Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert has been an enigma (to say the least) ever since the team selected him with the eighth-overall selection of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Expected to earn playing time as a rookie before taking over a starting role opposite Joe Haden this season, giving the Browns a modern-day Hanford Dixon-Frank Minnifield duo to terrorize opposing offenses, Gilbert has continually lost playing time to a host of other players.
On the rare times that Gilbert has joined the defensive huddle, he’s occasionally flashed his talent (most notably last season against Indianapolis) but more often than not has struggled.
While there are fans who continue to make excuses for why Gilbert is not on the field, there is one person and one person alone who is keeping Gilbert on the sidelines.
And that is Justin Gilbert.
Secondary coach Jeff Hafley met with the media earlier this week and, just like head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, laid out a simple and direct path for Gilbert to follow if he wants to see more playing time.
“Be consistent in practice with his technique. Be consistent in the meeting room. Come out every day and compete. Show us and his teammates that he deserves to be out there on the field,” Hafley said. “I think what everybody has seen is that the guys that go out and practice the best and the guys we believe give us the best chance, we are going to play those guys.
“You have to go out and you have to practice. If a guy is practicing the best and he shows it, you have to go with that guy. There is no magic to this game. It is not a fairy tale where you have a bad week of practice and then you play a guy and he goes in and plays great. It doesn’t happen. We have to keep working to get him better. I know that. We have and we will continue to.”
The Browns have a lot invested in Gilbert and the notion that they will just give up on him is ridiculous. But they are also not going to just give him playing time because of his draft status, which means Gilbert needs to continue to work on what it takes to be a professional.
If Gilbert wants to see how it can be accomplished, all he has to do is look across the locker room at his fellow first-round pick from 2014, quarterback Johnny Manziel.
After embarrassing himself and the team as a rookie, the Browns built a clear plan to rebuild Manziel’s game. Manziel bought into the plan, worked with the coaching staff, and everyone is now starting to see the payoff.
In just under a year, Manziel has gone from being a quarterback who threw for 80 yards and posted a quarterback rating of 27.3 against the Cincinnati Bengals, to one who completed 73 percent of his passes and threw for 372 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (OK, even if it was against the Steelers, it is still encouraging.)
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Manziel has now, at the very least, put himself back in the discussion when it comes to the quarterback position – not only for the final six games of this season, but next year as well.
It’s now Gilbert’s turn.
This isn’t about not making a mistake or giving up a completion, that is going to happen. It’s about practicing the same every day and about not taking plays off on Sundays. It’s about doing what the coaches ask you to do on a daily basis.
Gilbert’s struggles as a rookie necessitated that the Browns sign Tramon Williams as a free agent this past off-season. While Williams has been the best cornerback on the team this season, he is 32-years-old and finishing up his 10th season in the NFL, meaning he is closer to the end than he is the beginning.
If Gilbert can pull it together over the final six weeks of the season, and then carry that over into 2016, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to start repaying the Browns for all the work they have invested in him.
There is a clear path open in front of Gilbert.
The only question is if he is ready to start traversing it.