As a Cleveland Browns fan, the NFL Draft is routinely a combination of hope and sorrow. Seemingly producing impact players year in and year out for every other team but the one that plays on the shores of Lake Erie, the draft has become an enigma for those who hope for this once proud franchise to return to its winning ways.
In what was the beginning of yet another regime in the front office and another new head coach, the 2014 season would be proceeded by a draft in which the Browns had an opportunity to make a major splash. With new general manager, Ray Farmer, leading the organization into their War Room on Thursday May 8th, it was time for a changing of the guard—with hopefully the addition of two franchise cornerstones in the first round that night.
Owners of picks No. 4 and No. 26 prior to the beginning of the draft with major holes at both quarterback and wide receiver, it seemed simple—take those positions and have praise showered on you from the masses heading into day two. Instead, Farmer and company shocked many right at the beginning of the draft—opting to trade out of No. 4 with two heralded receivers, Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, sitting there prime for the picking.
When news of the move came out, anger and shock came over the draft party we were hosting with the No Static Radio team. Instantly my phone rang from someone close to the organization, “The Browns are targeting the corner from Oklahoma State, Justin Gilbert.” Sitting near me was Browns great, Hanford Dixon, who had been on our draft show earlier in the day—I whispered it to him and a look of bewilderment came over his face, as he seemingly shook his head and walked away. An earlier proponent and fan of Buster Skrine, he—like the rest of us—did not understand why the Browns just traded down from No. 4 to No. 9 with the Buffalo Bills looking to target a corner.
The deal was announced, the Browns had traded the No. 4 overall pick (the Bills selected Watkins) for the No. 9 pick in 2014, a first-round pick in 2015 and a fourth-round pick in 2015. At this time, prior to the selection of Gilbert of course, the haul did not look that bad. Even though my phone call stated it would be Gilbert, the fan in me hung onto a shred of hope that Evans would fall to No. 9 and force Farmer into taking the big-time receiver out of Texas A&M.
But then it happened, Evans went No. 7 to Tampa Bay and Farmer and company instantly moved from No. 9 to No. 8 with Minnesota to select Gilbert. In what would later turn into a room of sheer excitement and emotion, anger and screams of “Who” rained down from the rafters of the draft party. At one point, someone started chanting “Johnny…Johnny,” which as we all know would foreshadow later draft events from that night.
The moment the Browns selected Gilbert my phone again blew up, “Pettine is excited, thinks we will have the next great CB duo in the league.” Then another message came through, “You guys just landed the next bust corner in the NFL Draft.” At this point my interest was piqued, “He cannot be that bad, can he?” The person on the end messaged back, “Does not have it between the ears, poor technique…not the next Patrick Peterson that everyone keeps touting him as.”
Now, while corner was nowhere near the top of my list in the 2014 NFL Draft, the size and speed combination of Gilbert were intriguing. 6’0” and 202 pounds, runs a 4.31 40-yard dash and just finished his final season with seven interceptions. For his career, Gilbert left Oklahoma State with 12 total interceptions with a moniker of “ballhawk” virtually stamped on the outside of his helmet.
His new head coach fawned about Gilbert at the post-draft press conference. Pettine started off saying, “I think they can be if you handle it right. There will be some situations… That’s why it’s nice to have Joe (Haden) on the other side to help Justin (Gilbert) out some, but we’re very confident in his ability and I’ve seen rookies that have been able to come in and make an impact.”
Pettine continued in response to a rookie corner playing early being easier than a quarterback, “I think so just because of the degree of learning, the complexity of learning an entire offense, what all 11 (players) have to do (on offense). I think for a corner you can really simplify it for him, but it is a lot to throw at a rookie to do that, but he’s going to come in and compete just like Johnny (Manziel) will compete on the other side.”
Talking about Gilbert’s ability, Pettine stated, “He’s an exceptional athlete. He has elite man-cover skills. The shortcomings of the things we feel are there are easily corrected through coaching so we were thrilled to be able to turn the card in.”
Elite man-cover skills, shortcomings can be easily corrected and thrilled to be able to turn the card in are three things I am willing to venture Pettine would want to take back a little over a year later. Gilbert has been lost during his time with the team, falling below undrafted free agent rookies and fourth-round draft picks on the depth chart—forcing his front office to go out and sign a veteran cornerback in Tramon Williams this offseason. If you have been living under a rock and do not know what I’m talking about, give “Justin Gilbert” a search on Twitter and the world will inform you.
Gilbert was known as very confident coming into the league, and those around him still claim he has not lost an ounce of it. Even after getting beat up and down the field by Washington Redskins receivers in the first game of preseason, he referred to his play in the game as “Flawless.” Now, we all know it was closer to dog you know what than flawless, but you get the picture—Gilbert is at least pretending like he still has that confidence.
— NFL France News (@NFLFrance_news) August 14, 2015
Herein lies the problem with Gilbert, we all knew it would not be a problem of confidence with him—nor would it be a problem with measurables. No, the problem was that a second-round cornerback was taken No. 8 with the expectation of forming one of the league’s best duos with Joe Haden. And those lofty expectations set by analysts, media members, the front office, coaching staff and fans ended up being just part of the problem—Justin Gilbert was not and still is not, ready to play at the NFL level.
Justin Gilbert is flawlessly allowing Sammy Watkins and the Bills receivers to catch a ton of passes during the joint practice. — Chris Fedor (@ChrisFedor) August 17, 2015
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports summed it up in his pre-draft scouting report of Gilbert which had him listed as a second-round prospect and the No. 5 overall corner in the draft. “Choppy, hectic feet and plays too much on his heels, struggling to stay low and balanced in his moments…gets lazy with his footwork and his technique needs an overhaul, opening his hips too early and leaning his body, struggling to recover—plays too tall and struggles to stay balanced, low and explode out of his stance…too easily bites on fakes and pumps and will get himself in trouble with his aggressive confidence…too grabby and physical down the field and needs to eliminate the holding and PI penalties…inconsistent in run support with streaky tackling technique, taking questionable angles and appearing hesitant with contact – also struggles to get off blocks.”
Whoa, that is a pretty damning scouting report on a player who had been compared to Peterson throughout the draft process—another raw guy who took time to “get it.” But Brugler was not done there, “…He (Gilbert) is dripping with natural talent and has high NFL upside if he fixes his technique and stay (s) focused – 1st round tools and might be the top CB drafted, but inconsistent discipline and fundamentals earn him a 2nd round grade.”
So, if a well-known Draft pundit like Brugler can see this from film study, why did the Browns front office ignore the obvious major project that he was? That is the million dollar question the team is now forced to deal with day in and day out as he continues to not only get beat by starting receivers in practice, but undrafted, fringe roster players for the Buffalo Bills this week before going down with an injury on Tuesday night.
Allow me to put this frankly in regard to Gilbert. His struggles are not shocking to this writer, and if you want to point the finger of blame on anyone in regard to his development (lack thereof) and current standing on the depth chart—go ahead and cast those blame stones right at Farmer, Pettine and the defensive staff. They were the ones who thought they could work with him and overcome the “shortcomings” as Pettine put it.
Could things click for Gilbert one day that make us all forget about the first year or so of his career? Certainly, but right now things do not look good as 2014 fourth-round pick Pierre Desir was drawing more reps at corner and a higher standing on the depth chart prior to an injury not too long ago. With a front office that puts a premium on production and not draft position, Gilbert isn’t going to receive any favors from the duo that drafted him—even if it draws the ire of fans who wanted Watkins, Evans, Khalil Mack or Odell Beckham Jr.
No, the only thing that is certain right now is the Browns roster—and by extension, the fans—are stuck with Gilbert for better or worse until 2018. Because when you draft a rookie cornerback No. 8 overall and pay him $12.8 million over the course of four years with a $7.6 million signing bonus, there is no way the Browns will cut him.
In fact, as the media and fans continue to pile on top of Gilbert’s poor play with constant reminders of how bad he has been in his first year-plus here, the calls to cut Gilbert should be much different. At this point, expectations out of Gilbert should be gone—instead replaced with calls for development and a prayer he develops into 75 percent of the corner Pettine thought he was getting.
The deficiencies with Gilbert have already reared their angry head, and do not look to be fading any time soon. But what else isn’t fading is the talk of another wasted high first-round pick, and there is no way the Browns will be able to recoup a shred of the cost they paid to get Gilbert.
So while the rest of the world wants to continue to destroy Gilbert for his performance, it is time to get your last insults out of your system and tuck them away. We cannot go back and take Watkins, Evans or Beckham Jr.—no, the commissioner isn’t walking through that door to give the Cleveland Browns a re-do in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
The only hope for Gilbert now is to take the spotlight out of his face and let him fade into the “project development” portion of the roster, no matter how much it kills us as fans and critics of an organization that has continuously failed to deliver in the first round.