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Like Randall Cobb, CB Justin Gilbert Provides Return Specialist Dilemma

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Like Randall Cobb, CB Justin Gilbert Provides Return Specialist Dilemma

Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert at the NFL Combine. Photo by Brian Carriveau of

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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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (18) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

lmills's picture

If Pryor and Dix are already gone, I would gladly take either Gilbert or Dennard at #21. I'm pretty certain that Gilbert will be gone by then though.

Greenville's picture

Gilbert will definitely be gone. I think he'd be perfect for the packers, he'd be that shut down corner we haven't had in along time.

benagain's picture

Gilbert plays with the physicality and anticipation to play Safety, and is by far the best safety prospect in the draft. But he doesn't have the coverage skills to be a Shut-down CB, at least not yet, not even close. Jason Verrett is much much better in coverage.

Round1 pick 21: Possible Best Players Available

S:Justin Gilbert, CB:Jason Verret, ILB:Ryan Shazier, ILB:Kyle VanNoy, WR:Brandon Cook, LB:Dee Ford, DT:RaShede Hageman

Drealyn Williams's picture

Pryor scares me for all of the wrong reasons. Now,i don't know his injury background,but I've seen a few highlight reels and he reminds me of Bob Sanders. If he's constantly throwing his body around like that -- could he stay healthy for 16+ games?

4thand1's picture

He may draw a lot of penalties with the new rules. Give me a sure tackler.

Stroh's picture

Pryor has been compared to Sanders by some. Except he doesn't run nearly as fast it would seem. Pryor is a little bigger, but the NFL is different now. Could be a penalty machine... Used to be really high on him, now not so much.

steven's picture

I would die if we got gilbert. He is an amazing talent. Last year I really only wanted datone jones or lacy round one. This year i would be happy with ebron, gilbert, mosely, pryor, dix, buccannom and thats just to name a few. Lol

Eraserhead's picture

Me want that player. We need more black talent.

steven's picture

^^^ he is definetly a troll

4thand1's picture

Eraser, don't be racist. Be nice. 80% of the NFL in not caucasian.

steven's picture

Anyone else want seferian jenkins?

lmills's picture

In the second maybe. He seems kind of lumbering to me. Like he's not very sudden in any of his movements.

Stroh's picture

Don't know I would even go that high. 3rd for sure tho... He is immature from what I've come across, he doesn't have a very good separation or run after catch ability. Great size, speed athlete tho. Might be a character risk. If he gets in better shape, cleans up some aspects of his game he could be a game breaking TE, but he could bust big too.

Stroh's picture

Still say it... Pick up a FA safety to start, move Hyde to Safety and draft Gilbert. Can be a role player for a year, and if Tramon isn't extended can take over as a starter in '15. His return ability is an added bonus. Of course I still think McCarthy should have Cobb doing returns. Gilbert would probably be another one year fix on returns too. Hyde is OK and reliable, but definitely want more than he can offer.

steven's picture

Gilbert seems like he has an amazong ceiling. Awesome speed and six foot. Been awhile since we had that

Stroh's picture

His ceiling is Woodson-esque. He reminds me of a young Woodson. Now that is just based on size, speed, ball skills, etc. He doesn't have Woods tacking or physicality, but he's got some of the traits that made Wood a dominant player. He hasn't proven at any level that he is THAT good, but he's got a chance to be. The tools are there...

steven's picture

Dang, now i want him in the first haha. But as far as Te goes i would still love one in the draft. One of the top five preferably. Just not amaro from texas. The te from notre dame or iowa would suffice

RC Packer Fan's picture

I like Gilbert a lot.

I just don't see him being available to the Packers at 21.

2 NFC North teams ahead of the Packers could easily take him. Lions at 10 and Bears at 14. Both have CB needs.

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