The Browns have been as active as any team could be in this draft, moving back from the fourth overall pick so that the Bills could take Sammy Watkins, and then moving from the ninth pick to the eighth to take Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. Gilbert really turned heads at the combine when he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash and blew up the positional drills. Pairing Gilbert with Joe Haden gives the Browns perhaps the best cornerback duo in the AFC North.
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 because 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.
The Browns and new head coach Mike Pettine pick up a major asset in Gilbert, making their defense that much more formidable. They'll just have to hope that the much-needed quarterback they desire is there later in the first round.
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