When the Cleveland Browns selected cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, he was expected to be the lockdown cornerback to go alongside Joe Haden to stifle the opponent's pass attack for years to come. In a notorious "passing league," that is what Mike Pettine wanted to be able to do on defense, however Justin Gilbert's performance has been almost the exact opposite.
During his first two seasons in the NFL, the Oklahoma State product has played in 23 games, including just three starts. He has totaled just 33 tackles (29 solo), nine passes defended, and one interception. But, the majority of those came during his rookie season in 2014.
In 2015, Gilbert had just four tackles (all four solo) and one pass defended in just one start. Shockingly, that wasn't the most disappointing part of the season. Three times, the 24-year-old was a healthy scratch and late in the season, the cornerback was moved to a special teams and did not play defense snaps whatsoever.
While disappointing on the field, Gilbert also had issues off the field. Whether it was missing meetings due to oversleeping, being involved in a road-rage incident, alienating certain veterans on the team, or not giving 100-percent in practice, the defensive back continued to be the second biggest distraction not named Johnny Manziel. Things got so bad that even former head coach Mike Pettine stated that he regretted drafting Gilbert after being fired as the head coach of the Browns. And really, after being fired, who could blame him?
But in his second go 'round with the Browns, defensive coordinator Ray Horton believes that he and the rest of the team will be able to turn around the troubled cornerback who has plenty of talent.
Ray Horton per cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot.
"With Justin, he's a talented young man that we need to get the talent from inside of him out onto the football field. Are we treating him differently? No. We're probably on him a little bit more, but that's a part of the process because he has a little bit more. There's a verse in the Bible from Luke that 'much is given, much is expected,' and he falls into that category. He has a ton of God-given ability that we, as coaches, have to get out."
Even with all of his struggles both on and off the field, there is a reason why the new coaching staff kept him and decided to release Johnny Manziel. Whether they have given the 6-foot, 202-pound cornerback a clean slate is questionable, but so far in OTAs, Jackson and company have allowed Gilbert to start next to Tramon Williams while Joe Haden recovers from left ankle surgery. Why, you ask? Because Jackson, Horton, and the rest of the coaches on defense see the raw athletic ability that Gilbert can display and seem to think that if they can bring out the best in the young defensive back, he can help the team in 2016 and beyond.
"I remember talking to him coming out of Oklahoma State," Horton said. "Hue Jackson has done a great job of displaying the message – we weren't here and we don't know what went on. All we know is what went on film and tape from today. Everybody has a clean slate, and you go out and work hard. Is he a work in progress? Yes. Is he carrying anything from four months ago? Not in my book he's not. He's just one of the players that we want to help us win a championship here."
For what it's worth, the current players on the team don't seem to have a chip on their shoulder that Gilbert is still receiving significant reps in practice. In fact, they are happy for their teammate, especially after he returned to OTAs after missing the first part due to a family tragedy.
"He had a tragedy in his family (a car accident in which he lost someone close to him) and he missed the first couple days of Phase One. When he did return, when he walked into the room, the room lit up. They genuinely care. It was amazing and kind of moving to watch players respond to a guy that they haven't seen since January 1st or 2nd. Whatever happened, if it happened, all I know is that when he walked into the room they were happy to see him."
Horton seems to be doing all the right things to help the third-year cornerback. Luckily, Gilbert seems to be listening to everything that his new defensive coordinator is telling him, whether it is helping him on or off the field. In fact, the cornerback seems to be impressing the new coaching staff so far this offseason.
"You have got to understand him, what makes him tick, and that's part of being a coach. You have got to know your players, there are certain triggers that guys respond to. I am not saying that we can get that out of everybody, but that is what we try to do. He's responding right now, and he's doing everything that we ask him to do.''
If Gilbert can improve from his rookie and sophomore seasons, it would be huge for a Browns' defensive backfield that will have plenty of new faces in 2016. In 2014, the Browns were hoping Gilbert could be that lockdown cornerback to go opposite of Joe Haden. Although that has yet to happen, assuming there's some substance to the talk of Hue Jackson, Ray Horton and the new coaching staff - and also assuming Justin Gilbert takes advantage of what could be his last opportunity — the best could be ahead for Gilbert in 2016 and beyond.