or another offensive weapon would headline of the Browns’ draft, no one in Cleveland was entirely prepared for the selection of Gilbert. In fact, with the selection of Manziel fourteen picks later, Gilbert is simply an afterthought the the aforementioned former Texas A&M quarterback. However, focusing entirely on Manziel and ignoring Gilbert is an easy mistake to make given the former’s polarizing figure. But, heading into the 2014 NFL season, Gilbert will likely enter the league as a starter, or in the very least, a contributor, from Day One, while Manziel backs up Brian Hoyer (reportedly). After analyzing eight game tapes of Justin Gilbert’s senior year of football at Oklahoma State University, I see areas that he is elite in, areas he must improve in, but most importantly of all, I see the potential that he possesses to be a lockdown, man-to-man cornerback.
(February 24, 2014 – Source: Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)
Perfect cornerback body:
When I first watched Justin Gilbert at cornerback, the first thing that struck me was that he looked the part of an NFL cornerback. As a legit six-foot tall cornerback, Gilbert is able to use his long frame to stay attached at the hip to wide receivers running any pattern. And, weighing in at 202 pounds, he has the potential to play press coverage, attack the ball carrier in run defense, as well as the frame to deter any injury issues smaller players must deal with.
Once Gilbert starts playing, his athleticism jumps off the screen. Whether covering someone deep, coming off the edge for a blitz, or just covering a secondary route, Gilbert’s speed is immediately noticeable. In some instances, he seems so smooth as a runner and it is clear that in a straight line, including deep routes, it would take an incredibly special athlete to beat him in a footrace. In fact, his wonky technique is sometimes salvagable simply because of his recovery acceleration
Great Ball Skills:
The most impressive skill in Gilbert’s arsenal is his inability to lose a jump ball. In Oklahoma State’s defense, he was often matched up across from a wide receiver with no help over top. One of the reasons why Gilbert managed to flourish in this setting is the fact that his positioning on jump balls and his leaping ability are in their own class. In general, quarterbacks avoided throwing to the receiver Gilbert covered as much as possible, but when they challenged him, they usually lost.
In this play, Gilbert forces the WVU wide receiver to the sidelines, using it s a second defender, and plays perfect, step-for-step coverage on the fade route. When the ball is in the air, Gilbert has achieved perfect positioning to knock away the pass. He mirrors the body of the receiver while in the air and forces the receiver to play defense on the ball since Gilbert pushed him to the sidelines and out-jumped him.
In a one possession game with about a minute to go, Oklahoma tests Justin Gilbert with a double move and a deep jump ball. He is able to stay in the hip pocket of the receiver on the route and then when he notices the ball is in the air, position himself perfectly to out-jump his opponent. Once again, he mirrors the body of the receiver, perfectly, and uses his elite jumping ability and hands to make the interception (wrong incomplete call on the field).
With seven interceptions in 2013, Gilbert became known as a ball-hawking corner and he completely deserves the label. In jump ball situations, no one in college was as consistently successful at knocking down passes. At the next level, I expect Gilbert to continue terrorizing quarterbacks targeting one-on-one coverage on a deep pattern or endzone fade. This skill should translate well to the next level due to his skill in positioning himself combined with unmatched athleticism. If he needs to work on one this in this area, it is improving on getting his hand in between the receiver’s hands and the ball rather than going for swats.
When I say Justin Gilbert is an elite athlete, I do not mean he ran a fast forty-yard-dash alone. At the combine, Gilbert ran a fast forty, jumped high, jumped far, lifted heavy, and has extremely good measurable. Check out this chart.
Rank among 29 CB’s at combine
From this chart, Justin Gilbert’s rankings in the 40-yard-dash and on the bench press stand out due to the comparisons to the other cornerbacks. These workouts and Gilbert’s results directly correlate to what he does on the field, unlike some prospects. When covering a deep pattern, he is able to run stride-for-stride with a wideout and is rarely beat with pure speed.
In Mike Pettine’s press cover scheme, the bench press results mixed with the fact the Gilbert is a stout 202 pounds will give the Browns the body of the ideal bump and run cornerback. However, the one area that Gilbert plays on the field better than he tested at the combine is his vertical leap. As covered above, he positions himself well and out-leaps nearly everyone he covers.
On this play, notice how Gilbert is able to plant his feet and accelerate to get his hands on the ball. This footwork is Gilbert at his best and the speed he gains after changing directions is extremely impressive. When it comes to recovery speed, Gilbert is extremely impressive. Even when there is a large cushion between him and the receiver, Gilbert has the athletic ability to overcome this with excellent speed.
This is a common example of Gilbert’s lack of great technique being made up for by tremendous recovery speed. He allows a large space between him and the man he is covering, but he is able to break on the ball and knock it down. Other cornerbacks do not have such elite recovery skills, which help out Gilbert tremendously since his technical skills are still a work in progress.
Rarely beat deep:
Although Justin Gilbert needs to improve on covering short to medium routes, he has the skills to be immediately successful covering deep throws in one-on-one coverage. As I talked about earlier, Gilbert’s 40-yard dash time strongly correlates to what I see on the field. When covering a man deep, Gilbert always keeps his hand on the opponents hip, enough to know where he is at all times, but not enough to get called for penalties. The only times he gets into trouble is when he looks for the ball and slightly slows down, giving the receiver necessary separation. Sometimes in 2013, Gilbert allowed a deep reception, but it was mainly due to an exceptional catch or throw, as he consistently was able to lock down receivers on deep routes.
On this play, Gilbert runs stride-for-stride with WVU’s wide receiver and is in perfect position to deflect the pass in the end zone. Without any saftey help over top, Gilbert is put in a tough position as a press corner. However, he flips his hips well, keeps his left hand on the receiver, and keeps up with him. By the end of the route, Gilbert is in total control and that ball never should have been thrown to this receiver. Even when Gilbert turns his head, he is able to keep the pace of the receiver, never losing a step.
On this deep route, Gilbert once again is able to use the sideline as a defender, since he has no help from his safeties. He made this interception look so easy that if you turned on the game mid-way through the play, you might think Oklahoma State is on offense. Texas ran a simple “go route” and that is far too easy for Gilbert. No one will get past him without trying to shake him off, and if they do, they are unlikely to win a jump ball over him. Throughout the entirty of the games I watched, Gilbert was extremely impressive in his coverage of the deep ball, no matter the skill of the receiver.
Although Justin Gilbert needs a lot of work on technique, his ability to flip from a backpedal to a sprint at full speed is impressive. The acceleration is so seamless for him which helps a lot on deep ball. Flipping hips from looking at a receiver to putting your back to the quarterback is more important in press man coverage than any other scheme as cornerbacks must do this every play. Although I have listed this skill as a positive, he needs to continue to improve, especially when it comes to turning them the correct way.
While covering Dorial Green-Beckham, Gilbert, in press man coverage, stays in front of him and switches into s full sprint with ease. Even though this route is a second or third option for the quarterback, Gilbert flips his hips and does not allow any separation. Every once in a while, on a double move or post, Gilbert has an issue getting caught between backpedaling and sprinting, but most often, he can flip to a full sprint with ease.
Great on special teams:
Whether he is returning kicks or acting as the gunner on punt coverage, Gilbert has the athleticism and the will to play well on special teams. In his college career, Gilbert returned six kicks for touchdowns and made many tackles on special teams. On the Browns, he can make an immediate impact as a returner, and if he needs time to develop his coverage technique, as a gunner.
Able to play on an island:
One of the most exciting aspects of Justin Gilbert’s game is his experience as a man-to-man cornerback with no help over top. A converted quarterback out of high school, Gilbert learned through trial by fire, breaking out in 2011, and continued to improve his technique while his athleticism flourished. With the experience he has gained playing without relying on help from safeties, Gilbert will have an edge on his peers.
In this case, all eleven members of Oklahoma State’s defense are lined up on the line for this third down. Even though they ended up dropping two as pseudo-safeties, Gilbert is left on an island and the Texas Tech quarterback targets his receiver. However, there is no window, whatsoever. The press coverage and technique worked to perfection on this third down stop.
At this point in the game, TCU was resigned to attempting trick plays, but Gilbert did not bite. On this double reverse combined with his receiver doing a double move, he completely negated the offense’s primary option. As a pure cover corner, he has experience and ability to succeed. When he does not have to worry about runs, Gilbert succeeds due to his complete focus on staying next to his man.
Although cornerbacks are typically talked about for their pass coverage, having a serviceable run defender on the outside can do wonders for a team. Lately, swing passes and screens have become more frequent play-calls and a consistent tackler at cornerback could eliminate the worry about defending those types of plays as well as any outside runs. Justin Gilbert is not only a liability in defending short passes and outside runs, but can be a detriment to the team in some scenarios.
When I first watched this play, I completely lost where Gilbert even was. I just figured he was locked into covering a wide receiver across the field and did not read the run. No. Hell no. He got demolished by the wide receiver, getting pushed five yards out of bounds. From the views we were given, it did no look as if he gave any effort, at all. Unfortunately this happened much more than I am sure the Browns will allow. Often, Gilbert gets locked up on a wide receiver and is completely unable to shake him off to go tackle the ball carrier. He absolutely must figure out how to use his large frame to throw a blocker off of him and pursue the ball carrier. If he does not learn, smart teams will create plays to take advantage of this weakness.
This play helps illustrate the issues with Gilbert’s tackling. He is not necessarily a bad tackler, but more of a New-Age tackler. Rather than hitting someone with his chestplate, rip his arms through, wrapping up, and driving the ball carrier back, Gilbert either dives at ankles or attempts to deliver a big hit without wrapping up. This style is popular among smaller players, but Gilbert has the body of someone who should be delivering more solid tackles. This is not nearly as much of a concern as his lack of ability to get off blocks, but it is something we should hope improves.
If Justin Gilbert does not succeed in the NFL, his lack of foot speed will be the reason why. Most of my negative notes on his film consisted of complaints about heavy feet, a cushion created between him and the wideout due to his failure to transfer his weight forward, and other various issues created by lack of foot speed. Sure, Gilbert needs to improve other minor aspects of technique, but nothing compares to this. When receivers run curls, outs or other routes in front of him, especially when playing off the line, Gilbert cannot stop his backpedal and come up to defend the pass as quickly as he needs to. Since he is often a long-stride runner, trying to stop on a dime and accelerate the opposite direction can prove difficult. The fact that Gilbert is an elite athlete gives me hope that he can be coached up in this area. In fact, he already has improved over a terrible junior season.
In this example, Gilbert runs with the receiver as if he will go downfield, but when the receiver stops and slants inward, Gilbert cannot quite keep up. These short to medium routes are the bane of Gilbert’s coverage skills. If he could plant his left foot and keep up with the receiver just a little bit quicker, this pass would fall incomplete. These passes aggravate me since he Gilbert is always in the right area, but is just a fraction of a second too slow changing direction.
This is just one of many examples of Justin Gilbert’s feet being heavy and allowing a receiver to be open in front of him. If he can figure out how to do this correctly, Gilbert will lack any weaknesses, but as of now, these comeback routes worry me. I just cannot fathom someone of his athletic ability never figuring out how to dip his hips and accelerate immediately after stopping. He is just a fraction of a second from making plays on all of these routes, but that fraction is everything in football.
As much as I worry about Gilbert’s footwork, he has improved dramatically since the 2012 season. If he can build on his improvement and learn to use his feet better, I believe he can be a top corner in the league. At training camp, in the pre-season, and in the regular season, we should pay attention to whether he has improved his foot speed, especially since he has shown such rapid improvement recently.
Since Gilbert has only played cornerback full-time for four years, he still does certain weird movements or actions that you do not see in the NFL. For example, he flips his hips the wrong way on occasion and does not have a consistent pre-snap stance. All his quirks will be eliminated with coaching and more experience, but you should be aware he has some. One big issue in his junior season was crow hopping in his backpedal, completely messing with how cornerbacks are taught to cover.
Of all the cornerbacks in the 2014 draft, Justin Gilbert has the highest ceiling of anyone. His athletic ability is elite when compared to his college peers and NFL counterparts. If he can improve his footwork, I believe he will be one of the top cornerbacks in the league. However, if he never fixes his footwork and his other technique never improves, Gilbert will never reach his true potential.
Gilbert is an emotional cornerback who thrives on competing with the wide receiver he is covering. However, this can get the best of him. When playing WVU, he could not get off a block and ended up fighting the receiver blocking him, earning himself an ejection.
Although he has not played cornerback his whole life, I love the instincts Gilbert shows, on occasion. Sometimes, he trusts them too much and tries to jump a route or read the route wrong, but he has a great feel for where to be to make plays. Even though two of his interceptions were off tipped passes, he was only in position because he hustled and knew where he should be.
Poor Junior Season:
When I write about improvements made from Gilbert’s junior to senior seasons, I am referencing the egg he laid in 2012. As a sophomore, Gilbert started, had five interceptions, and was thrust into stardom. But, he became complacent and ended 2012 without an interception and his draft stock in a serious decline. He got beat consistently and was not the same player as he was the year prior. However, he maturely decided to return for his senior season and once again stood out.
After watching eight games of Justin Gilbert, my confidence in the selection has increased due to the limitless potential of this cornerback who will, in time, start opposite of Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden. Within the next couple years, if Gilbert can improve his technique, I foresee the Browns finally getting the two dominant, ball-hawking corners that they have long-sought. However, if Gilbert once again rests on his laurels and does not improve, he will just be a project that the Browns do not have time for. I am excited to see whether Justin Gilbert will be able to make the improvements to his game that will push him to the next level. He has work to do, but the rewards could be Haden-esque, if he succeeds. He has the talents, the natural ability, and the skeleton of what his technique should become. Gilbert can be an All-Pro cornerback, he has the talent, but whether or not he reaches that level will come down to how he capitalizes on the God-given talent to improve his technique.
Film via Draft Breakdown; Photo via Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports