+Great size and length
+Good ball skills
+Solid ball skills
+Tons of potential
+Improving instincts in coverage
-Could improve his technique in press coverage
-Quickness isn’t quite elite
-Could develop a better feel for the physicality of the game
-For a guy of his size and strength, really mediocre against the run
-Still a bit raw in zone coverage
This is the best cornerback class I’ve seen in the last 5 years (I started scouting the draft in 2010), with 2012 being a moderately distant second. I see 4 guys I would take in the top half of the first round. Number one is Jason Verrett, who hands down has the best film of any cornerback I have ever seen, achieving superhuman levels of dominance against anyone he faces, the ultimate overachiever. Then Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, and the fact that I have Gilbert at number 2 speaks more to what I think of Jason Verrett than Gilbert. Gilbert is an outstanding player in his own right with a very high ceiling. Then Kyle Fuller, whose superhuman run defense/block shedding/tackling makes him unlike any corner I have ever seen, and allows his team to put him in ridiculous matchups that no other corner could possibly handle. We’re talking about a corner who once finished 3rd in the ACC (behind Andre Branch and Quinton Coples) in TFLs, with 14.5. The term “unprecedented” doesn’t do that justice. And then Darqueze Dennard, whose physicality and feel for coverage makes him one of the best man to man corners in this draft class. I’d take all those guys in the top 15, and even Bradley Robey later in the first round. Put it this way: if your favorite team drafts a corner in the first round, be happy.
Gilbert has the best pure physical skill set of any corner in this draft class. I’d go as far to say he has the best physical skill set of any corner I’ve scouted since Patrick Peterson. He has moderately above average height and bulk at 6’0, 202lbs, but that was expected. The pleasant surprise of his measurements was his arm length, 33 1/8 inches, good for second among all defensive backs corner and safety alike and only 1/8 of an inch behind the guy with the longest arms, Utah’s Keith McGill. Yet despite those long arms, he finished 3rd among corners on the bench press with 20 reps, which was a pleasant surprise because I couldn’t really see all that strength on film. Given the strength he clearly has, I’m hopeful he could improve his tackling a bit at the NFL level. His vertical was a mild disappointment at 35.5 inches, because he set the bar high with his other drills. But he topped it off with a 4.37 40 yard dash, best among defensive backs at the combine.
Gilbert is good in man coverage, but he’s not quite flawless. He has the speed to stay with anyone, and his coverage on fly routes is simply superb. His size and length combined with his speed and improving instincts make it very difficult for even the best receivers to win a jump ball against him. He’s getting better at tracking the ball in the air and does a good job of using his size to get good position. However, his quickness is good, not elite, and he is merely above average at defending receivers on shorter routes. I’d avoid matching him up against shorter, quicker receivers in the NFL. You’re not going to find many corners better suited to cover Calvin Johnson than Gilbert, but against a guy like Antonio Brown, his unspectacular quickness and mediocre tackling will result in a tough matchup. Gilbert should be able to completely control guys like Brown on the line of scrimmage with his size and strength, but it is something he hasn’t really shown a feel for yet, and, until he improves his technique in press coverage, matchups against quick, undersized receivers will give him fits in the NFL. Gilbert’s final problem in coverage is dealing with physicality. NFL receivers are quietly very skilled at using moves that technically are offensive pass interference, but are really well disguised. I’m not just talking about rub routes, but subtle push offs that the refs can’t see. Gilbert doesn’t necessarily see many physical route runners at the college level, but, when he does, he struggles, and he doesn’t consistently match the physicality of the receiver. At the NFL level, he’s going to have to deal with routes like this. 9 out of 10 refs won’t call that pass interference, but Gilbert is still completely out of position thanks to that tiny push-off. Another example here. Refs aren’t going to call that, but no one can deny that the only thing that kept Gilbert from deflecting that pass is L’Damian Washington extending his arms. But remember, I am basically saying that Gilbert doesn’t do a good job of covering receivers when they commit offensive pass interference. You could say that about a lot of corners, but Gilbert still seems pretty defenseless against barely noticeable push-offs. Still, his instincts in man coverage have improved dramatically and his defense against longer routes is simply superb.
Gilbert has good ball skills, but, in all likelihood, he won’t be getting tons of interceptions at the NFL level. He’s going to be a man coverage corner first and foremost, and if the history of Revis island is any indication, man coverage doesn’t necessarily lend itself to many interceptions. Revis is obviously a phenomenal player, but he isn’t perennially among NFL leaders in interceptions. Zone coverage is more likely to result in interceptions, as it takes advantage of bad reads by the quarterback or even receivers if they run option routes. Richard Sherman tends to be the exception, but that’s in large part because he’s ridiculously huge at 6’3, and is basically the only corner in the NFL who is usually taller than the receiver he covers. He wins jump balls like wide receivers. Gilbert isn’t that big, and likely will not be a leader in interceptions at the NFL level, but he is still very good at tracking the ball and has pretty soft hands when it comes his way.
Gilbert is mediocre against the run, which is quite disappointing given his physical skill set. He’s an average tackler for a corner, which is very disappointing given his size and length. He rarely misses tackles, but he tends to yield tons of yards after contact. First of all, when I say yards after contact, I don’t mean yards after first making contact with a defender. I find that to be a little bit overrated; a broken tackle is impressive regardless, and sometimes it discounts running backs with enough speed and vision to avoid the tackler in the first place. When I look at yards after contact, I tell myself that not all tackles are created equal. You can wrap up and throw the ball carrier to the ground, not allowing him to move one inch forward after you tackle him. Or you can get knocked on your back by the ball carrier but bring him down with you. The difference is that one involves the ball carrier not getting an inch after touching you, whereas the other involves the running back falling 2-4 yards forward before finally hitting the ground. Gilbert almost never misses tackles, but almost all of his tackles are of the latter type, so even when he makes tackles, the ball carrier still falls a few yards forward. I expect any corner to yield some yards after contact, but Gilbert allows more than most which is disappointing given his size. It’s difficult to even evaluate Gilbert’s instincts against the run. He spends most of his time in either man to man coverage or in cover 3, and he tends to be very pass focused. I’ve hardly seen Gilbert in pursuit enough to evaluate the angles he takes to the ball, but they don’t seem too bad. Gilbert definitely needs to improve his hand usage when engaged in blocks, as a guy with his size and strength shouldn’t get so easily overpowered by wide receivers. His fundamentals when engaged in a block are pretty poor, but he should make some improvements in this area. Honestly though, I am hopeful that he will improve against the run, because most of what I’m writing here is based on his senior tape. As a sophomore, his run defense wasn’t excellent, but it was above average. He’s clearly been working on becoming more of a shutdown corner the last two seasons, but I can confidently say his improvement in coverage has been greater than the decline in his run defense, and I feel that he can get his run defense to the level it was in 2011 soon enough.
Gilbert is decent in zone coverage, but it’s not going to be his specialty in the NFL. The biggest problem I see with his zone coverage is that he doesn’t jam the release of the wide receiver very often. When you are going into a deep half zone in quarter-quarter-half coverage and there is only one receiver to your side of the field, you can jam the release of the receiver just a little to give the linebacker enough time to get into the curl zone. Moreover, he seems to have a pretty strict definition of his zone, not necessarily moving very often based on the where the quarterback’s eyes are moving and preferring to stay somewhat close to the center of his zone. He does a really outstanding job of tracking the ball in zone coverage, taking very good angles to the pass and using his range, and he also can use his length to deflect passes. He’s outstanding in a cover 3 zone or really any deep zone due to his tremendous size and length. However, one difference between college defenses and NFL defenses is that NFL defenses use more pattern read coverage in zone, especially 3-4 teams. Pattern read coverage takes forever to explain (if you do want to learn, Google things Dick LeBeau, zone dogs, fire zone blitzes, etc.). But there are 4 things that an NFL fan should know about pattern read coverage. No. 1: if executed correctly (which is really hard), it’s better than traditional zone coverage because you can have a 4-6 man rush, although 5 is typical. No. 2: it’s heavily reliant on defensive communication during the play, so it’s nearly impossible to use in Seattle (drives San Francisco crazy) and difficult in other loud stadiums. No. 3: you know your team uses it if you see two defenders seemingly in man coverage switch the players they are covering when the receivers run crossing routes. No. 4: you’re not going to find many college players who will come into the NFL with any experience in it (unless they played at Georgia Tech or Alabama, another reason to draft C.J. Mosley or HaHa Clinton-Dix. Some other schools use it sparingly), although safeties will be slightly prepared because many college defenses use some quarters coverage. Justin Gilbert is not a guy who I think will ever have instincts good enough for pattern read coverage, as he hasn’t shown much feel for zone coverage in general. This is among the reasons why he will likely go to a 4-3 team that uses a lot of bump and run coverage in the NFL.
Ultimately, I like Gilbert. He’s really shown a lot of improvement in man coverage over the years, and he has a lot of potential at the NFL level. I still don’t think he’s the best corner in this draft class, but I don’t think he’s overrated. This is just an awesome cornerback class.
NFL Comparison: Byron Maxwell. You probably don’t know who that is, but, in case you didn’t know, Seattle is amazing. After Brandon Browner got hurt and Walter Thurmond III got suspended, Maxwell started opposite Richard Sherman. Like all cornerbacks who put on a Seattle uniform, he was outstanding last season. He wasn’t a product of the defense. Seattle just has an infinite supply of Pro Bowl caliber corners. I understand that Maxwell isn’t a recognizable name, so if you want someone you’ve heard of, I’ll go with Aqib Talib, except Gilbert isn’t as strong against the run but doesn’t have as many character questions.
Grade: 97 (worthy of a top 10 pick)
Projection: 97 (will be a top 10 pick)