NFL Draft Report Dream Team: CB Gilbert

Will Justin Gilbert, with more big plays and athleticism than Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, be the first cornerback selected? Other than team general managers, no one has more detail on Gilbert than NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas does in this scouting report.

Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard might have gone home the winner of the 2014 Thorpe Award, as the nation's top defensive back, but Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert will not concede the top spot on the draft pecking order for cornerbacks. While Dennard and Gilbert have excellent coverage skills and quickness, what separates the two is that the Cowboys pass defender has not only had better success defending vs. the ball in flight but he is one of the finest kickoff returners in the nation.

Just from a statistical standpoint, Gilbert would win the argument vs. the Michigan State product. Gilbert has recorded 182 tackles, including 157 solo strikes in 39 starting assignments, compared to Dennard's 167 hits (105 solos) in 40 starts. The Cowboy has defended 39 passes at OSU, while Dennard produced 30. Gilberts' 12 interceptions rank tied for fifth in school history and seventh in Big 12 Conference annals. His Michigan State counterpart posted 10 thefts.

The former track standout was the unquestioned "King of the Hill" when he faced off vs. the other defensive backs attending the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, leading all safeties and cornerbacks with a scorching 4.37-second clocking in the 40-yard dash. Dating back to the last 10 events in Indianapolis, that time was the fourth-best for any defensive back.

Dennard was timed at an adequate 4.51 seconds in the same event.

Gilbert's 225-pound bench press figure of 20 reps was third-best for all cornerbacks at Indianapolis and fifth-best when safeties were included. Dennard put up the bar just 15 times. The OSU speedster also recorded a 35 1/2-inch vertical jump, a 10'06" broad jump and was clocked at 6.92 seconds in the three-cone drill. Dennard watched those events from the sidelines, unable to compete due to a left hamstring strain.

Gilbert closed out his career second in school and Big 12 Conference history with 102 kickoff returns for 2,681 yards, establishing conference and Cowboys records with six runbacks for touchdowns. His success at reaching the end zone ranks as the third-best in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history. His average of 26.28 yards per return also placed second on the Oklahoma State all-time list.

Gilbert also ranked ninth among major colleges' active players for interceptions, placing 21st with his theft return yard total (180), which rank seventh in school annals. His 102 kickoff returns placed fifth and ranks fourth among active players in kickoff return yardage (2,641). He also led that group with his six kickoff returns for touchdowns.

With such an impressive statistical resume, experts are also highly impressed with Gilbert's ball skills, as he excels at tracking the thrown ball over his shoulder, evident by recording five of his seven interceptions from deep tosses in 2013. He is a natural hands catcher, having never put the ball on the ground throughout his four seasons returning kicks. With his well-built frame, he is also effective at coming up and lending run support.

During his final season, Gilbert garnered all-Big 12 Conference as a return specialist, running back a school record 32 kicks, good for 827 yards (second on the Cowboys' annual chart) and a 25.84-yard average (second in the league). Starting all 13 games, the cornerback also produced a career-high 63 tackles that included 56 solo stops, as he also broke up nine tosses and caused a fumble behind the line of scrimmage.

The consensus All-American first-team choice was named one of three finalists for the coveted Jim Thorpe Award, which was won by Dennard. He led the Big 12 and ranked fourth in the nation with a career-high seven interceptions, tied for fourth in school annals and seventh on the league annual list. His two thefts returned for touchdowns tied an OSU record and he also scored once on 18 kickoffs for 453 yards (25.17 avg). Gilbert also made 42 tackles (37 solos) and deflected nine other throws.

Justin Gilbert

Oklahoma State University Cowboys


Body Structure

Gilbert has a tall, well-built, muscular frame with long arms (33 1/8-inches), good bubble, thick thighs and calves. He has a tight abdomen, trimmed upper body and a frame that can carry additional bulk without it affecting his overall quickness. He has smaller than ideal hands (8 5/8-inches), but it does not impede him from securing the ball properly and extending away from his frame when competing for the pass at its highest point, or looking the ball in and securing it before heading upfield as a return specialist.

Athletic Ability

Gilbert has very good speed (4.37-seconds in the 40-yard dash and 1.54 seconds in the 10-yard run) and moves easily when mirroring a receiver through the route's progression. He opens up suddenly and it is rare to see him lose any relationship with his opponent in transition. He has an outstanding recovery burst (see 2013 West Virginia, Mississippi State and Kansas games) to make up ground in a hurry when a receiver gets behind him and a smooth, fluid backpedal. He shows no gather in the plant-and-drive phase of his game, especially when closing on the target. His range and fluid hips might see him earn instant playing time in the nickel/dime packages and he is strong enough to earn some snaps at free safety, but with his press coverage skills, he is ideally suited to play "field" cornerback. He does a nice job of slipping through trash to make plays in run force and is a strong athlete who shows nice short area quickness and agility to come up and play in the box. He maintains balance changing direction and plays with very nice balance.

Football Sense

Gilbert is a minimal "reps" type who has no problem digesting a complicated playbook and taking the action from the chalkboard to the playing field. He shows very good awareness in zone coverage (see 2013 West Virginia and Oklahoma games) and is extremely alert to running threats in his area (see 2013 Kansas and Texas games), along with recognizing pass threats to his outside when playing in the bail/shuffle technique. He does a nice job of working to get position in the zone and can't be fooled by play action or misdirection.


Gilbert is a highly competitive type, but has the rare ability to block out a bad play instantly rather than let it linger in his mind and take him out of his element. He shows good field vision and will not hesitate to sacrifice his body to make a play on the ball in the air. He is always looking to finish the play in coverage and is a willing tackler in the deep zone. He is not a "killer" in run support, but will wrap and secure while waiting for help to bring the bruising inside runners down. When Gilbert steps on the field, he is all business. He plays with good enthusiasm and will compete until the whistle. He is a good playmaker who seems to be in the right place to disrupt the offensive scheme (21 third-down stops in 2013 — see Lamar, Texas Christian and Iowa State games). He plays with good effort throughout and will not hesitate to stick his hat into the pile to make the play. He is very active with his hands in attempts to reroute and jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage (rerouted receivers away from 29 incomplete tosses in 2013). He will get a little out of control at times, drawing several pass interference penalties when he lets his hands get outside his frame, though (also ejected for a personal foul call in the 2013 West Virginia game, resulting in a suspension for the first half of the Kansas State clash).

Key and Diagnostic Skills

Gilbert has that quick reactionary ability to instantly make his initial read vs. the pass or run. He is very alert to play action and has a knack for reading routes, whether playing in the zone or when operating in zone coverage. When he sees the route develop, he has the sudden burst to close and prevent the big gain (see 2013 West Virginia, Texas Christian, Iowa State, Kansas and Texas contests). Against plays in front of him, Gilbert is quick to react, taking good angles to close on the ball. He is very effective in press coverage (64 reroutes since 2012), but when he spends too much time attacking his man rather than going for the ball, he misses out on quality interception opportunities. He makes quick decisions when working in the box, but sometimes jumps the play before it develops, resulting in several costly penalties (see 2013 West Virginia and Texas Christian games). When operating in the deep zone, he reacts well to the ball in flight, showing adequate leaping ability. When working on those long routes, he has the speed to recover when beaten. The thing you see constantly on film is his ability to identify his keys and react in an instant as the play develops (no need to digest).

Man Coverage Ability

For a field cornerback, Gilbert does a very nice job of disrupting the receivers before they can get into their patterns. He has that strong hand placement to tie up his man for a long time at the line of scrimmage, evident by his performances in frustrating those that dared to beat him out of the blocks in the 2013 Texas-San Antonio and Texas clashes (on 21 passes thrown in his area, he allowed one catch for 4 yards, recorded two interceptions, batted down two other throws and rerouted his coverage assignments away from eight other attempts combined for those two games). He uses his length well to reach around and compete for the ball in flight. He has the speed and burst to run on the receiver's hip and recover when his man gets behind him. With his fluid hips and quick change-of-direction agility, along with excellent anticipation skills, he has allowed just one touchdown catch (38-yarder in the 2013 Texas Tech clash) in his last 26 games. What Gilbert does better than most corners is to be very active and physical with his hands. He shows sharp plant-and-drive agility, but will sometimes get sloppy on deep routes and round his angles to the ball. Still, he has outstanding feet and balance when adjusting to the receiver's moves and can flip his hips, redirect and plant sharply coming out of his breaks without needing to gather.

Brett Deering/USA TODAY

Zone Coverage Ability

The thing that is impressive about Gilbert is that he has that "safety" mentality (will not hesitate to make plays outside his area). He displays very good route awareness and quick reactions to the ball in flight. He can play the shuffle-and-bail at the X's and it is rare to see him be late when acknowledging threats to the outside. He just has a knack for putting himself in position to make plays on the ball. You can see that from one game to the next, he does a better job of diagnosing routes. He is best when playing off the line, as he takes good angles in pursuit. He shows good awareness looking up receivers and anticipating the quarterback to jump the play. He has good leaping ability, but needs to time his jumps, as he has left several sure interceptions behind. Some team might try to use him at free safety, as he has that keen comprehension of zone concepts, along with the range and suddenness in his movements to react instantly to the ball in flight.

Backpedal Skills

Gilbert must have taken ballet lessons, as he is very smooth and effortless in his retreat, taking no wasted steps in the process. He has possibly the best plant-and-drive ability of any defensive back at his level of competition. With his long limbs (33 1/8-inch arm length and 77-inch wing span), he gets good length in his stride, crucial when trying to recover when the receiver gets behind him. He is not the type that you will see revert to taking choppy steps. He opens his hips easily, coming out of the pedal with the burst needed to maintain position out of transition. He looks very smooth with that transition when going deep or coming back up on the ball on short routes. You can see on film that he has the feet and balance to turn and stay on his man's hip (see 2013 Texas-San Antonio, Mississippi State, Kansas State and Oklahoma games). He is sudden in his movements when changing direction and looks natural and continuous flipping his hips and coming out of his breaks cleanly.

Ball Reaction Skills

Gilbert does a nice job of reacting to the route's progression and anticipating the throws. He has a very good burst to recover and make plays on the ball or making the big tackle. The thing you notice on film is his ability to break on the ball vs. plays in front of him. He has improved his ability to anticipate the quarterback when working the deep zone, but when he does get caught out of position, he tries to overpower and reroute the receiver rather than mirror his opponent and let the play develop. He shows urgency closing on the ball in man coverage and has natural hands, but you would like to see him use his leaping ability more in attempts to intercept the ball rather than deflect it. Still, Gilbert has clean feet in transition and takes good angles, along with very explosive acceleration to close coming out of his breaks. With his speed, he can generate an outstanding break on the ball, evident by his seven pass thefts last season (see 2013 Mississippi State, West Virginia, Texas Christian, Iowa State and Texas games).


Gilbert has excellent range and it is rare to see him trudge from behind when a receiver gets past him. With his quickness and foot speed, he can easily make a break on the ball when playing in deep routes. I am really impressed with his speed coming out of transition (see 2013 Mississippi State, Iowa State and Texas games), as he can suddenly make up ground when the ball is in flight. He explodes off the snap and can stay stride for stride with the receivers. He has the loose hips needed to quickly change direction and displays good explosion closing on the ball. He shows great acceleration when closing, but when he relies too much on his speed to help him recover, he will get outside his frame with his hands, resulting in several pass interference calls. He has the innate second gear to recover and more than ample speed to mirror any receiver heading down field, at any level of competition.

Jumping Ability

Gilbert has more than enough ability to elevate and get to the ball at its high point, taking advantage of interception opportunities as a senior, as his seven thefts tied for fifth on the school season-record chart. He shows the natural ability to adjust and track the ball in flight and he has the size to make plays on the ball vs. bigger receivers. He displays natural hands for the interception and the body control to make proper adjustments in attempts to get to the ball. When he elevates, you can see he has very nice body control to adjust to the ball in flight. He takes clean angles to the ball in pursuit and will not hesitate to compete for jump balls in a crowd (see 2013 Iowa State, West Virginia, Texas Christian and Texas games).


Gilbert has smaller than ideal hands, but they have never affected his ability to haul in the interception or cleanly field and secure the pigskin as a kickoff returner. He shows the ability to extend and pluck outside his frame, as he is not the type to use his body as a crutch, but at least four of his nine break-ups in 2013 should have been pass thefts. Right now, you can see he has good hands to reroute, jam, wrap and secure. Even without large mitts, if he develops a bit more patience and times his leaps better, he could have Casey Hayward-like (Packers) interception figures.

Run Defense

Gilbert can hit with a thud and shows good anticipation getting to the outside running plays (prevented almost certain touchdown runs in the 2013 Iowa State, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma contests). He is not a "trained killer" in the Brian Dawkins/Charles Woodson mold, but he is a patient sort who knows how to keep outside containment. He has the strength to come off blocks and shows the ability to make the wrap-up tackle, whether in the open field or playing in the box. He has the speed and rip move to slip off the blocker's shoulder and displays the closing burst to pursue when he penetrates the backfield. His size lets him take on and play off isolated blocks well.

Tackling Ability

Because Gilbert plays mostly in man coverage, he has had just limited opportunities to make plays in the box, but he is a physical tackler in the open field. He can put a "big hit" on a receiver competing for the ball and is not the type that will just attack "legs" when facing up to a ball-carrier. He has effective drag-down strength and can get guys to the ground, but is not regarded as an explosive tackler. He knows how to make adjustments to break down and fit when playing in the open and shows good desire to make the play. He will go low, wrestle the ball-carrier down or use his upper-body strength to knock his opponent out of bounds.

Return Skills

Along with his blazing speed and sure hands, Gilbert has excellent hip weave, very good field vision to spot the cracks on the field and is very patient following his blockers on returns. He is the premier kickoff returner in this draft and also can handle punt return chores in an emergency. He has had great success returning kicks (six for scores), as he has enough of a burst and knows how to get "skinny" to gain valid yardage through the wedge. He could have good success as a combo returner at the next level, thanks to his good vision and natural hands to look the ball in and locate the crease. He closed out his career second in NCAA history with six kickoff returns for scores, a Big 12 Conference record. He also finished second in league annals with 102 kick returns for 2,681 yards.

Compares To

AQIB TALIB-Denver: Gilbert is a vastly underrated "field" cornerback who has the length and stride in his backpedal to easily stay on the receiver coming out of transition. He does not let his assignments break his cushion and gets on top of those receivers instantly, evident by rerouting 64 opponents away from catchable throws the last two years. He opens up laterally or vertically with ease and shows an outstanding burst to recover. He can plant-and-drive with no gather and displays the mirror ability to stay with any receiver he's matched up against. He consistently makes plays on the ball and is determined to finish when executing the tackle. He might not get a lot of opportunities vs. the running game, but when he does, no other FBS cornerback can do the job of keeping outside containment like Gilbert. He is also a blue-chip return specialist, and a team that drafts the Cowboy will actually fill two needs with one selection.

Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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