There is arguably no better cornerback prospect in the 2014 NFL draft class than Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State.
Gilbert earned first-team All-American honors his senior campaign after leading the Big 12 with six interceptions. Not only did he shine at cornerback, but Gilbert also can double as a kick return specialist. He’s returned six kickoffs to pay dirt during his career.
Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard are hand-in-hand the best two cornerback prospects in this year’s crop, but each bring a different skill-set to the table. While Dennard fits the mold of a shutdown corner, Gilbert is being touted as a big-play specialist. He’s exceptionally athletic with above-average acceleration and ball skills, and he consistently makes plays when the ball in his hands.
His ability to be a ballhawk in the secondary combined with his return skills makes Gilbert all the more attractive to teams. Scouts like his ability cover even the fastest wide receivers, as well as his size and strength to be physical at the line of scrimmage.
Gilbert is listed as the No. 16 overall prospect in the draft on Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board and No. 11 overall by ESPN Scouts Inc, and both rankings list him as the top cornerback. CBS Sports pins Gilbert at No. 18 overall and the second cornerback behind the aforementioned Dennard.
The team in most dire need of a cornerback is the Detroit Lions, who pick No. 10 overall. Most mock drafts project Detroit the nab Gilbert to immediately upgrade a secondary that finished the regular season ranked 23rd overall in terms of passing yards allowed and mustered a very mediocre 15 interceptions. He could also add a spark in the return game for a team that finished right in the middle of the pack in terms of kickoff return yardage (24.0 yards per attempt).
Should the Lions opt to go in a different direction, Gilbert may slip down to the 22nd or 24th pick in the first round to either the Philadelphia Eagles or the Cincinnati Bengals. Philly could be in the market for a defensive back to improve the NFL’s worst pass defense in 2013, while the Bengals have a pair of aging corners in Adam Jones and Terrance Newman.