Originally in possession of the fourth-overall pick in the opening round, the Browns chose to trade down with the Buffalo Bills to the ninth-overall spot, earning a 2015 first-round and fourth-round selection. They later traded up one spot, to eight, with the Minnesota Vikings, sacrificing their fifth-round draft pick for the honor.
While many had the Browns linked to offensive players with their first of two first-round picks, from quarterback Johnny Manziel to wide receivers Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins or even an offensive tackle, such as Jake Matthews, the team opted to take a position on defense, new head coach Mike Pettine's specialty.
The pick, while seemingly unorthodox, does reflect Pettine's defensive philosophy. As ClevelandBrowns.com's Vic Carucci notes, Pettine wanted the tallest, first-round graded cornerback he could get and Gilbert fits that mold.
Though Pettine's defense is known for its upfront pressure, that pressure is best effective when assisted by a top-tier secondary.
Think not to Pettine's single year as the Bills defensive coordinator and think to his time with the New York Jets, when he had a cornerback tandem in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. That's what he'd like to replicate in Cleveland, and that's not going to happen when Joe Haden is paired up with Buster Skrine. With Gilbert, however, it's far more possible.
Skrine was a converted slot corner who started outside alongside Haden in 2013 under the team's previous regime, led by head coach Rob Chudzinski. Last year, Skrine was fifth on Cleveland's defense in total tackles, with 65. He also had one sack, 18 passes defensed and an interception.
However, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Skrine ranked just 106 out of 110 cornerbacks in 2013. He gave up catches on 56.4 percent of his targets but most importantly gave up 667 total yards, 314 yards after the catch and nine touchdowns on receivers he was covering.
In contrast, Haden ranked 18th, gave up only 169 yards after the catch and allowed just six touchdowns on 55 receptions. He also had four interceptions.
Gilbert, at 6'0" and 202 pounds, is more suited to work the outside than the 5'9", 185-pound Skrine. CBS Sports' Rob Rang says that Gilbert is the most athletic cornerback in the draft, with the speed and fluidity to make him a prototype at the position. In his career at Oklahoma State, he racked up 182 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 12 interceptions, two touchdowns and 32 passes defensed.
What Pettine sees in Gilbert is what he sees in all of his ideal defensive players—speed, aggressiveness, more-than-ideal size and the willingness to play physically and make big hits. When the Browns' front seven can't reach the quarterback, the cornerback tandem of Gilbert and Haden will certainly be able to clean up in the secondary.
|Justin Gilbert at Oklahoma State|
While general manager Ray Farmer is running the Browns' draft show, the team's ultimate selection of Gilbert has Pettine's fingerprints all over it. And it cannot be denied that another, shutdown-style cornerback was among the Browns' bigger draft priorities this year.
The two trades that led the Browns to Gilbert—and even the Gilbert pick itself—were certainly unexpected. But it's not unexpected that Pettine would have eyes for a corner of Gilbert's style.
It's also a sign that the organization as a whole trusts their new, first-time head coach enough to allow him to get his preferred corner in Round 1, rather than the "expected" quarterback or wide receiver.