Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Justin Gilbert

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be one post. It could be 25). And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - one each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first three posts in this series looked at Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, Louisville quarterback Ted Bridgewater and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The fourth post in this series looks at a player some draft analysts consider the top cornerback in this draft - Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert.

Every NFL team is looking for big cornerbacks. That's especially true if you play in the NFC North where teams must deal with 6'5 Calvin Johnson (Detroit), 6'4 Brandon Marshall and 6'3 Alshon Jeffrey (Chicago) and 6'3 Jordy Nelson (Green Bay). The Minnesota Vikings play those teams twice a year, and the thinking goes that they would be wise to grab as many six foot-plus corners as they can find.

Justin Gilbert fits that mold. Just a shade over six feet tall and weighing in around 200 pounds, he's got the size NFL teams are looking for to combat today's Godzilla-sized WRs and hybrid WR/TEs with long arms, big mitts and 30-plus inch verticals.

An even bigger plus with Gilbert is he's also got the speed to stick with WRs - big or small - as he runs in the 4.3 range. That size/speed combination, and the fact he finished his 2013 season with 7 interceptions (tied for third-best in college football), could see Gilbert be a top 15 pick and the first corner drafted next month.

I went into the "Get to Know 'Em" process already liking Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard a lot. But after watching several videos of Gilbert's play during the 2013 season, I find myself torn as to what corner would be a better pick for the Vikings.

One thing I'm realizing as the years go by is that being able to run fast doesn't mean you can cover anyone (see Robinson, Josh). But in Gilbert's case, that's not a problem. What you get with Gilbert is a guy who stuck to the college WRs he was covering like glue. You can go stretches of 20 to 25 plays in game videos of Gilbert where opponents don't even try to throw in his direction - a clear sign they wanted no part of this guy. Scouting reports also stress Gilbert is a very "fluid" athlete, who can flip his hips and go from back pedaling to running hip-to-hip with WRs with ease. You won't find the word "stiff" used in any scouting report on Gilbert, whereas that pops up from time-to-time in Dennard's write-ups.

He's also good at mirroring receivers through their various moves and staying on the hip of the guy he's covering even on inside routes. It's rare in a game that you'll find a WR get any separation from Gilbert, and the times it does happen it often seems to be by design - either Gilbert's playing zone or he's just giving his opponent plenty of cushion because Oklahoma State is up a bunch.

As his 7 INTs in 2013 indicate, Gilbert's ball skills are very good - something the Vikings could use in their secondary. He can come out of his backpedal and close on long sideline throws to make a play on the ball, and on deep throws he's got great hands for a defensive back. He attacks the ball in the air and goes for interceptions rather than just trying to bat balls away. 

Oklahoma State's 38-13 win over Texas last year provides ample evidence of Gilbert's talents. The video is only 8 minutes long (Gilbert is wearing a white #4 jersey), so I suggest giving it a look.


A few highlights from the video I'd like to point out:

1) At the 0:57 mark of the video, look at how Gilbert easily stays with the Texas WR on this slant pattern and knocks away the pass with his left arm without drawing a pass interference penalty.

2) At the 4:43 mark, Gilbert makes the first of his 2 INTs in the game against Texas QB Case McCoy (Colt McCoy's younger brother.) Gilbert appears to sit on the route, breaks on it nicely and then he has great extension to pluck the ball out of the air on this sideline throw, gather himself and then race down the sideline untouched for a pick-six. That's pretty sweet hands and athleticism on display.

3) Speaking of hands and athleticism, check out the 7:02 mark of the video as Gilbert picks off McCoy again on a deep throw down the right sideline. Who was the wide receiver here? Gilbert's running stride for stride with Texas WR Kendall Sanders, extends to catch the ball and doesn't lose it even though Sanders is trying to rip the ball out the entire time. Impressive stuff.

One area where Gilbert needs a lot of work, however, is in his tackling. The Texas game was one of his better efforts, so there is nothing too heinous to point out in this video. But watch enough video from his 2013 season and you'll notice something - for a guy who is over six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, Gilbert is not a very physical or willing tackler. He tends to tackle players around knee-high. The player goes down, but always falls forward for an extra yard or three. Gilbert also doesn't shed blocks well at all. When an opposing player gets his hands on Gilbert, the OSU star often gets pushed backwards three or four yards and can't get off the block to make a tackle or help on a tackle.

Although Gilbert will be paid in the pros for his pass defense, this timid tackling and problem fighting off blocks is not a small issue if he plays for the Vikings. The WR screen - where offenses run bunch formations and the ball is thrown to a WR near the line of scrimmage with one or two other WRs blocking - is a staple play for Green Bay and Chicago. Remember how much mileage the Packers got out of those screens in the 2012 season finale once Antoine Winfield left the game with a broken hand? That's a play Gilbert - with his current tackling mindset and lack of ability to shed blockers - will be victimized by time and again at the pro level if he doesn't fix those issues. 

However, the rest of the skills are there. Gilbert's got that kind of long, rangy build that reminds me of Champ Bailey and Antonio Cromartie - two pretty good corners. He's a different player than Dennard. Whereas Dennard's strategy is to beat up WRs at the line of scrimmage (and sometimes beyond), Gilbert seems to rely more on his fluid motion, speed and ability to stop and re-start on a dime to blanket receivers. And whereas Dennard played a bunch of press man-to-man, Gilbert wasn't asked to do this much. He's usually playing off the WR by a few yards in the videos I saw and then he relies on his speed and quick hips to stay with his man. That's not to say Gilbert can't play press coverage, just that he wasn't asked to do it much from what I saw in 2013. Oh, one other thing about Gilbert, I saw very little evidence of Gilbert grabbing WRs jerseys to stay with him (the kind of thing Dennard does frequently) on deep throws.

Having eyeballed both Gilbert and Dennard, I'd have to say Gilbert is the better corner on pass defense, but Dennard is far superior in defending the run and the screen game.

I love Dennard and would be happy if the Vikings drafted him. But after watching lots of Gilbert video, I think I would prefer if the Vikes drafted him instead. With the 6'1 Xavier Rhodes and the six-foot-and-a-bit Gilbert, the Vikings would have two tall and long-armed corners to mix it up with the Calvin Johnson's and Alshon Jeffrey's of the NFL. And if Gilbert can be taught to be more aggressive and physical in his tackling and shedding of blocks, he could develop into a much better player in that area, eliminating the biggest weakness in his game.

* To watch more videos of Gilbert, check out his landing age on the Draft Breakdown site here.

2 comments:

  1. Have to agree with you that there's no question he's an elite athlete and could be better than Dennard. I couldn't argue with with the Vikings taking him before DD based on that. I'm going to contradict myself here after talking about quarterbacks, but even though Gilbert has the potential to be better, I like the overall football player that Dennard is right now. I'd be happy with either one, it would make a formidable secondary out of the complete crap from last year.

    As for comparisons, Champ Bailey is a hall of famer, if Gilbert is anywhere close to that you take him and run. Bailey was a lot more physical with the size and speed to go with it. If Gilbert can toughen up, he will be the best corner in this draft. If not, he's Terrance Newman. I like Dennard but he could be exposed at the next level too, we'll see. I don't think you take either at #8 though. The thing that worries me is dropping back when Detroit at #10, Tennesse at #11 and Pittsburgh at #15 (and probably someone else in there) all need corners. It is risky picking up another 3rd rounder and maybe losing out on a sure starter.

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    1. ETR:

      I've seen some mock drafts that have the Lions taking Gilbert at #10 and lots of drafts have the Steelers taking Dennard at #15 if he's still there. So you are right, if the Vikings trade down, they can't trade down too far because the Lions might scoop up either Gilbert or Dennard and the Titans and the Steelers definitely take those guys.

      However, there has also been talk that the Lions will trade up to snag Sammy Watkins. Buffalo sits at #9, and I think they might be looking for another WR. Would they be willing to trade up to land Mike Evans if he's still there at #8?

      Of course, we don't know whom the Vikings really like. Some mock drafts have Kyle Fuller going later in the first round or early in the second. He's big and fast, so he could work, too. Then there's Ohio State's Roby, who I've read mixed reviews about. But if the Vikings go Bridgewater or another QB at #8, then there are some intriguing options at cornerback in the late first and early second round they could look at beyond Gilbert or Dennard. I haven't seen any corners listed as taking part in the Vikings "Top 30" event. That's probably an indication they are mighty interested in some of these top corners.

      Lots of speculation and the draft inches closer and closer ...

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