NFL Draft Prospects: Justin Gilbert much more athlete than defensive back

John Weast

His athleticism will put him immediately among the best in the NFL. His technique, however, leaves more than a little to be desired.

It's a weird concept, but there are football players who are sometimes too athletic for their own good.

Mistakes can be made with little to no repercussions because that player is athletic enough to rally and overcome. After reviewing Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert it's hard to not come away thinking two things: 1) he could be one of the 20 best athletes in the NFL the minute he steps on a field, and 2) he's got a long way to go if he's going to become one of the top cover corners in the league.

There's lots to like about him as a player. He's long, he's fast, he's fluid, he moves with the grace and effortlessness of an Olympian.

There's lots to not like about him. There were several instances in which he was completely blocked out of a play by a smaller player, along with missed tackles and poor footwork.

Gilbert is lined up on the wide receiver without safety help. On one hand, Gilbert does a good job of opening up when he recognizes the fade route, turning himself back to the quarterback, using the sideline as an extra defender and giving himself the ability to make a play on the ball. He's mirrors the receiver to his left, but when he recognizes the receiver's route, he turns around and puts himself in position to make a nice play on the ball.

On the other, in this play along with many others throughout his senior season, offensive coordinators didn't seem to have much of a problem challenging him in coverage.

And they really went after him in the run game.

In the same game, West Virgina completes a quick screen, a play they audibled into, before the snap. This goes in the books as a pass, but this is a wide running play. WVU recognized Oklahoma State was in man coverage, and the linebacker had the running back. He crashed down, leaving Gilbert alone to make a play before the safety could get over. Gilbert gets locked into the receiver's block, and he never even comes close to breaking it. The ball carrier streaks past him after Gilbert allowed himself to get turned inside,losing all of his leverage.

Point of note, Gilbert was so frustrated with the result of the receiver whipping him on the play, he threw a punch at him while the runner continued down field, was penalized and ejected.

He missed three other tackles in this game, including one off a cornerback blitz when he, by all rights, had the runner stopped for a two-yard loss. He got beat on a simple inside move by the receiver to the post, allowing a red zone touchdown.

Needless to say, it wasn't his finest game, nor was this one chosen to do nothing other than savage him as a player.

It's really hard to not make a comparison to CB Antonio Cromartie. An incredibly gifted athlete who struggled with portions of the physical part of the game. He showed flashes of high-level coverage ability, and played consistently for stretches of time. But he struggled with his footwork, particularly his back pedal, in his early years. Gilbert was fun to watch in his game against arch-rival Oklahoma. He's an emotional player, tempermental and angry - good for a defensive back. But he shows how the combination of over-excitement and poor technique leads to beats.

This play is interesting for a few reasons. You see how fast he is, and how powerfully he can accelerate. He's with the receiver, recognizing his route and funneling him to the sideline. To his credit, a receiver typically is going to run to the sticks and beyond on third and long. But for as well as he accelerates when in a footrace, he stops and turns slowly because of how he's leaning forward and isn't prepared to recover for the hitch.

His athleticism helps him recover, even though it takes a while for him to do so, and he ends up slamming the receiver to the ground.

That athleticism - in particular his speed, agility and strength - make him such a tantalizing prospect. At the risk of getting too subjective, it almost seems like his mindset has always been on playing on the offensive side of the ball. At the higher levels, athletes like Gilbert are going to play defense, but the lack of tenacity in run support and his nose for the ball suggest he's a guy who wants the ball in his hands more than reaching the general goal of stopping the guy who has it from moving forward.

If - and it's a big if - Gilbert is on the board at 15, the Steelers will be in a tough spot. Considering how raw his back pedal and footwork are, it's hard seeing him with the ability to contribute to a high degree next season. It also clouds his future, casting fair questions on whether that elite level athleticism will eventually translate into an elite level player. He certainly has the potential to be that, but he also may be just an athlete, not a football player.

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