Futures: Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert
By Matt Waldman
He could be good, but he could be bad. It could be said about every player transitioning from college football to the NFL. When reading scouting reports and draft day analysis, it can seem like this is the basic assessment of every prospect.
Most Internet scouting reports aren’t written with the purpose of the analyst hedging his bets. The intent is to cover the full spectrum of a player’s strengths and weaknesses. But if not careful, the overall product appears wishy-washy.
In all fairness, every year there are prospects that merit this kind of “he could be good, but he could be bad” analysis. It’s understandable when considering the context of the times. The size of the NFL draft is smaller than any time in the modern era of football. Physical talent is better and the concentration of that athleticism is often as good at the top of the draft as it is at the bottom. It’s why we read about undrafted free agents who at one time were considered first-day prospects.
Rookie receiver Da’Rick Rogers -– a street free agent who tried out with the Buffalo Bills this summer and got cut -– is on the cusp of earning significant playing time this month for the Colts. With a playing style that reminded me a lot of Dwayne Bowe but with greater short area agility, there was a time Rogers was every bit the prospect – if not better – than his fellow Tennessee Volunteers matriculates. It’s a list that includes the likes of Justin Hunter, Denarius Moore, and Kenbrell Thompkins (although Thompkins never played a down in orange and white, opting out when Lane Kiffin left campus). It was Rogers’ off-field behavior that put him on outside looking in when the NFL held it’s annual “April Rush.”
Entering the 2013 season, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert also had a wish-washy scouting report despite an on-field game that was brimming with confidence. Gilbert has first-day athleticism and versatility, but junior year lapses with technique and judgment made him the type of player who elicited a wide range of draft day possibilities before his senior year.
With a little more than a month left of college football, Gilbert has demonstrated enough improvement that his stock is pointing upward once again. Unless there are concerns about Gilbert’s behavior off the field, I believe Gilbert will be one of the top five cornerbacks taken in this draft. Even if teams are still unsure about his development –- and Gilbert has flaws to his game -– the cornerback’s contributions on special teams will keep his floor high.
Athleticism, Technique Flaws, and Confidence
At 6-foot-0, 200 pounds, Gilbert has the size, strength, and speed to face a broad range of receivers that a cornerback will encounter at the NFL level.
This is the type of play you’ll see on Gilbert’s highlight hit list in April. It demonstrates Gilbert’s strength and awareness to pin a receiver to the boundary and the athleticism to highpoint a football that is still 3-4 yards away from its intended target. Although the ball may be underthrown a touch to the inside as the color analyst states, it’s by no means an easy interception. Gilbert makes it all appear effortless.
As is often the case with young football players, athleticism can be a double-edged sword. Gilbert sometimes relies too much on his athleticism at the expense of practicing good technique. Here’s a play where the Mountaineers receiver beats Gilbert’s single coverage.
If you can freeze this play at the top of the 1:00 mark, you’ll see Gilbert is caught leaning backwards on the play. The Oklahoma State cornerback has to do a better job of playing within a crouch with his pads forward and maintaining good footing. When he gets lax with his stance, his change of direction suffers and he gets beaten on plays like this one.
Losing a battle with a receiver is a weekly reality of a cornerback’s career. Good pass defenders have short memories with failures. They remain confident when forced to face the fire just after losing a battle and Gilbert has this trait. Here’s Gilbert in another single coverage situation in the end zone just minutes after giving up that touchdown.
In addition to shaking the char from the burning he received at the end of the first quarter, there are three things I like about Gilbert’s performance on this play. The first is his economy with his initial steps with his back pedal. This is something he has had to work on. In the past, Gilbert has been guilty of taking long strides and losing ground on receivers when they change direction.
Second, Gilbert uses his hands well to frame his position with the receiver throughout the route. This is a skill that both receivers and cornerbacks must develop. A good example of a receiver doing this type of framing of position is my close-up of Jordy Nelson on Brandon Boykin on a sideline fade.
Third, Gilbert displays good coordination to knock the ball away. He tracks the ball well, maintaining position at the receiver’s back hip as he’s doing so. In a sense, playing cornerback is a lot like being the woman in ballroom dance – as Bob Thaves once said about dance team Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “She he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels!” Gilbert isn’t strapping on a pair of six-inch heels, but the fact he and other cornerbacks have to account for the receiver, the quarterback, the ball, and flag-happy officials ordered to encourage prolific scoring is one of the most difficult jobs in sport.
Here’s another example of Gilbert displaying good position on a fade route. He beats the receiver to the spot and, gaining position between the receiver and the football, knocks the ball away.
Footwork and Upright Stance
These are the two primary concerns I had with Gilbert’s game entering the season. If he’s going to regress in area of pass coverage, these techniques will likely be the culprits and he’ll struggle in the NFL. Here’s an example of Gilbert’s poor technique from 2012 against Saints rookie Kenny Stills. Gilbert breaks up a red zone attempt, but only due to a bad throw by quarterback Landry Jones.
Gilbert begins his back pedal with a short hop. This is something you’ll see on a lot of Gilbert’s tape from 2012. Hopping is an exaggerated motion by nature and its wasted movement as opposed to taking short steps.
Freeze the play at the 69-second mark and you’ll see Gilbert take a large step when reacting to the receiver’s initial dip inside. This move puts the corner in a hole once the receiver breaks to the outside. If not for the inaccurate throw, Gilbert would not have been able to make up ground, hit Stills, and knock the rebound loose.
Even so, Gilbert deserves credit for hustling until the end. I have seen corners give up on a play once they sense the receiver beat them with the first move. You can literally see their body language change – it’s the football equivalent of a kid sulking.
From the 1:46 mark to the 2:37 mark of this video, notice Gilbert’s hop in his back pedal and lateral shuffle steps on these plays.
This footwork along with his upright stance slows Gilbert’s ability to react to his opponent. The most notable is a red zone target where he should have earned the interception, but his lax technique early in the route results in a touchdown (note: after the touchdown there are two replays worth watching of the coverage).
Consider how quick Gilbert was to change direction, cut off the target, and nearly catch the football once the ball is in the air. It’s a great display of overall athleticism and recovery quickness. The problem is that Gilbert’s lack of technique puts him in a hole that he shouldn’t have needed to dig his way out.
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Note the hops and upright stance during the initial back pedal. It prevents Gilbert from changing direction with the same speed that he could if his feet were closer to the ground, and playing from a crouch.
This lax technique early in the route was enough that it’s the difference between Gilbert getting his hands on the ball and Gilbert getting his body in front of the ball. If Gilbert’s frame is in front of the ball, the outcome is no worse than a defensed pass because the ball flies through his mitts and hits his chest or helmet.
Instead, the split-second this early technique cost Gilbert at least two steps. The result is Gilbert extending his arms outside his frame towards the ball, letting the pass exit his mitts, and Stills catching the rebound for the touchdown.
In any field of work, the higher the expectations get, the more important the details become. Gilbert didn’t have any physical defects preventing him from learning these details and incorporating them into his game, he just had to do a better job of addressing these details of the position.
Watch Gilbert’s performance against Mississippi State this year and you’ll see a better stance with much shorter steps and good control. On several of these snaps, Gilbert’s footwork helps him drive on the route and make a good play. It’s an encouraging sign the Gilbert is working on his game.
Here’s another example of good footwork helping him change direction and earn position on a deep post against TCU this year.
It’s not a great back pedal, but noticeably improved from just a year ago. His technique is good enough on this play to set up what Gilbert does best: track the ball and the receiver, use his speed to cut off the route, and then make a nice over the shoulder catch. He finishes the play like a punt returner, turning up the left flat to give his offense even better field position.
Gilbert’s work as a ball carrier is no surprise to anyone who has watched Oklahoma State the past three years. He has six kick returns for touchdowns during his career – good enough to be atop the active college players in this category and just one score behind C.J. Spiller and Tyrone Carrier in the record books.
Over the years, I have found there are several categories of speed: short area quickness, build-up speed, acceleration, and stamina speed. Marshawn Lynch isn’t a fast back, but he maintains a good pace with great stamina. Gilbert displays good stamina speed on this play when he breaks the tackle attempt from the kicker late in the run and maintains a gap on the pursuit.
When I watch Gilbert return kicks, he possesses that speed and skill to change direction on the move with economy. (Clip below has audio NSFW)
In addition to his skill as a ball carrier, note his work as a “receiver” at the boundary of the field when he has a chance to make a play on the football. The playmaking side of Gilbert’s game is hard to teach, but the details are what’s going to keep him on an NFL field.
Gilbert’s special teams work is a big reason why his flaws wouldn’t have knocked him out of the draft if he hadn’t improved his technique this year. While his work as a return specialist is good, he’s a two-way special team player along the lines of Cowboys wide receiver and four-time Special Teams Player of The Week winner Dwayne Harris.
Despite the fact that I think Gilbert needs work as a tackler and disengaging from blocks from physical wide receivers, he’s a quality gunner.
This is a good example of his hustle and cutting off the outside angle of return man Jalen Saunders, forcing the return man into two Oklahoma State defenders. Gilbert also does a good job changing direction and earning an assist.
Here’s another instance of good work to cut off the outside and force a runner inside on a kick that’s long enough to out-do the coverage.
Gilbert has all the athletic tools to become a shutdown corner if he refines his game. If he can become more reliable with his tackling technique and learn to shed blocks from bigger receivers, he could become a complete defender. Even if he doesn’t, his promise as a cover corner warrant a draft pick in the first 3-4 rounds.
If I were assessing Gilbert for a team, I’d want to discern what kind of learner he is and if he’d be a fit for the staff that I have in place. Because of his versatility and potential, he could get led in a bunch of different directions that might ultimately knot up his game if he doesn’t have a strong understanding of how to become an organized and dedicated professional.
With all the free time to learn on your own and less hands-on instruction from some NFL position coaches, I would have to feel confident that Gilbert has the fundamental classroom-film-practice skills to transition to a league where being a special athlete is the norm and not the exception to the rule.
Based on what I’ve seen on the field between last year and this year, Gilbert’s promise as a student of the game is pointing in the right direction. If this is true, he’ll be worth a top-40 pick in April.