The NFL has always been a copycat league, with coaches, general managers and scouts prone to stealing ideas from winning teams. Whether they're poaching tactical plans or emulating roster composition, the savviest folks pay close attention to the hottest trends. The success of the Seattle Seahawks and their "Legion of Boom" will surely motivate decision makers everywhere to find big, athletic cornerbacks with playmaking ability.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that NFL teams have always desired cornerbacks with size (six feet or taller), speed (4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash) and scheme versatility (capable of playing press-man or zone), but prospects possessing all of those traits are hard to find. That's why the NFL scouting community is buzzing about Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert after watching the cornerback blow up the NFL Scouting Combine.
Checking in at 6-0 1/2 and 202 pounds, Gilbert blazed a 4.37 in the 40 while exhibiting outstanding athleticism and explosiveness in drills. He is a fluid athlete in space, yet shows exceptional stop-start quickness transitioning out of breaks. Additionally, Gilbert caught the ball well in drills, flashing a receiver-like ability to track throws downfield. This all-around excellent display could cement Gilbert as the top prospect available at his position.
Looking at Gilbert's college game tape, I see the same traits that wowed scouts in Indianapolis. He is smooth in coverage, with a knack for getting perfect leverage on receivers down the field. Gilbert rarely panics with the ball in the air, leading to a number of breakups and late-reaction interceptions. While most cornerbacks can exhibit those traits when playing away from the line of scrimmage (zone coverage), few are capable of consistently creating turnovers when playing bump-and-run coverage. Gilbert excels as a ballhawk despite playing extensively with his back to the quarterback (in press-man, cornerbacks keep their eyes on the receiver, as opposed to zone, where they play with vision of the QB). He finished his collegiate career with 12 picks, including seven in 2013, validating his reputation as one of the top playmakers in college football.
Speaking of playmaking ... Gilbert is also a dynamic kick returner with exceptional quickness and running skills. When Gilbert gets his hands on the ball, there's always a threat he'll make a game-changing return, as he possesses great instincts for finding seams in the middle of kick coverage. With eight combined return scores (six kick returns, two pick sixes) in an illustrious four-year career, Gilbert can offer teams much more than stout coverage. Given the impact of turnovers and defensive scores on the outcome of games, I would consider him one of the blue-chip prospects in a deep and talented draft class.
Of course, I'd be remiss to ignore Gilbert's lackluster performance in 2012. He didn't play with the discipline and focus expected from an elite defender, particularly one coming off a sensational sophomore season (five interceptions in 2011). While it's natural for complacency to set in after a young player enjoys some success, bad film led teams to question Gilbert's ability to regain his elite form in 2013.
That said, Gilbert answered the bell in resounding fashion last fall, and I believe several teams would be thrilled to add this unique defensive weapon to their lineup, particularly the five detailed below.
NOTE: The franchises that follow are those that would best utilize Gilbert's talents. While draft position might preclude some of them from having an opportunity to nab the talented cornerback, we don't know which trades could materialize or how the rest of the pre-draft process will play out.
Detroit Lions (No. 10 overall pick)
The Lions haven't had a Pro Bowl cornerback on their roster since Dre' Bly earned back-to-back bids following the 2003 and '04 campaigns. The lack of a premier cover corner in the back end has prevented the defense from rising to the ranks of the elite, despite the presence of a dominant line. Drafting Gilbert would not only fill the Lions' biggest defensive need, it also would give the secondary a big, physical corner capable of matching up with the big-bodied receivers that are dominating the league, including the Chicago Bears' imposing tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Most importantly, Gilbert's arrival would allow new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to use more blitz-man tactics, allowing Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah to relentlessly hunt the opposing quarterback.
New York Giants (No. 12)
For all the talk about the Giants needing to add weaponry to their defensive line, the secondary is a huge concern heading into 2014. Corey Webster was released after falling apart over the past two seasons, while Terrell Thomas and Trumaine McBride are set to hit free agency. Thus, the G-Men desperately need a big, athletic cover corner with a polished game to immediately step into the lineup opposite Prince Amukamara. Gilbert, who has the size to battle big receivers on the perimeter and the quickness to shadow speedsters down the field, is an ideal candidate. Most importantly, he displays the ball skills and awareness to pick off errant passes on tips and overthrows in his area.
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Chicago Bears (No. 14)
The Bears' leaky defense needs to add young, athletic playmakers at every level to return to prominence in 2014. While most of the offseason chatter has centered on the team's need to identify a dominant interior defender, Gilbert could fill a huge void if Charles Tillman does indeed depart as a free agent. As a big cover corner with exceptional ball skills, Gilbert would be an ideal replacement for the two-time Pro Bowler. He excels at plastering receivers down the field while also displaying a nose for the football. With defensive coordinator Mel Tucker expected to incorporate more man-to-man coverage in the fall, Gilbert could be a critical building block for the Bears' defense.
Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 15)
Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau cut their teeth in the NFL as secondary coaches, so they have a strong affinity for DBs with size, speed and playmaking ability. Gilbert certainly fits the bill. Although he excels in press-man coverage, Gilbert displays the athleticism, awareness and ball skills to shine in the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme, which requires cornerbacks to play with vision on the quarterback. Additionally, Gilbert shows the requisite toughness and physicality to be a factor against the run on the perimeter. With Gilbert also ranking as a top kick returner, the Oklahoma State star could make a Patrick Peterson-like impact in the Steel City.
Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24)
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The Bengals are legitimate contenders in the AFC, but the team must address the cornerback position in the draft to compete with the heavyweights in the conference. The team's top corner, Leon Hall, is recovering from his second Achilles injury in three seasons. Adam "Pacman" Jones and Terence Newman played well in his absence last season, but both veterans are on the downside of their respective careers. With former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick looking like a bust, the Bengals desperately need a young corner with playmaking skills. As mentioned above, Gilbert possesses the necessary physical tools to flourish in man or zone. Given the importance of versatility in the Bengals' scheme, Gilbert could be the No. 1 corner coach Marvin Lewis needs to match up against the offensive juggernauts dominating the AFC.