Labriola On

Labriola on trading for Justin Gilbert

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • As a true freshman in college, he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. He had five interceptions as a sophomore, including one apiece in games against Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill, all of whom currently are NFL starting quarterbacks. In 13 games as a senior, he had seven more interceptions and returned two of those for touchdowns.
  • This same guy went to the NFL Combine and did 20 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, and his 4.37 in the 40-yard dash was the fastest among all of the cornerbacks in Indianapolis that week. He finished his four college seasons with eight non-offensive touchdowns – two on interceptions and six on kickoff returns.
  • He's 6-feet tall. His arms measure 33-and-1/8 inches long. He will be 25 years old on Nov. 7.
  • The name that belongs to the above set of facts and figures is Justin Gilbert, and you can have him on your football team in exchange for a sixth-round pick in a draft two years from now. Interested?
  • There has to be a catch, right? NFL teams don't have enough cornerbacks who are tall, fast, and interceptors of the football, let alone extra cornerbacks who are tall, fast, and interceptors of the football.
  • The catch with Gilbert is that during his two years with the Cleveland Browns, who made him the eighth overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, he was an underachieving and insubordinate employee. After a less-than-productive rookie year, Gilbert admitted that he "missed a ton of team meetings" as a rookie because "I was a hard sleeper."
  • Clearly a knucklehead thing to say into a live microphone, and also evidence that the person saying it is tone deaf both to his situation and what it's going to take to succeed in his chosen profession. And things never really got any better.
  • Reports are that veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby tried to get through to Gilbert and were unsuccessful to the point of frustration. If Justin Gilbert actually had any idea of how to be a professional and a good teammate, he was showing no interest in walking that path, and his on-field performance wasn't close to being good enough to put up with his shenanigans.
  • When the Browns hired Hue Jackson on Jan. 23 to be their ninth coach since the franchise returned to the NFL for the 1999 season, Gilbert should have been aware he had been placed on the NFL version of double-secret probation. But not even that moved him enough to precipitate the type of change necessary to ingratiate himself to the new boss.
  • The way it often works in the NFL is that when a new coach is hired, other teams will watch that roster carefully because there could be some opportunities for bargains as the new guy often cuts ties with a bunch of the players brought in by the previous regime. No sense taking the risk of going down the tubes with people to whom the new coach has no allegiance, and so from a rival GM's point of view, it becomes a situation to monitor.
  • The first indication that there might be some blue-light specials for shoppers perusing the Browns depth chart came when Barkevious Mingo – the sixth overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft – was shipped to the New England Patriots for a fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. That indicated the Browns were open for business, and in the course of doing their due diligence as this preseason was drawing to a conclusion the Steelers were able to get in and get a deal done for Justin Gilbert without it becoming a competitive situation with another interested team.
  • But isn't is also possible that Gilbert was such a jerk in Cleveland that nobody else was interested? Certainly, but the Steelers had invested the time during the scouting process leading up to the 2014 draft to get to know Justin Gilbert, which, according to reports from Cleveland, the Browns did not. That was the team that spent the eighth overall pick on a player it didn't interview at the Combine, that it didn't bring in for a pre-draft visit, that it didn't work out at any time during the run-up to picking him.
  • Maybe the Steelers' decision came down to the fact they took some time and put in a little bit of extra effort to get to know Justin Gilbert as an individual, where the Browns did not.
  • Tom Reed wrote a story about Gilbert for Cleveland.com in which he talked to Shane Martin, who was Gilbert's coach at Huntsville High School in Texas. In the story, Reed quoted Martin as saying, "He's a quiet kid and he hated talking to reporters. I'd end up having to answer the questions for him. He just never wanted the attention focused on him."
  • More from Reed's story: "But had the Browns spoken with Martin they might have learned how important establishing trust is with Gilbert. They might have learned how much his small hometown means to him. The high school coach has heard the stories of the cornerback being a loner in the Browns' facility and not wanting to participate in community events. Martin doesn't dispute the report. But it also doesn't mesh with his memories of Gilbert's prep career and the player's willingness to help out around Huntsville. Martin described him as a selfless athlete, a kid willing to play any position to help the team … Away from competition, Martin recalled (Gilbert) volunteering time to read to children as part of an educational program and organizing a community basketball tournament following his first season with the Browns … 'Justin enjoys structure and it has to be there,' Martin said."
  • Gilbert will get structure here, the kind of structure that comes from the stability that starts at the top of the organizational chart and runs through every aspect of football operations. With the Steelers, it's the same team president, the same general manager, and the same coach, all the way down to the same video director and the same head trainer who all now are part of Justin Gilbert's professional life.
  • Maybe he still doesn't succeed, but he has been put into an environment created to help players succeed. What he will have to do is apply himself, act like a professional, work hard, and be accountable to teammates who will prove to him they have too much of themselves invested in this program to allow him to derail their efforts.
  • When Justin Gilbert comes to work these days, he walks past the six Lombardi trophies that are lined up in a row at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and he goes to work for a team that lists competing for a championship as its goal for each and every season.
  • He came from a team undergoing yet another overhaul of its football operations and will be adjusting to still another head coach. Said Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown earlier this summer, "We would be very disappointed if we have four wins (in 2016)."
  • Justin Gilbert's professional life has undergone a dramatic change, and if he can get that professional life on the right track he can help the Steelers compete for championships. If that doesn't get his competitive juices flowing and get him focused on what matters, then it will turn out the Steelers wasted a sixth-round pick in a draft two years from now.
  • In the financial world, the risk/return tradeoff often is called the "ability-to-sleep-at-night test." In this football version, the Steelers can sleep peacefully.
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