Steelers must find out what they have in Justin Gilbert

Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Justin Gilbert (24) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Justin Gilbert (24) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ acquisition of Justin Gilbert came as a surprise to many. After two dismal seasons with the Cleveland Browns, the former first-round pick was sent to the Steel City in exchange for a mere six-round draft pick in 2018.

The Steelers have had success with taking first-rounders and working them into successful athletes. Darrius Heyward-Bey was a first-round selection in the 2009 draft who had lackluster tenures in Oakland and Indianapolis. Since joining the Steelers in 2014, he has become a deep threat on offense, as well as a one of the Steelers’ best blocking receivers.

Gilbert’s unfortunate situation in Cleveland is that he was expected to immediately be a productive cornerback across from Joe Haden. Quarterbacks were already going to steer clear of Haden, and targeting a raw, inexperienced defensive back such as Gilbert allowed them to complete passes with ease.

With the Steelers, he has been given an opportunity to restart his career. Being the fourth cornerback on the Steelers’ depth chart hasn’t given him many chances to be productive. Gilbert has played in a total of eleven snaps on defense in the eleven games he has been active.

In the Steelers’ final game of the regular season, a majority of the starters will be on the field in a limited fashion or not at all. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell are removed from the game early to protect them from injury, Gilbert could see an extended amount of time on the field against his former team.

Gilbert has mainly contributed on Special Teams’ snaps this year with a total of 103. Seeing how he performs in a complete game would give the Steelers a little insight on how well he has prepared this year. Senquez Golson‘s return in 2017 could shuffle him back to the 5th spot on the depth chart, or end up having him released from the team.

The former Oklahoma State standout has the optimal physique for a starting cornerback in the league. The six-foot, 200 lbs defensive back has returned three kicks this year, and could find himself in rotation for kickoff and punt returns in Sunday’s game. The Steelers were noticably ailed in punt returns in last year’s Divisional round playoff game after losing Antonio Brown to injury.

Involving Gilbert in the defense would also prepare him in the event something drastic were to occur. If any of the Steelers’ three starting cornerbacks were to become injured, Gilbert would see his snaps on defense increase. Having him play a reserve role with less than a dozen snaps under his belt doesn’t bode well for his chances to succeed.

If the Steelers utilize him in pass defense, he already has a rapport with two of the receivers on the Browns’ offense. Both Andrew Hawkins and Terrelle Pryor here in Cleveland for his last full year in a Browns’ uniform in 2015, and the majority of the 2016 offseason. With the experience he has against his old teammates, he could prove successful in limiting their production through the air.

The Steelers certainly have nothing to lose placing Gilbert in the starting lineup on Sunday. They must find out what they have in the young defensive back. If is a great opportunity to find out if he is worth keeping on the roster, or if they should plan to address the cornerback position once again in the draft. Given the chance, Gilbert has the chance to prove has a future in Pittsburgh.

Although he is a restricted free agent in 2017, Cockrell could receiver offers from other teams during the free agency period if not re-signed early. Cockrell has performed well this year, recording 58 tackles and 13 defended passes. If a team makes an offer the Steelers are unwilling to match, Gilbert could find himself battling for a starting spot across from Burns.

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Justin Gilbert‘s future with the Steelers depends on him having a big game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. While it has been called a meaningless game by many, it could help determine Gilbert’s status with the Steelers in the future. If he can get on the field, the defensive back will do everything in his power to shake off the label of NFL bust given to him so early in his career.