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Steelers trade for CB Justin Gilbert comes with little risk

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The Steelers traded for cornerback Justin Gilbert on Saturday. The compensation sent over to Cleveland was a sixth round pick in 2018. For a secondary that’s in-need of as much high-end talent as possible, the risk was pretty low.

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

When I first read the news that the Steelers acquired cornerback Justin Gilbert in a trade with the Browns on Saturday, I was surprised.

I’m not saying I was pleasantly surprised to the point of jumping for joy, but the thought of picking up the eighth overall pick from the 2014 NFL Draft (a talented college player who mans a position Pittsburgh desperately needs to upgrade) was intriguing.

That the Steelers only had to part with the proverbial six-pack in-order to bring Gilbert aboard seemed like a bonus.

Speaking of that six-pack, it was a sixth round pick...in the 2018 NFL Draft. Adding everything up, it just seemed like a fairly low-risk move for the organization.

And it was.

However, I was surprised again on Saturday when I read more than a few negative reactions to the trade, reactions that were linked to the aforementioned sixth round pick Pittsburgh gave to the Browns in-order to make the low-risk move.

“Sixth round picks are important,” Tweeted some scout in a Twitter exchange with NFL.com reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala, “sorry, as a scout, I look at it differently.”

While other people shared a similar opinion regarding the Gilbert trade, this was obviously the minority viewpoint.

But for anyone to take exception to the Steelers parting with a sixth round pick two years down the road in-order to take a chance on a young corner with tremendous upside is just puzzling to me.

One of the byproducts of the explosion in popularity of modern football is that the annual NFL Draft has become an institution all its own. Some fans obsess over and look forward to the event more than they do the regular season, playoffs and Super Bowl combined. The draft has become so popular, the league began “awarding” it to cities outside of New York, starting in 2015. The City of Chicago was the first winner, and the weekend-long draft extravaganza was held at Auditorium Theater and Grant Park; according to writer Gregg Easterbrook in the book, The Game’s Not Over, the billionaire NFL owners would only agree to bring the draft to Chicago if the city waived the $937,000 fee it normally charged for big events at Grant Park (the first time that ever occurred).

What does that have to do with anything? Just to prove a point that the NFL Draft has become such a big deal, cities are waiving huge rights fees and pushing the bill on to taxpayers in-order to host the event; and fans are going nuts over every single round (instead of just the first, second and third, like the old days).

Back to Gilbert.

Obviously, he has issues. No player selected in the top 10 of a draft is going to be traded away for a late-round pick just two years later (to a division rival, no less) unless he has some things to work through.

What are those issues? Aside from grasping the cornerback position at the pro-level (extremely important), Gilbert also seems to have trouble coming to terms with the responsibilities of being a professional football player.

“Hard sleeper,” Gilbert told Cleveland.com in March when asked why he missed so many meetings in his rookie year (2014). “I wasn’t used to waking up consistently like that early in the morning. That’s all it was.”

Seems a bit flimsy as far as excuses go.

And what may be even more alarming is that Gilbert was under a new coaching staff in Cleveland this spring and summer. Hue Jackson was hired in January to take the place of Mike Pettine, Gilbert’s coach during his first two seasons. Soon after being named head coach, Jackson hired Ray Horton, he of the Dick LeBeau coaching tree, to be his new defensive coordinator. Around that same time, Louie Cioffi was named the Browns’ secondary coach.

That’s six fresh coaching eyes to evaluate the young Gilbert’s tremendous upside. Yet, those new coaches had no problem with sending him 115 miles southeast for a sixth round pick before they had a full season to coach him up.

That’s not the best of signs, which brings me back to that 2018 sixth round pick.

Tom Brady was once a sixth round pick; so was Antonio Brown.

Heck, for that matter, Arthur Moats, a fine Steelers outside linebacker, was drafted in the sixth round by the Bills in 2010—the same year Pittsburgh struck gold with No. 84.

Linebacker Anthony Chickillo just made his second Steelers roster after being picked in the sixth round in 2015, and he appears to be developing nicely as a pass-rusher; L.T. Walton, a defensive lineman selected in the same round and in the same draft as Chickillo, has also survived head coach Mike Tomlin’s final cuts for the second time and is providing depth behind the likes of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

Vince Williams, a sixth round pick out of Florida St. in the 2013 draft, has been a very valuable reserve inside linebacker over the past three years; after signing a new three-year deal this summer, he may be a future starter at the position if Lawrence Timmons doesn’t figure into the Steelers plans beyond this season.

So, sixth round picks are important, as they often provide depth and occasionally become superstars.

But for every Antonio Brown, there’s a Travis Feeney (he didn’t make the cut in his rookie camp). For every valuable reserve such as Williams, there are reserves like Jonathan Dwyer, a player who the Steelers picked seven spots head of Brown, but whose value to the team wasn’t deemed sufficient enough to warrant a second deal.

Mike Humpal, Ra’Shon Harris, Keith Williams and Jordan Zumwalt were just some of the Steelers recent sixth round picks who didn’t develop into anything even approaching capable backups.

As for big Dan McCullers, the sixth round pick in 2014, the jury is still out on him. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not exactly good either.

So, the Steelers will be missing a sixth round pick in 2018. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because they were without a sixth round pick this year thanks to the unfortunate trade for kicker Josh Scobee last summer (Feeney was a compensatory selection). And let’s not forget about that fifth round pick Pittsburgh was lacking thanks to the trade for corner Brandon Boykin last August.

That’s a lot of mid-to-late draft picks to be without. Fortunately, it seems the NFL hands out compensatory picks like Tic Tacs each year (much like Feeney, Chickillo was a compensatory sixth round selection).

My guess is, by the time the sixth round of the 2018 draft kicks off, the Steelers will probably have a compensatory pick thanks to a free agent departure, tampering by another team or cheating by the Patriots (that is, of course, if they don’t tick off another fan base by acquiring an actual sixth round pick before then).

And even if they don’t, there’s probably a greater chance Gilbert develops into something approaching at least a competent NFL corner than there is of the recently departed sixth round pick becoming the next Antonio Brown.

Can the fresh coaching eyes of defensive coordinator Keith Butler, secondary coach Carnell Lake and Tomlin see something in Gilbert to help him reach his lofty potential?

That remains to be seen, of course, but for a secondary that’s been lacking in high-end talent for years, it’s worth it to add Gilbert’s enormous upside in with the potential possessed by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Senquez Golson, and see what comes out on the other end.

Could the Steelers ultimately lose out on the deal? Yes, but it’s not like they took on a huge salary (his total cap hit over the next two seasons will be roughly $2.8 million), traded a first round pick away or brought Gilbert in and immediately signed him to a five year, $26 million contract.

As far as gambles go, the decision to part with a 2018 sixth round pick for the potential of Justin Gilbert was a pretty safe one for the Steelers.