The Green Bay Packers have been trying to get Randall Cobb off kick returns ever since the conclusion of his rookie season, viewing him as too valuable to expose to injury lest his impact to the team's offense be put in danger as well.
One solution is to draft a return specialist, someone that would allow Cobb to focus on offense and being one of Aaron Rodgers' most-dangerous weapons via the Packers' aerial assault.
An option is potentially there for Green Bay in the first round of May's NFL Draft in Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, perhaps the No. 1 rated cornerback in this year's class and someone that might be able to replace Sam Shields should he leave in free agency.
Not only is Gilbert among the top-ranked cornerbacks, but he's also a treacherous return specialist, having scored on six kickoffs over the course of his college career.
"I think I'm a dangerous return man with the ball in my hands, and on an interception there is always a possibility for me to take it back to the house, " said Gilbert.
In four years at Oklahoma State, Gilbert has been a highly productive player, making 12 interceptions––including seven his senior season––and averaging 26.3 yards on 102 kickoff returns.
Part of what makes Gilbert a dangerous returner and sets him apart from the rest of the cornerbacks eligible for this year's draft is his speed. A compelling argument can be made that Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard will be the top two corners off the board once the draft commences, but Dennard doesn't have the fleet feet of Gilbert.
"I think he's a pretty complete player," said Gilbert of Dennard. "He's not as fast me, I can tell you that."
Proof came at the NFL Combine last week when Gilbert turned in the fastest time in the 40-yard dash of any defensive back, covering the distance in 4.37 seconds. Dennard, by comparison, didn't even rank in the Top 10, clocking in at 4.51 seconds.
The problem for the Packers––should they happen to draft Gilbert––is they'll be back to Square One with a player that's arguably too valuable to risk playing on special teams. They tried unsuccesfully to replace Cobb with Jeremy Ross from time to time in 2012 and 2013 before giving up on him mid-season this past year.
A mistake may have been made in releasing Ross prematurely, a move that came back to bite the Packers as Ross was signed by the Detroit Lions and averaged 29.3 yards on 15 kick returns the remainder of the season. He also scored a touchdown on a reception against the Packers in the Lions' Thanksgiving Day win.
Micah Hyde, however, may have emerged as the Packers' punt returner of the present and future this past season when he led all NFL rookies with a 12.3 punt return average in 2013, but he doesn't have the requisite speed for kick returns.
When all the cards were on the table in the Packers' wildcard round playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers in January, the Packers found themselves with no choice but to turn to Cobb on kick returns, despite being back for just his second game after coming off injured reserve with a broken leg.
Cobb and Gilbert may conceivably be able to split duties in Green Bay, but there's a decent chance he'll long gone before the Packers are on the clock with the 21st overall selection in the first round. So may Dennard for that matter.
"From my perspective, I think both corners are going to go between, worst case, 11 and 20," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
When the Packers declined to use either the franchise or transition tag on Shields by Monday's deadline, the prospects of Shields leaving Green Bay looked more real than ever, not that they're giving up on signing him entirely.
But should Shields leave, the Packers will have a legitimate need for a perimeter cornerback, especially considering Tramon Williams enters the final year of his contract in 2014. Gilbert may not be available by the time the 21st selection rolls around, but if he happens to drop, he may become a no-brainer when the Packers pick.
There's plenty Gilbert brings to the table, in addition to being a cornerback whose specialty is his press-man coverage.
When asked what makes him the best cornerback in the draft, Gilbert said, "Dedication to the game and the work that I put in day in and day out off the field, watching film, making guys around me better, the younger guys when I was Oklahoma State, always talking to them and bringing them in and watching film."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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