The SI 64, No. 14: CB Justin Gilbert
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. Holding the No. 14 spot in our rankings is a defensive back that may be of great interest to a couple teams in the top 10 ... and who likely will not slip far beyond the mid-portion of Round 1.
No. 14: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Bio: The list of college players who at least matched Gilbert's interception total in 2012 included, well ... everyone.
Off a sophomore season that saw him pick off five passes, Gilbert was shut out in that category as a junior. Even though he stands 6-foot with 4.4 speed, Gilbert found himself in need of a major rebound before even dreaming about an NFL future.
He delivered it, and then some last year. Gilbert stormed his way into the conversation for the Jim Thorpe Award, handed out annually to the nation's top defensive back, on the strength of seven INTs and often dominant work at cornerback. Gilbert took two of those turnovers back to the house.
The 2012 slump remains on Gilbert's record as a cautionary tale. But NFL teams are far more intrigued by his exhilarating 2013 performance.
"Last year I was on him, [Oklahoma State cornerbacks coach Van Malone] was on him, the media was on him. Everybody was on him for not playing well," Cowboys head coach Mike Van Gundy said, via NewsOK.com, after his team knocked off Texas last season. Gilbert helped secure that victory with a high-stepping pick-six just before halftime.
"What a great example of a young man not listening to outside sources and just worrying about what really matters," Gundy said. "He has come back and he has played terrific this year. He has played the way he should."
As if establishing himself as arguably the 2014 draft's most appealing cornerback was not enough, Gilbert also piled on to his impressive résumé as a kick-returner last season. The week prior to that key win over Texas, Gilbert broke free for a 100-yard kickoff return -- the sixth special-teams touchdown of his college career.
Gilbert flashed the speed required for that level of success during February's NFL scouting combine, his 4.37 40 time one of the standout marks of the week. He did not run again at Oklahoma State's more recent pro day, but he did boost his scores in a couple of other footwork-related areas, like the three-cone drill. There really is no doubt that Gilbert has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. Being able to translate the size-speed-strength combo onto the field, as he did last season, would give him a shot to be a No. 1 cornerback in the pros.
"Yeah, I think I'm the best corner in the draft," Gilbert said. "To be in the position I am ... I'm not going to let anyone take that from me."
Strengths: Gilbert's raw speed allows him to cover a ton of ground, plus helps him recover from any mistakes he may make. As he stated at the combine, with the ball in his hands he's a constant threat to go the distance, be it off an interception or on a kick return. Receivers almost never blow past him on straight-line routes, further evidence that he's as fast as the 40 time made him look.
Height and leaping ability make Gilbert a menace in the air -- the pick-six he pulled off versus Texas came after he planted, then leaped toward the sideline in front of a receiver. Takes advantage of his size when playing in press coverage (though, not always effectively, as we'll touch on shortly). Tough to beat over the middle because of how well he can get his foot into the ground, then transfer to top speed.
His ability to step in as a return man will earn him extra points. Barring an injury, the worst-case scenario for Gilbert heading into camp is that he competes for a No. 2 or No. 3 cornerback job while contributing heavily on special teams. He is very smooth with the ball in his hands, and made catches on interceptions that some receivers might have struggled to make.
Weaknesses: As with another projected Round 1 cornerback, Darqueze Dennard, Gilbert almost invites officials to flag him with his contact in coverage. Dennard can get himself into trouble attempting to maintain a jam; Gilbert has more issues downfield, where he'll lunge and put himself in tough positions on deep balls. Some of that could be rectified if Gilbert continues to improve reading plays -- right now, he can hang himself out to dry on well-run routes because he's constantly hunting for an interception.
Effective as a tackler, but not overly eager to get involved, especially in the run game. Considering how physical he can be in man-coverage, it would be nice to see him translate that edge over to tracking ballcarriers. As with a quarterback who tries to overcompensate for poor reads with a strong arm, Gilbert puts almost too much faith in his speed, which may not fly quite as comfortably in the NFL.
Conclusion: Gilbert is going to be a top-20 pick. He might even be a top-10 pick, depending on how eager a couple teams in need of a cornerback are to fix their weakness. We're not talking about a prospect who figures to play mostly in the slot or who will need a year or two before he's ready -- Gilbert will be drafted to start the season as a top-two cornerback on a team.
There are areas in which he can improve, starting with ironing out his consistency so a 2012 repeat does not occur. Nothing under that umbrella should scare a front office away, though.