It wasn't long ago at all that cornerback Justin Gilbert was selected eighth overall in the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns to be a future starter. In fact, it was a mere year and a half ago.
But his rookie year didn't go quite as planned. He played well on the field, allowing just 29 catches on 48 passes thrown his way for 379 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He also grabbed one interception and defended seven passes without allowing a single touchdown. But his off-the-field problems held him back.
He was benched for the final game of the season, and at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, Browns head coach Mike Pettine conceded that Gilbert's rookie season had been marred by a personal problem, the nature of which he would not elaborate on.
Even though the Browns brought on free-agent Tramon Williams and had K'Waun Williams, Pierre Desir and Joe Haden among the cornerbacks they could work with this year, the team didn't give up on Gilbert. But his summer didn't go so well—he was repeatedly burned during joint training camp practices with the Buffalo Bills. That was followed by a hip injury that cost him the remainder of camp.
|Justin Gilbert on Defense, 2014-2015|
|via Pro Football Focus|
But it looks like, barring injury, the Great Gilbert Cornerback Experiment has come to an end. And even injury itself cannot kickstart a new era of Gilbert on defense. K'Waun Williams had been dealing with a concussion for most of the start of the season, and it was Desir and Johnson Bademosi, not Gilbert, who got the nod.
As a result, Gilbert has played a mere nine defensive snaps this season. He's been named the Browns' primary kick returner by special teams coach Chris Tabor, and his coaches have also expressed willingness to potentially see what he's capable of as a wide receiver. He's worked on the punt coverage team, as well.
Gilbert has been an effective kick returner, with four returns netting a total of 125 yards this season. But it took an odd series of developments for him to get to that point, considering his draft pedigree. That's not to say that Gilbert deserves to be on the field with the defense based simply on the merit of where and when he was drafted, but it is curious to see a top-10 draft pick taking on such a limited role.
It may not be the end of Gilbert's chances to play on Cleveland's defense, but it's going to be difficult. The Browns won't be moving on from Haden next year unless they trade him, given his dead salary-cap figure of $9.6 million for 2016. Tramon Williams' dead cash is a much lower at $3.8 million next year, so it's possible that Gilbert can take over for him in a year's time.
But with K'Waun Williams, Desir and Bademosi all getting cornerback reps ahead of Gilbert this year, the climb will be a long and steep one if Gilbert wants to start in the Browns secondary moving forward. Even if Tramon Williams is no longer in Cleveland in 2016, it seems far more likely at this point that K'Waun Williams or Desir would get that job over Gilbert.
So, for now, it looks like Gilbert's usefulness as a cornerback for the Browns is essentially non-existent. It's good that he's been able to carve out a role as a kick returner and even better that his coaches like him in that role and want to keep him there for the remainder of the season.
But Gilbert was drafted to play cornerback, and that's not where he will be making his contributions in 2015.