Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert may be fighting to save his National Football League career in 2016.
The 2014 National Football League Draft Class of the Cleveland Browns may go down as the worst in franchise history.
Quarterback Johnny Manziel is a lost cause in ways beyond his playing career. The only hope, moving forward, is that Manziel’s story doesn’t end in tragedy. Running back Terrance West played himself off of two franchises before signing for the Baltimore Ravens. Guard Joel Bitonio is the only starter of the bunch, while linebacker Christian Kirksey and defensive back Pierre Desir both hope to impress new Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson during the summer months.
Then, there’s cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Gilbert’s saga is well-documented. The Browns selected Gilbert with the eighth-overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Gilbert performed admirably during his first summer with the club before regressing on and off the field during his rookie campaign. He eventually fell out of favor with then-coach Mike Pettine for reasons documented in an excellent piece written by Kevin Jones for Cleveland Scene in November 2015.
What’s done is done. Gilbert cannot go back in time and right whatever wrongs he committed while working underneath Pettine and Pettine’s former staff. What happened in the past shouldn’t affect Gilbert’s future, nor should however well or however poorly Gilbert performed during 2016 spring workouts the majority of us never witnessed.
Maybe Gilbert is maturing before the eyes of Jackson and those currently running the Browns. Perhaps Gilbert is still a mess as of July 1. Whether he is at either extreme or somewhere in the middle, they’ll be no excuses if Gilbert isn’t 100 percent ready for preseason action this coming August.
Gilbert is not Manziel in many ways. For starters, Gilbert is not battling the types of personal demons that sunk the former Johnny Football. Gilbert is not in any kind of trouble with the NFL, nor is Gilbert set to miss playing time because of disciplinary matters or any similar bans.
Beginning with his early days as Cleveland head coach, Jackson preached an interesting doctrine of personal accountability mixed with a willingness to offer fresh starts. It’s one reason wide receiver Josh Gordon remains technically part of the Browns even though Gordon remains indefinitely suspended by the NFL until at least August if not for all of the 2016 season. Jackson, to his credit, is willing to work with those who maybe struggled under the prior Cleveland regime.
Gilbert differs from Manziel in one other way: Gilbert is still on a rookie contract for a top-ten draft pick, and thus he is a different financial liability than Manziel.
Gilbert, per Spotrac, is signed through at least the 2017 season. All $12.833 million of Gilbert’s contract is guaranteed to the cornerback as of this time. Gilbert’s cap hit for 2016 is roughly $3.5 million, while the dead money hit connected to his deal for this year is about $7.58 million.
In short: It would cost the Browns to cut him this summer.
That reality did not stop ESPN Staff Writer Pat McManamon from not including Gilbert on his 53-man roster projection for a piece that was published in the middle of June. From McManamon:
Justin Gilbert got a long look in the offseason with Haden out. He had moments, but struggled with technique. His spot is in jeopardy, though he could earn it back in preseason with sound, consistent play on defense and/or special teams.
The truth of the matter is that, unless something happens to change the situation in the near future, there is no reason for the Browns to give up on Gilbert at any point in 2016.
Cutting Gilbert before Week 1 doesn’t send any kind of message to veterans or younger players on the roster minus “some of you can get paid to leave down AND sign with a team of your choosing if you loaf around here during the preseason.” Gilbert doesn’t present any distractions in the locker room. Per the piece produced by Jones, Gilbert more so keeps to himself than he causes trouble among teammates.
It cannot be said or written enough that 2016 is one massive evaluation process for Jackson, his coaches and for those on the Cleveland roster. The Super Bowl is not within reach of the Browns this time around. That’s fine. Gilbert, Robert Griffin III and others should be given several months to prove themselves on the field, in the class room and in the weight room before any of them are discarded.
Remember, also, that there remains a market for an athlete such as Gilbert. Somewhere out there is some head coach or defensive coordinator who would love to get his hands on Gilbert and show that the Oklahoma State product is merely yet another victim of the culture of losing that continues to infect the Browns. Cutting Gilbert may not be Cleveland’s only option if the club deems him a lost cause on September 1.
In a perfect world, no such transaction will occur. Gilbert will “get it,” earn playing time, dive all-in on being a NFL player and turn the first couple of years of his career into mere memories that will be laughed about ten years down the road. Even Gilbert earning a spot on the roster through the completion of his contract, with or without the activation of his fifth-year option, would be considered a success at this stage of his career.
Gilbert is currently a much bigger bust, roughly three-times as much a bust, than Manziel because of when the Browns selected Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft. Only Gilbert can work to change that. For all we know, though, Gilbert may want a change of scenery away from northeast Ohio and away from a perennial NFL laughingstock.
If that’s the case, the Browns will, in time, close the door on another failed 2014 NFL Draft experiment.