Should Browns fans be worried about Justin Gilbert?


Dec 7, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert (21) celebrates a touchdown on an interception return during the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Colts beat the Browns 25-24. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In a different era, or under a different coaching regime, the narrative surrounding Justin Gilbert would be far different than it is today.

Gilbert, the second-year cornerback out of Oklahoma State, would be lining up each day in training camp as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks. Day after day, through good and bad, he would be with the first-team defense.

And come the season’s first game there is no doubt where he would be the starting corner opposite Joe Haden, either because Gilbert earned it or because of his status as a No. 1 draft pick.

We’ve seen it before with countless players – Gerard Warren, William Green and Kamerion Wimbley come to mind – over the years with the Browns.

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That has all changed under head coach Mike Pettine, who has laid out a clear and definitive path for any player that wants to see the field: work hard and produce and you will earn you place on the field.

While that is definitely a longterm platform we can get behind, it does leave us pondering if the time has arrived to start worrying about Gilbert.

“It’s just a matter of time before it’s my time to get out there and really show what I’m worth.” – Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert

This isn’t a question of Gilbert’s talent, even thought we’ve seen some revisionists try to paint him as a reach in the 2014 NFL Draft. Gilbert is not in the category of Mike Junkin or Chaun Thompson, players that not a single team in the NFL was looking at when the Browns over-reached to draft them, but was considered a Top 10 selection in the draft. Let’s revisit what his draft profile had to say:

"The most talented cover corner in this year’s draft class, Gilbert has size, speed and flexibility to blanket receivers at the next level. Also brings impact ability as a kick returner. Is capable of stepping into the starting lineup from Day 1 and playing at a high level if he adheres to a professional approach to the craft. Could stand to improve in run support."

So if it is not talent, then what is giving us agita about Gilbert? The answer lies in this sentence from the above paragraph: Is capable of stepping into the starting lineup from Day 1 and playing at a high level if he adheres to a professional approach to the craft.

If there is one thing that Gilbert most certainly did not do as a rookie was “adhere to a professional approach to his craft” as his problems were well documented. He 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 Pettine had enough.

We were encouraged, as we’re sure the coaches and many fans were, when reports came out during the off-season that Gilbert was working with Haden down in Florida. It seemed that the switch had been flipped and Gilbert was starting to realize what it meant to be a player in the NFL.

“When you create competition, you have to be fair and whoever earns it is going to be the next guy in.” – Secondary coach Jeff Hafley

Then came the past few days of training camp practice.

It’s not that Pierre Desir took the first-team reps each day while Haden and Tramon Williams enjoyed their veteran’s day off – remember, having to earn your place on the field is good – but that Gilbert seemed to adopt a “whatever” attitude to the situation.

“(It’s) a big thing for me,” Gilbert said. “Just coming, making plays on a consistent basis and just being alert in the meeting room and being involved and really wanting to be here. We’ll see what happens.”

We’ll see what happens? That doesn’t really sound like a player who is ready to fight for playing time in a talented secondary.

On the one hand, Gilbert seems to get it, telling Northeast Ohio Media Group that, “(Desir’s) definitely earned to be out there getting those reps. He’s a guy that comes in every day and works hard. He’s the same guy every day, asking questions. He just works his tail off.”

But then, Gilbert seems to be in a bit of denial about his current situation. Even though secondary coach Jeff Hafley pointed out that the team needs to see consistency if a player wants to be on the field, Gilbert maintains that he hasn’t “struggled with it lately.”

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That is what is troubling us about Gilbert right now: the coaches are handing him a map to be successful but it sounds like he is unable or unwilling to follow it. We’ve all heard how Haden is working with Terrelle Pryor as Pryor tries to make the transition to wide receiver; there’s no reason to think Haden or Williams wouldn’t do the same with Gilbert if he reached out to them. (In fairness to Gilbert, we have no idea if he has done so or not.)

Playing cornerback in the NFL isn’t easy either, just ask Buster Skrine, and Gilbert isn’t the first cornerback to struggle as a rookie. The NFL has been selecting a Defensive Rookie of the Year award since 1967 and only six cornerbacks have received the honor, with Charles Woodson being the last in 1998.

“Running back, linebackers, d-linemen, offensive linemen, you’re in the bike lane, man,” former cornerback Eric Davis told prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. “You’re in the pedestrian lane. You get outside the numbers, that’s the Autobahn. High-speed collisions, and there’s a fatality in every one of them.”

Gilbert is talented enough, and the opportunities are plentiful enough, that he can find a place on the field for the Browns. We’re just not sure if the attitude is there to match.

Which puts the worry meter somewhere around “mildly concerned.”

What do you think is holding Justin Gilbert back?

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