In a National Football League where the single-season records for passing yardage and touchdowns have each fallen twice since 2007, good cornerbacks are worth their weight in gold.
In the 2014 NFL draft, the general consensus is that Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert is the cream of this year's crop at the cornerback spot, a player who Rob Rang of CBS Sports called "the class of the 2014 NFL draft in terms of pure athleticism."
The 6'0", 202-pounder will all but certainly be a first-round pick. Gilbert may not make it out of the top 10.
The question facing NFL teams is whether Gilbert will be the next great NFL cornerback, or just the latest in a group of highly-heralded young players at the position who have struggled early in their careers.
Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, who projected Gilbert to be drafted at No. 11 by the Tennessee Titans, doesn't think there's any question Gilbert is this year's top cornerback prospect:
Gilbert has the size and speed to be a press-coverage cornerback and excel as a ball hawk. He also brings big value as a return man, as his open-field speed shows on defense and special teams. And what you like best about Gilbert is that he's NFL ready and can instantly step in and produce as a boundary cornerback matched up against top-tier wide receivers.
As Bryan Fischer of NFL.com reports, colleague Daniel Jeremiah agrees with Miller wholeheartedly:
This is a good group of corners, but to me, he's head and shoulders over everybody else. He has that prototypical size, length and ability to go up and play the football down the field. That's what he does better than anybody else in this draft class.
Granted, it's not hard to see what those draftniks like about Gilbert.
In an era when bigger, more physical cornerbacks are all the rage in the NFL, Gilbert has the size and physicality to hold his own in press coverage.
However, there's a downside to Gilbert's willingness to get dirty in Rang's opinion:
Gilbert can be physical and tough in press coverage, but his technique and footwork are inconsistent. He is too grabby in tight coverage, and his contact downfield will easily attract penalties at the next level.
Much of that should be remediable with coaching. Gilbert will just need to learn that what was "letting them play" in Stillwater is a 15-yard flag all day long in the NFL.
Like the Georgia Satellites said, keep your hands to yourself.
Anyway, it's not Gilbert's hands that NFL teams are really interested in, although seven interceptions as a senior would seem to indicate those are pretty good.
To put it bluntly (and understate things), Justin Gilbert is pretty fast.
Gilbert's 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine in February was the fastest among defensive backs, and the fourth fastest among all players in Indy, according to NFL.com.
Gilbert also fared well in drills, impressing Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, who was himself the first cornerback drafted in 2010.
From USA Today's Nate Davis:
"Justin, he really impressed me," said Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler Joe Haden, the first corner drafted in 2010 (seventh overall), while assessing the newcomers in a guest analyst role for NFL Network. "He looked so smooth coming out of his breaks, transition, catching the ball at the highest point. He just looked really, really fluid."
Of course, Gilbert isn't just quick in shorts on a track.
He's pretty fast on a football field too.
In addition to being one of college football's best defensive backs, Gilbert was also one of the country's best kick returners in 2013. Gilbert averaged over 25 yards a return a year ago, and during his time with the Cowboys, Gilbert brought half a dozen kicks back for scores.
It's one more thing to add to the pile of items Gilbert brings to the table for NFL teams.
Like any young prospect, Gilbert isn't perfect. As Rang writes, "Gilbert can get himself in trouble when biting on fakes and pumps as he's highly aggressive." His backpedal isn't great nor is he especially fluid when transitioning from that backpedal to a sprint.
However, as Davis points out, even Gilbert knows that given what he said in his interview at the combine:
I was a terrible backpedaler, especially when I first got there (Oklahoma State), because I was a quarterback in high school. So defensive back was new to me. I have long legs, short torso. So it's kind of hard for me to get my hips down and turn around and all that. But the more you work at it, the better you get at it.
It's a laudable attitude. Assuming he means it, most of Gilbert's flaws will lessen as he acclimates to the NFL and gets coached up.
Where Should Justin Gilbert Be Drafted?
It's the physical tools that are so tantalizing, because some of those just can't be taught. You either got it, or you don't.
Especially kick returns. Much more an art than a science, or so it would appear.
The biggest obstacle to Gilbert's early success may be one that many high picks face as rookies: the weight of expectations.
Last year's ninth overall pick, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, ripped off a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. NFL.com said Milliner "was ready to use his pro-ready size, athleticism and change-of-direction ability to become a household name in the NFL."
Milliner was horrific as a rookie for the Jets. Does this make Milliner a bust? Nope. It makes him a rookie cornerback.
First-year cornerbacks routinely struggle in the NFL. Not only is the learning curve steeper than other defensive positions, but veteran quarterbacks look at rookie corners like a lion views an overweight, three-legged wildebeest.
*Rank as rookie at Pro Football Focus
In fact, of the first cornerbacks taken in the last five years, only the aforementioned Haden wasn't a train wreck in his first season. Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals ranked outside the top 100 players at his position his first year in the league.
Guessing here, but I think the Redbirds are pretty happy with that pick in retrospect.
In many respects, Gilbert is something of a cross between Haden and Peterson—bigger than Haden but not as fluid in coverage, smaller than Peterson but possessing a similar physicality in coverage and a nose for making things happen with the football.
He's also a good bet to join that pair in the Pro Bowl someday.
Just don't expect it to happen overnight.