Going into the NFL Draft, I personally did not like cornerback Justin Gilbert much as a prospect and I stand by my evaluation of him. Having had time to think about Gilbert and what he does well and how it can be used within Mike Pettine’s defense, while I still have significant questions about Gilbert, I can appreciate his fit within the scheme and what it will allow the Cleveland Browns to do.
Gilbert has prototypical size (6’ 202lbs”) and speed (4.37 40) for the position. He absolutely looks the part and has shown great ball skills with the ability not only to cause turnovers but potentially score with the ball in his hands, thanks in part to his experience as a returner on special teams.
Gilbert has shown at times he can really do a great job in coverage, mirroring routes and being able to play in the opponent’s hip pocket. He has the hips and quickness to do the job, though his agility is not ideal. His arm length (33 1/8”) and overall strength gives him all of the capability in the world to play press and he is at his best playing up on the line of scrimmage man to man with an opponent.
The problems for Gilbert come in taking false steps. Especially in off man coverage, Gilbert will make missteps in coverage and give up a ton of separation for receivers that are able to capitalize and make a number of plays on him. At times, he has given up some big days to opponents as a result.
Despite being as big and strong as he is, the next time Gilbert makes a tackle might be the first. Along with issues with immaturity and not always being the hardest worker, Gilbert looks at the running game as something that happens in between passes rather than an opportunity to make a big time impact. From a personal taste standpoint, that is incredibly frustrating.
Taking out the fact that head coach Mike Pettine and his staff will have to make him work harder in being physical, particularly against the run, taking Gilbert as he is does give the Browns options on defense. First, thankfully, Gilbert will man the weak side of the defense where a team usually runs the least. Gilbert can play out on an island in coverage. While he will occasionally make false steps in coverage, they tend to be on the conservative side, so he may give up passes to his side, they are in front of him, so he will not lose his shirt.
Gilbert can play up in press and presumably, he and Joe Haden will be doing that quite a bit while the defense brings a good amount of pressure from the front seven, which will hopefully remind some of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield in the 80’s in a meaningful way.
After many fans were ready to ditch Buster Skrine, he had a significantly better third year in the league. Now, he can slide inside and work the slot, which is where he has been most comfortable and effective. On paper, this gives the Browns three corners that can really cover the opponent and make it difficult for opposing passers on where to throw the football.
The fact that Gilbert can be left on an island, even if the Browns do not want to do it all the time, means they can be creative with how they want to use their safeties and linebackers. Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson will be able to do a number of different things. They can help over the top if needed, but Pettine has favored a single high safety look, which would be Gipson. Whitner can come down and help in the box against the run, play man coverage or box coverage against tight ends or play underneath zone in hopes of intercepting underneath passes.
For the linebackers, this gives them options in a few ways. The Browns brought in Chris Kirksey in part because he can be such an asset in coverage. He can fly around the field and help in a few different ways. It gives them options on how they want to use him in coverage as well as if they want to blitz him or use any of the number of other pass rushers they have to get after the quarterback. Quite simply, if the Browns can hold coverage with five or six players, they can attack with the remaining players on the field.
Gilbert has a number of questions to answer. Is he going to actually tackle someone? Is he going to mature and prepare like a professional? These were questions he was facing as he came out of college. If he can do those things, he can be a star in the league. While he is not perfect in coverage, he can certainly help the Browns and they appear to be preparing to use him in a manner that allows him to give them the best of what he can do. On paper, the Browns have a really impressive set of corners at their disposal that should really open up the defensive playbook for the team and use their talented front seven to the best of their abilities.