Dec 7, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert (21) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Colts beat the Browns 25-24. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
A little more than 12 months after he walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert has transformed into the team’s invisible man.
Which is exceedingly hard to do when you were the eighth overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft.
While not as spectacular as fellow rookie Johnny Manziel‘s failed first year in Orange and Brown (and certainly not as publicized), Gilbert had a debut season in Cleveland that left him nowhere to go but up.
Gilbert did have his one shining moment, something that eluded Manziel, when he intercepted Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck during a December game, returning it 23 yards for a touchdown. But that makes for a short highlight film.
“Justin’s a very, very talented player. It’s just going to take a little bit of time.” – Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns cornerback
Gilbert saw his snap counts drop throughout the year (he was in on 59 plays in Week 1 against Pittsburgh, but just 17 in Week 16 against Carolina) as he lost playing time to undrafted free agent K’Waun Williams, was reportedly consistently late to meetings and team functions, and was inactive for the season finale in Baltimore after head coach Mike Pettine had had enough.
Fast forward to the second week of Organized Team Activities and you have to listen hard to hear Gilbert’s name.
When Whitner talks about the Browns’ secondary being one of the best in the NFL, fans immediately think of Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and Pro Bowl safety Tashaun Gipson. Or they debate if cornerback Tramon Williams, signed in free agency, has enough left after eight seasons in Green Bay. They also talk about second-year players Williams and Pierre Desir making a leap; or look ahead to 2016 when seventh-round draft pick Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will be healthy.
“The reality is that everyone wants the first ones to be great players right away: Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.” – Ray Farmer, Cleveland Browns general manager
Meanwhile, Gilbert quietly goes to work in an attempt to put 2014 solidly behind him.
And that may not be a bad thing.
While Manziel dominates all the headlines, he also spent 10 weeks of the off-season in rehab getting his personal life in order. During that same time period Gilbert was able to work on improving his on-field life, most notably working out with Haden in Florida.
“We’ve gotten very positive feedback on how his offseason is going,” Pettine said when asked about Gilbert in April. “And like every other player, we are very much looking forward to getting him in town in April and we’ll see the progress that he’s made. I thought it was great of him to go seek out Joe. I know Joe works hard in the offseason down in Miami. It was good to see it.”
If it is true, as his supporters repeatedly tell anyone who will listen, that you can’t write off Manziel after just four quarters of play (we’re not totally sold on that), then it is equally true that it would be bad form for the Browns to write off Gilbert based on a poor rookie season.
“I think that expectations for corners in this league for first year are always a lot higher than they should be. I can’t remember a rookie corner that’s had a successful season in his first year,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said about Gilbert’s first year. “I know nobody wants to hear this, but it takes time, it takes time to learn how to play corner in the NFL. Quarterbacks are too good, receivers are too good.”
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There is little doubt that Gilbert has the physical talent needed to play in the NFL – just watch the aforementioned interception return against the Colts – and that the Browns are willing (for now) to wait for the mental side of Gilbert’s game to catch up with the physical. And that could be a tall order, as O’Neil is already planning to add more to everyone’s plate now that the defense is entering the second season in his system.
Gilbert has spent the past five months as the Browns invisible man, which is OK because the calendar has just turned to June.
But when September rolls around and the games start for real, the Browns are going to need him to be anything but invisible.
And if Gilbert is up to the task, he can make the kind of headlines that the Browns and their fans want to see.
Do you think Justin Gilbert can play up to his potential in 2015?