Why Justin Gilbert Is the Most Exciting CB in the 2014 NFL Draft

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IMay 4, 2014

Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert (No. 4, above) was a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.
Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert (No. 4, above) was a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.Brett Deering/Getty Images

You could use a lot of words to describe Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert.

CBS Sports' scouting report contains 473 words of text about GilbertNolan Nawrocki of NFL.com wrote 506 words. But at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, when Gilbert was asked to use one word to describe his game, he chose the one that lies furthest from the truth.

"Solid. My game is solid," he said.

Solid describes my peanut butter-and-blackberry jelly sandwich for lunch.


This is not solid. This is electric.

Gilbert has the rare combination of size and speed that is generating buzz about a future as a shutdown cornerback in the NFL. At 6'0", 202 pounds, with 33.125" arms, he has the long frame to lock horns one-on-one with the best receivers in the league. He also has the speed to match up with them stride-for-stride, as shown in running a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the combine, the fastest time for any cornerback this year.

That's not just track speed either. Gilbert's speed shows up on the field in pads, as well. He returned two of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns and added six kickoff return touchdowns, just one shy of the NCAA career record of seven, shared by C.J. Spiller (RB, Clemson, 2006-09) and Tyron Carrier (WR, Houston, 2008-11). 

Gilbert's big-play ability should come as no surprise. He played cornerback at Oklahoma State, but he was recruited as a wide receiver. His experience as a pass-catcher gives him good hands and speaks volumes to his ability to match up with big receivers in the NFL. 

He has earned some lofty comparisons for his combination of shutdown coverage ability and blazing-fast speed with the ball in his hands.

Gilbert is not shy about acknowledging that comparison and taking it one step further.

"I believe I'm the best cornerback in this draft. I model my style of play after Patrick Peterson," Gilbert said, according to Jim Corbett of USA Today. "If Deion Sanders was still playing, I'd compare myself to him. Not a lot of corners have my return ability. When I catch an interception, I'm not just looking to go down. I'm looking to do something after the catch."

His abilities as a return man are the exclamation point on his exciting style of play, but the real substance is his coverage ability.

Gilbert is at his best when asked to man-up against a receiver in press coverage, disrupting the receiver's release off the line of scrimmage and then following the receiver as he runs around the field. 

Source: DraftAnalysis.org, via YouTube

His technique on this deep ball against West Virginia was perfect. He got his hands on the receiver as soon as he released off the line, forcing him outside. Then, Gilbert quickly flipped his hips to run with the receiver down field. Once they neared the end zone, he turned his head to look for the ball. He then timed his jump perfectly, swatting the ball away and nearly coming down with the interception.

Beyond the advantage of having an understanding of routes and route concepts, how certain routes are meant to attack certain coverage and the intricacies of film study and knowledge of the game, some of the skills he learned as a receiver translate directly to the cornerback position. 

Source: DraftAnalysis.org, via YouTube

Watch his second interception against Texas, in coverage on a deep ball intended for wide receiver Kendall Sanders. By the halfway mark of the above clip, it's no longer clear whether Gilbert or Sanders is the one running the route. By that point, Gilbert has become a receiver, turning his head to track the ball in flight downfield, winning inside leverage against the receiver and extending his arms at just the right time to make the grab.

Indeed, Gilbert's big-play ability extends beyond simply having the ball in his hands. With his experience as a receiver, he can make big plays in order to get the ball in his hands as well. 

With 33.125" arms that measure longer than 93 percent of cornerbacks in the 2014 draft class, according to MockDraftable.com, he is able to get his hands on a lot of balls that are meant to go over his head. He consistently shows the ability to pluck the ball away from his frame, which is impressive, considering his smaller-than-normal 8.625" hands (11th percentile among corners in the 2014 draft class, per MockDraftable.com). 

Gilbert's highlight reels showcase his playmaking potential and excitement factor, but there's another reason "solid" doesn't quite describe him as a prospect. "Solid" implies a level of consistency that is absent from his game.

Every player has strengths and weaknesses, but the weaknesses listed by Rob Rang of CBS Sports read as a laundry list of mental and fundamental errors that need to be cleaned up for this boom-or-bust prospect to develop into a "solid" first-round pick:

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. Gilbert can get himself in trouble when biting on fakes and pumps as he's highly aggressive.

The Oklahoma State defense employed mainly press man coverage (around 70 percent of the time, according to Gilbert), but he was exploited at times when he lined up off the line of scrimmage.

Source: DraftAnalysis.org, via YouTube

He was in off coverage on the above play against West Virginia receiver Kevin White, and his poor footwork was on display for the world to see. He got high in his backpedal off the snap and took a false step at the top of his route. Was the route designed to take advantage of the cushion? Yes. Does that necessarily mean Gilbert could do nothing to stop it? No. 

This can happen to cornerbacks in man coverage at every level of play. You live by man coverage, and you die by it. He and his coaches know where he needs to improve and can work to polish those areas of his game. 

Shortcomings aside, there are still plenty of teams that would make a nice home for Gilbert. 

Teams in need of a cornerback
PickTeamDefensive scheme
7Tampa Bay BuccaneersTampa 2
10Detroit LionsVersatile
11Tennessee TitansVersatile
12New York GiantsVersatile
14Chicago BearsCover 2
15Pittsburgh SteelersZone blitz
18New York JetsMan
20Arizona CardinalsMan
24Cincinnati BengalsVersatile
25San Diego ChargersVersatile
27New Orleans SaintsMan
30San Francisco 49ersZone blitz
31Denver BroncosMan
Source: Erik Frenz, Bleacher Report

There's a sweet spot from picks No. 10 to 20 with several teams in need of a cornerback, and Gilbert would be a fit for nearly any of those defensive schemes (save for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose corners play off and zone often as a result of Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme). 

The other top cornerback in the draft, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, may be a better fit to be described as "solid," but any team searching for the corner with the highest ceiling should look no further than Gilbert.

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Combine measurements and workout numbers provided by NFL.com.


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