BEREA — Cornerback Justin Gilbert didn’t need long to find a comfort zone in his first NFL training camp.
The No. 8 pick out of Oklahoma State started getting his hands on passes early in camp. He’s continued to make plays every day – on Tuesday he broke up a deep Johnny Manziel pass in a competitive team period — and has worked himself into the mix with the first-team defense, taking repetitions in the nickel package with Buster Skrine sliding into the slot.
“I love it,” Gilbert said Tuesday. “I feel comfortable when I’m in that position, and it always raises my level of play when I’m in there with them knowing that I’ve got those guys, the first unit, there. Playing with those guys, it just feels like the right place for me.”
The Browns drafted Gilbert — after trading a fifth-round pick to Minnesota to move up one spot — to pair him with Pro Bowler Joe Haden. But the coaching staff refuses to hand jobs to rookies, so Gilbert is still behind Skrine on the field and on the first official depth chart released Tuesday.
“The season hasn’t started yet,” Gilbert said.
Will his name be opposite Haden’s in the starting lineup Week 1 in Pittsburgh?
“I hope so,” he said.
Gilbert is easy to spot during practice, even when the 90 players are spread out among the four fields.
He’s 6-foot, 202 pounds – wonderful size for a corner — and looks even bigger in pads. He often bunches up his No. 21 jersey to show off his sculpted midsection.
Size isn’t everything. When Gilbert takes off, he’s one of the most fluid and explosive athletes in a Browns uniform.
“Size, length, speed, ability to change directions, ball skills, big-play capability,” secondary coach Jeff Hafley said of the scouting report on Gilbert coming out of Oklahoma State. “He returned kicks for touchdowns. He had interceptions for touchdowns.
“He’s got the tools now. If you make up a corner in a video game, that’s what you want him to look like.”
Gilbert is an inch taller and 7 pounds heavier than Haden. He’s 3 inches and 17 pounds bigger than Skrine.
The plan may not be in place from Day 1, but Gilbert on the outside and Skrine in the slot gives the Browns the pieces to have an elite cornerback group. Haden wouldn’t award the starting job to Gilbert, but likes what he’s seen.
“Justin Gilbert is playing really well,” he said. “He has all the tools that you need to be a legitimate lock-down outside corner — tall, fast, strong, can play the ball really well. At the same time, Buster’s not slacking off. Everybody’s just playing really well.”
Gilbert, who had 12 interceptions in 51 games at Oklahoma State, has shown a knack for getting his hands on the ball. He ripped it away from Andrew Hawkins last week for his first signature play of camp and has kept going.
“There’s no substitute for reps in pads,” coach Mike Pettine said. “I think he’s made a lot of strides. He’s getting better. We’ve gotten to the point where a lot of it is small detail stuff with him.”
During Tuesday’s session, Gilbert broke up a deep in to Hawkins from Brian Hoyer, almost intercepted Manziel when the ball bounced off fullback MarQueis Gray’s hands and broke up a deep pass from Manziel to Anthony Armstrong on third-and-long.
“That’s what I expect of myself every day,” Gilbert said. “I try to get better every day. That’s what I feel like I’ve been doing.”
The coaching staff has seen significant improvement from the draft to the start of camp to now. The more confident he gets, the more aggressive he can be on the edge of the defense.
“You saw him out there today. He was enjoying it. He was confident,” Hafley said. “He’s starting to understand the scheme. He’s starting to understand where his help is. He’s getting better every day, which is really exciting.”
Pettine identified Gilbert as the man he needed in the draft, and general manager Ray Farmer got him. Pettine wants his corners to be physical with receivers at the line, take away the underneath throw and contest the deep ball.
“That is a confidence thing to trust your recovery speed, that I can let a guy above me, knowing that the ball still has to come over me and I can recover,” Pettine said. “I think a lot of guys come out, they’re used to playing it safe and they have a lot of balls caught underneath.
“We want to have the best of both worlds. We want to be slightly underneath and trust that our help over the top will get there or that I can recover.”
Gilbert spent time with cornerback royalty Monday as Deion Sanders visited Browns headquarters with NFL Network.
“That’s a guy that I look up to,” he said. “I always watched videos of him on YouTube. It was a good time.”
Sanders had a warning.
“He told me that they were going to be coming at me with Joe Haden being on the other side,” Gilbert said. “I told him I was ready.”