If you were expecting Justin Gilbert to be a high-quality starting cornerback in the NFL from day one you were simply being unrealistic.
Being effective as a rookie at any position is difficult, but it's especially difficult for cornerbacks. More varied coverages and greater athletes who understand how to create separation at the wide receiver position make the differences between being an NFL cornerback and a college cornerback vast.
Only the most technically refined, impressive athletes are considered pro-ready prospects, capable of immediately transitioning into an NFL defense. In the scope of cornerback prospects, Gilbert wasn't regarded as being pro-ready.
Gilbert's promise was primarily built on his athleticism during the draft process. It was confirmed at the combine, when he measured in at 6'0" and 202 pounds while running a 4.37 40, with 33⅛" arms.
Despite his obvious athleticism, Gilbert lacked the technical refinement to be thought of as pro-ready. As shorter players, both Jason Verrett and Kyle Fuller offered more of a pro-ready skill set than Gilbert did. The Cleveland Browns still saw the value in Gilbert, though.
After initially trading down, Mike Pettine and Ray Farmar traded back up to the eighth spot in the first round of the draft to select Gilbert.
Joining Pettine immediately justified the Antonio Cromartie comparisons, as ESPN's Rich Cimini noted, that Gilbert had drawn during the draft process. Cromartie played on Rex Ryan's New York Jets team a few years ago, a team that Pettine was the defensive coordinator for before he moved on to the Buffalo Bills and subsequently the Cleveland Browns.
When the Browns drafted Gilbert, Pettine and Farmar described him as someone who "plays like a Brown," per Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal; Pettine elaborated with more specifics about his incoming rookie:
“It’s really a list of attributes when we put that out there,” Pettine said. “It’s passion, competitiveness, tough, mentally tough, physically tough, accountable. Bundled up in that, it’s a list of intangibles. ... It’s a definition for us moving forward.”
As Pettine spoke about Gilbert's mental traits, Farmar outlined how his skill set appealed to them. If they stood alone, his words could easily have been applied to Cromartie instead of Gilbert.
“He’s long. He’s fast. He’s explosive,” Farmer said Thursday night. “He’s got great arm length. He’s got the speed. He’s got the ball skills. ... He’s going to play relentless. He’s going to play at the line of scrimmage and press people.”
Farmar's description of Gilbert aligned with the Buffalo News' Vic Carucci's report that Pettine wanted the biggest cornerback who had a first-round grade from the team. Size at both the wide receiver and cornerback positions has been pushed further into the spotlight in recent years.
The success of the Seattle Seahawks and Richard Sherman has made that size-speed combination more appealing over recent years.
Players such as Sherman, Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane have all had success as 6'0"-plus cornerbacks in the Seahawks secondary over recent years. The Seahawks draft big athletes and hope to develop them over the initial stages of their careers.
For teams that draft developmental prospects, patience is crucial. Enduring inconsistency and accepting early struggles are anticipated obstacles to overcome but still much easier to accept in theory than in practice.
While understanding that developmental prospects deserve a greater margin for error, the player also needs to continually earn his spot on the roster and the right to that patience.
He does this by flashing his full potential on occasion or by showing consistency in specific areas of his skill set until he develops the others. Plenty of cornerbacks have struggled early in their careers before becoming quality starters later, but they did so while showing infrequent flashes or consistent traits.
During his rookie season, Gilbert didn't do either. Even with the lowest of expectations, Gilbert was still able to underachieve.
Gilbert didn't win the starting spot over Buster Skrine entering the season and was eventually benched from his nickel cornerback position. He continued to slide down the depth chart as the season developed, before being made inactive for missing a team meeting at the end of the year.
Along with Johnny Manziel, Gilbert drew criticism from multiple teammates for his approach as a rookie, including Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, per Northeast Ohio Media Group's Mary Kay Cabot and ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, respectively.
Pettine later suggested that Gilbert was dealing with a personal issue, according Northeast Ohio Media Group's Tom Reed, which may have had an impact on how he performed both on and off the field as a rookie.
Giving Gilbert a pass for his play as a rookie would be easier if his play hadn't been so poor and if the Browns didn't have so many more options in their secondary.
Tramon Williams is a 32-year-old cornerback whom the Browns signed in free agency this offseason to be a starter. Williams may be old, but he should still have a few quality years left in him. K'Waun Williams was an undrafted rookie last year, but he took Gilbert's spot as the nickel cornerback and outperformed him.
Jordan Poyer and Pierre Desir also took snaps from Gilbert. Poyer outperformed him, while Desir offers similar upside as a developmental defensive back.
The Browns have four entrenched starters in Joe Haden, Williams, Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner. Williams, Poyer and Desir are joined by fourth-rounder Ibraheim Campbell and sixth-rounder Charles Gaines as depth.
If the investment in each player were ignored, Gilbert would likely be fighting for his spot this season. Of course, the Browns aren't going to cut a player they picked in the top 10 after just one season, so he will be assured of his roster spot entering the 2015 season.
It's after the 2015 season when things could get interesting.
Giving up on a developmental pick after just two years would still be startling, but if Gilbert doesn't take steps forward in 2015, then the Browns will legitimately have to consider it. That is how poor his play was as a rookie.
Analytics site Pro Football Focus ranked Gilbert as the 65th-best cornerback in the NFL based on his run defense and when he was targeted in coverage. More worrisome is when you look past that sample to measure every single play he made in coverage.
Using the Pre Snap Reads method of measuring a cornerback's performance in coverage I outlined here, Gilbert had a success rate of 56 percent. The league's better cornerbacks have typically finished in the high 70s, while some have surpassed 80 and 85 percent success rates.
The simple explanation for Gilbert's PSR number means that he was beaten in coverage on every second snap when the receiver ran a route against him.
When you delve into his tape, it's easy to see why he struggled so much.
During his debut, the Pittsburgh Steelers went after Gilbert. They completed seven of eight passes against him, with Markus Wheaton breaking off a number of big plays. This play went for 40 yards and was his longest of the day.
Gilbert was lining up in a position to press Wheaton, but the receiver dropped off the line of scrimmage to prevent Gilbert from getting his hands on him.
The cornerback never attempts to touch Wheaton. He turns immediately at the line of scrimmage to run down the sideline, keeping his eyes on the receiver. Gilbert is attempting to read what Wheaton does to anticipate any back-shoulder throw before getting on top of the route to turn his eyes back infield.
Unfortunately, by taking himself further infield, Gilbert not only failed to force the receiver further toward the sideline, but he also created too much space between him and the receiver to close on a back-shoulder throw.
After running more than 20 yards downfield, Gilbert attempts to get on top of Wheaton's route and turn back to locate the football. Because he never touched Wheaton early in the route, the receiver has plenty of space outside of him. More significantly, though, Gilbert never sees the ball.
That is because the ball has already been released. Gilbert was too late to turn and locate the ball, and he couldn't make up for that because the receiver had so much space outside to work away from his contact.
When the ball arrived, Gilbert was stumbling to the ground, while Wheaton made a comfortable reception a few yards behind him. Early in the route Gilbert failed to properly position himself to cover a back-shoulder or comeback route, yet he still couldn't put himself in position to cover the deep sideline route.
This kind of loose positioning and recklessness permeated through Gilbert's play in 2014.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 9, Gilbert played just 18 of 67 snaps. Despite that, Mike Evans beat him three times in coverage—three times on double-move routes, where the receiver was wide-open downfield. Evans didn't change up what he was doing, Gilbert simply never learned.
Gilbert also presented a problem when it came to staying disciplined in zone coverage. A missed touchdown opportunity between Wheaton and Ben Roethlisberger during their second game with the Steelers stood out as particularly poor.
Those struggles would be more easily accepted if Gilbert were impressing in press-man coverage, the type of coverage he is expected to be effective in.
Any press-man coverage begins with how you handle releases. Like with most things at the cornerback position, being effective against receivers releasing from the line all starts with footwork, footwork that can be complemented by hand usage, but footwork alone is what matters most.
On this play against fellow rookie Allen Robinson, Gilbert shows off the major flaw with his play as a whole: A lack of control. Gilbert's footwork is such that he can't make subtle, precise movements. As such, he doesn't keep his weight centered in situations such as these.
Robinson makes one movement. He plants his right foot to the outside. This is a simple move for a receiver. There was nothing elaborate about it or anything particularly notable. Yet, Gilbert reacted by essentially jumping past his outside shoulder, before raising his hands in desperation to try and engage the receiver.
That completely took Gilbert out of the play as Robinson was able to slowly run away from him on a slant route. Blake Bortles even hesitated, delaying the pass to give Gilbert time to recover.
Gilbert does have recovery speed in a straight line; we know that from his combine performance. However, he lacks the ability to fluidly turn and accelerate over a short area once he has lost his balance. On this occasion, he couldn't get back into position despite how slowly the play developed.
Bad footwork is a fatal flaw for a cornerback. Gilbert appears to have poor feet, but the Browns hope that more overall comfort playing the game at this speed will help him develop more precision and subtlety.
A cornerback's feet are so important because they are instrumental to every aspect of the position. Releasing from the line, mirroring a receiver in tight coverage and adjusting in zone or off coverage requires precision, subtlety and quickness that comes from the feet.
Gilbert can't be used as an off-man cornerback. He doesn't have the skill set, and that was highlighted repeatedly during his rookie season.
Double moves were a major issue for Gilbert. He was incapable of recovering to run with receivers downfield after biting on their initial fakes. Against Jacoby Jones on this play, Gilbert lines up in off-man coverage on 2nd-and-12.
Situationally, Gilbert should understand that giving up a short reception would still set up a 3rd-and-long situation.
Gilbert has his eyes on Jones from the beginning of the play. The receiver releases into his route, directing it toward Gilbert. Instead of making a hard cut infield that would slow him down, he simply drops a shoulder, drawing the cornerback forward.
Despite the subtlety of Jones' movement, Gilbert threw himself forward. In this situation, he was playing with too aggressive a mindset.
Without the fluidity and footwork to recover from his initial mistake, Gilbert was left in Jones' wake as he ran down the sideline. Joe Flacco recognized Gilbert's mistake and sent the ball in his receiver's direction, but a drop from Jones let the cornerback off the hook.
In truth, it won't matter if Gilbert never becomes a capable off-man defender. He can become a quality starter simply by establishing his ability to play press-man coverage.
Regardless of what technique he is playing, Gilbert needs to develop an ability to find the football more consistently. On this play against Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens, Gilbert is beaten deep by the receiver from the very start of the play.
Although Smith got two steps on Gilbert in behind, Flacco's pass was woefully underthrown. It floated in the air for so long that Gilbert had time to recover, and Smith was forced to come to a complete halt. Despite that, Gilbert couldn't take advantage of this opportunity because he never tried to find the ball.
Gilbert simply reacted to Smith's movement, which is fine so long as you don't simply run through the receiver to give up an obvious penalty.
Instead of turning into Smith or trying to find the football with his eyes, Gilbert jumped into the receiver and extended his hand to grab his facemask. The ball isn't even in the above picture yet, but Gilbert doesn't know that because of how he reacted to being beat downfield.
Gilbert doesn't need to be great this year. He doesn't even need to establish himself as a starter. He simply needs to show more than he did last season.
Jimmy Smith of the Baltimore Ravens offers an example to follow. Smith struggled early in his career and has dealt with injuries. He showed a lot more than Gilbert did during his rookie season, but he didn't find consistency until his third year in the league.
If Gilbert can't take a step forward next season, that roster bubble entering 2016 will become a reality rather than a figment off in the distance.