BEREA — Top Browns draft pick Justin Gilbert has never been to Cleveland, but he has already befriended one of its most popular athletes.
“Joe Haden is a great guy to be around and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from him,” the 6-foot, 202-pounder said Thursday. “I got to know him not too long ago, and he’s a funny guy, man. I’m pretty sure I’ll be hanging with him a lot.”
Both on and off the field.
The Browns chose Oklahoma State cornerback Gilbert with the eighth overall pick in the NFL Draft, giving them a complement to Pro Bowl cornerback Haden. Cleveland earlier added safety Donte Whitner in free agency as part of overhauling its secondary.
“Joe Haden, Justin Gilbert, Donte Whitner — I’m getting excited — so I probably shouldn’t go there,” Browns general manager Ray Farmer said. “We definitely like the corner combination that we’re going to have. Hopefully, we’ll keep those guys together for a long time.”
Gilbert was Cleveland’s top target from the start of the night, but Farmer was confident that he could draft him later than the No. 4 pick. The rookie GM traded that selection to the Bills in exchange for the No. 9 pick and two 2015 choices (first round and fourth round).
Farmer subsequently sent the ninth and 145th selections to Minnesota for the Vikings’ No. 8 pick.
Gilbert’s acquisition should allow the Browns to shift the diminutive Buster Skrine from a starting role to nickelback, while adding size and speed opposite Haden.
“I’m an every-down cornerback that can guard big receivers and small receivers,” said Gilbert, who made a team-high seven interceptions and 42 tackles as a senior. “I can pretty much do it all — a guy who can create turnovers and get the ball back to our offense a lot.”
Gilbert displayed a knack for the ball and the end zone during his 51-game college career. He collected 12 total interceptions — running two of them back for scores — and returned six kickoffs for touchdowns.
Gilbert also ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any defensive back at the NFL scouting combine, clocking a 4.37 on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“He’s long, he’s fast, he’s explosive, he’s a playmaker,” Farmer said. “He plays like a Brown. That’s the No. 1 thing we talk about when we talk about corners, they’ve got to cover like Browns. He’s got great arm length. He’s got the speed. He’s got the ball skills.”
What Gilbert doesn’t have, according to scouts around the league, is great tackling ability.
Farmer and Browns coach Mike Pettine didn’t deny the assessment, but said it wasn’t as crucial as having strong coverage skills in their defensive scheme, which they think he has.
“I’ve heard that before, but I think I only missed like two tackles this year,” Gilbert said. “I think they’re paying more attention to block shedding here. But it’s something that doesn’t bother me at all because I know I can tackle.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.