Scouting for Steelers: Cornerback Justin Gilbert

The story of the Steelers which is being written before our eyes this year has had more plot twists than As the World Turns. This is a curious thing, being as the Steelers typically prefer to take a lunch pail sort of approach, with as little drama as possible.

But between the suspensions, James Harrison attempting to go to the mattresses with the NFL, and the constant litany of injuries, beginning with Shaun Suisham and Matt Spaeth failing their physicals, it has been just one thing after another.

The latest bit of drama concerns the Steelers’ new cornerback. And a curious case it is. Many had Justin Gilbert going to the Steelers in 2014. They had one of the higher picks they have had in recent years—No. 15. The hope was, this would allow them to finally be able to pick up one of the “elite” defensive backs, who are usually gone by the last dozen picks in the first round. Here’s what the writer for Walter Football said in his mock draft:

The Steelers always manage to secure a falling prospect. It was David DeCastro two years ago, and it happened to be Jarvis Jones last April. There’s a good chance that it’ll be Justin Gilbert this time around. Gilbert is this top corner in this class, but there isn’t much buzz surrounding him for some reason, despite his excellent Combine performance.

In fact Gilbert was taken at No. 8 by the Cleveland Browns, and the second-best DB, Kyle Fuller, was taken at No. 14. So the Steelers shocked everyone, as far as I could tell, by taking a player not even on a lot of people’s radar, Ryan Shazier. Although there are injury concerns with Shazier, when he is on the field and healthy he is the sort of player who can change the whole game practically single-handed.

So now the Steelers have Justin Gilbert as well. But instead of having to draft him at No. 15, passing up Ryan Shazier, they have both of them, at the added cost of a 2018(!) sixth-round draft pick. The catch is, Gilbert hasn’t, so far, turned out to be the sort of player they would have thought they were drafting had they gotten him back in 2014.

The question would appear to hinge on the old “nature vs. nurture” argument, writ large on the tablet of an NFL season or two. The Justin Gilbert the Browns got was no bargain. He was perennially late to team meetings. He played so poorly he was kept off the field by undrafted rookies and suspended by the team for the last game of the 2014 season.

At a time when the Browns were dealing with Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon you would think it would take something pretty big to get their attention. They implied that, in fact, something pretty big was the case with Gilbert. Jeremy Fowler, the AFC North (mainly Steeler) guy for ESPN, felt the way they went about it was unfair to Gilbert, as he wrote at the time:

Justin Gilbert suddenly has every off-field problem imaginable, a walking collage of NFL character issues.

That’s not fair to Gilbert. This is pure speculation. But the Browns are leaving fans no choice but to wonder about all possibilities with their first-round cornerback after comments made by team brass at the NFL scouting combine this week.

Coach Mike Pettine said Gilbert, who struggled mightily as a rookie in 2014, is dealing with “more than” the normal rookie problems such as work ethic and focus.

“I don’t want to get into it,” Pettine said. “It’s very personal.”

General manager Ray Farmer said the Browns learned more about Gilbert’s problems after drafting him No. 8 overall but still believe he can be productive.

The Browns’ intentions could be good here — there’s a reason for Gilbert’s struggles — but the comments add fuel to an already uneasy situation. The Browns are essentially making things worse for Gilbert by making people guess what the personal issue actually is.

All this leaves Gilbert twisting in the wind a bit, exacerbating the negative attention surrounding him after he was disciplined by the team on multiple occasions during the year…

You can’t help but wonder whether Gilbert would have done better on a different team—almost any other team. Interestingly, then GM Ray Farmer said that he still felt Gilbert was a good player. Of course Steeler fans are going to think Gilbert would have done much better had the Steelers drafted him. Many feel that with a fresh start and a strong locker room Gilbert can perhaps hit the reset button and eventually grow into the player the Browns thought they were drafting.

Many others aren’t buying this, of course, and correctly point out that the Steelers have their own problem children. And ultimately it has to be the choice of the young man himself. One of the knocks against him in Cleveland was that he didn’t even seem to like playing football.

Rant Sports article last fall after Gilbert was benched for the game vs. the Steelers summarizes the problem:

Having a top pick waste away watching a game in his street clothes during his second season is already bad enough. Somehow, the reasoning from Cleveland’s secondary coach Jeff Hafley explaining why Gilbert was scratched makes things so much worse.

“It is not effort,” Hafley said. “It is just technique, being consistent.”

“Be consistent in practice with his technique. Be consistent in the meeting room. Come out every day and compete. Show us and his teammates that he deserves to be out there on the field.”

Once again the question is, nature or nurture? That’s what the Steelers propose to find out. So let’s break down the problems.

  1. Time management

I’m using this for shorthand for the lateness-to-meetings problems. Gilbert was apparently quoted as saying he was “a very hard sleeper.” Presumably this means he had difficulty waking up. This is a problem many of us who are not morning persons can relate to. It doesn’t mean it is excusable.

But perhaps the problem wasn’t actually time management so much as expectation management. Many of us who were not naturally good students have experienced the fresh hope and determination at the beginning of a new semester and the gradual fall into hopelessness as you fall farther and farther behind. It’s a vicious cycle. If you know that what awaits you at team meetings is mockery or worse for your failed efforts, it’s pretty hard to get excited about getting up.

(I will just insert that I’m not attempting to excuse the young man. This is what he signed on for. But there are almost always reasons for things, even if they aren’t sufficient to excuse the actions.)

So how could this be different in Pittsburgh? Well, it won’t be unless Gilbert’s ‘unspeakable gratitude’ for this new opportunity translates into action. Only time will tell whether he has hit the reset button or whether he will gradually descend into the old patterns of behavior. I will say, though, that he will have a lot of people who want to help him. Fans of other teams make fun of the supposed “Steeler Way,” as do the sports radio guys, but players from other franchises, such as Ryan Clark and Jerricho Cotchery, comment on how different things are in Pittsburgh. This is frequent enough that it indicates there is an underlying truth beneath what many see as hype.

2. Technique

Technique is a funny thing. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t teach anyone anything, but they can choose to learn it from you. This is particularly true with something as basically unattractive to most human beings as technique. Young piano students don’t want to practice scales, they want to play “Für Elise” or the theme from Star Wars or whatever is cool in their circle of music geeks.

Technique takes the “fun” out of “fundamental.” As a result, it can be very difficult to get players to take it as seriously as it warrants. A young piano student who completely ignores technique can do alright for a while, but sooner or later they come up against a wall. You can’t play the “Revolutionary” Etude without excellent technique. If you don’t know what that is, click on the video below to find out. I think you will see what I mean.

Crazy. And not unlike what is required to play cornerrback well in the NFL. You can’t get by with speed alone. Gilbert has all the physical gifts. Whether he has the drive and desire to develop them so that he becomes the player he could be is, once again, up to him. I’m hoping that the rather player-centric approach of the Steelers coaching staff will help to draw this out of him.

3. Attitude

So far Gilbert is saying all the right things. This is a big improvement from his time in Cleveland, when he mostly said nothing at all, in the most negative way possible. A scathing article from last fall in details some of the problems with Gilbert:

Gilbert’s personality problems are apparent to anyone who’s been around him for longer than a day. He’s withdrawn and carries a distinct false sense of entitlement that shows itself when he acts downright aloof to how his negative behavior rubs people the wrong way.Browns community and marketing staffers rarely bother asking him to participate in activities with fans — usually a must for recent draft picks…

While other Browns players generally make an effort to get to know each other in the locker room and cafeteria, Gilbert is usually by himself, sometimes even leaving the facility during the free hour period before practice. Team good guy Joe Haden attempted to mentor Gilbert this offseason by working out with him in Miami, but Gilbert continued to push away veterans looking to help guide him in Cleveland. He’s isolated himself from the team.

Curiously, this reminds me a bit of Rashard Mendenhall, a young man who couldn’t, or didn’t care to, fulfill fan expectations. Had he been a tremendous success as a running back all would have been forgiven, but when you’re not producing up to expectations anything becomes an annoyance for the fans. I find myself wondering whether Mendenhall’s time here would have been more like Le’Veon Bell’s (hopefully without the drug issues) had he had the offensive line to run behind that Bell has. It’s interesting to speculate whether Mendenhall’s “dancing around instead of just hitting the hole” everyone complained so bitterly about would have looked more like Le’Veon Bell’s “extraordinary patience.” I don’t know enough about it to say. Maybe some of you can enlighten me.

Perhaps Gilbert is just miscast as an NFL player. Just having the physical gifts are not enough. Perhaps the mental gifts, if you will, are lacking, and the Steelers are wasting their time and efforts. Perhaps, as Shakespeare might have said, the fault, dear Justin, is not in your stars but in yourself.

Or perhaps the stars aligned just as disastrously as they possibly could in sending Gilbert to Cleveland, and they have repented and sent him to Pittsburgh.

But unless he is determined to persevere through the difficulties and challenges a fresh start presents, nothing the staff and locker room can do will make a difference. Of all the things to predict, people are the trickiest. I have no predictions, only a hope that the Justin Gilbert we see in six months or a year would be completely unrecognizable to the folks in Cleveland.




  • He could fall flat, but he just may end up as one of the Steelers’ classic redemption stories. Hoping for the latter.


  • One of the least examined aspects player procurement is that of ‘fit’ with a team or community culture. Too often the assumption is that a player would be well suited anywhere there is a need at a particular position, I think it is just common sense that some situations will be more or less challenging for different personalities to thrive. I think that the Steelers may well be one of the organizations that takes a factor like that into account. I don’t belief all teams do.

    For example, I wasn’t particularly surprised that Plaxico Burress started having issues when he went to New York City. There is something weak, chaotic, maybe even toxic about the Cleveland team culture. This is not to absolve Gilbert from his own contributions to his difficulties, but keeping that in mind opens the possibility that a change in environment could yield dramatic results..or not.


  • HawaiianSteeler86

    I was happy that the Steelers traded a 2018 sixth round pick for Justin Gilbert. The young man has all the physical talent required to be an excellent NFL CB. I hope he takes this opportunity to contribute as a punt returner or defensive back in our quest for a seventh Lombardi Trophy.


  • Great write up. I like the observation about not feeling so inspired to go into work when you know you are just going to be criticized,


  • Hey worldtrip, nice to hear from you. As I said, it doesn’t excuse anything, but it would make it understandable…


  • I know it is early, but so far the Steelers reportedly like what they see of him in practice. It could be some form of undiagnosed anxiety that is affecting Justin Gilbert. Sadly, anxiety is a hard problem to treat.


  • Says a lot to me about the room the Steelers think they have now. Tomlin has been building up leadership in each room for several years, and all of our draft picks at DB have been team captains and guys with great stories motivating them.

    To take a chance on Gilbert, who as a big time athlete and high draft pick could carry some weight in a room with only 2 other CBs that have played a down in the NFL and neither of them having pedigree anything like Gilbert, tells me that Tomlin thinks the leadership in that room is in place and ready to be a positive force on Gilbert.


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