CLEVELAND - It's been said that playing cornerback in the NFL is exceeded only by the quarterback position in degree of difficulty.
Browns rookie Justin Gilbert is discovering that lesson the hard way. Gilbert, the first cornerback picked in the draft (eighth overall), looked smooth and sure of himself when on the practice field during training camp. Then the preseason games began, and Gilbert suddenly looked lost and confused.
It's the same way most cornerbacks look during their rookie seasons. They realize that speed and athleticism don't mean a whole lot when every player around them runs a quick 40. Intelligence and good technique rate up there with a 4.3 time in importance for cornerbacks in the NFL.
"You have to have physical strength and be mentally tough," Gilbert said. "Something like a quarterback on defense. You're using your body more, but at the same time you have to use your mind. You just have to be smart."
Gilbert sat out the preseason opener against the Detroit Lions with a minor injury. He returned the next week and struggled against the Washington Redskins. His next test, against the St. Louis Rams, proved more difficult as he was picked on repeatedly.
Gilbert appeared to waste energy thinking too much and not reacting. Safety Donte Whitner noted that Gilbert used improper technique in the red zone when he failed to protect the goal line and allowed a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brian Quick. Later in the game Gilbert allowed Chris Givens to get open on a short crossing route, which Givens took the distance for a 75-yard touchdown.
Those are the types of games that can damage of rookie's early development.
"I'm just trying to play up to my potential," Gilbert said. "I know I have a long way to go."
Having a short memory is often mentioned as being a cornerback's best friend. If Gilbert needs advice in that area, he need go no farther than a few lockers away to Buster Skrine, who will start at corner opposite Joe Haden.
"Really, you don't have a choice," Skrine said. "If you give up a play, the quarterback is going to come right back at you. Eventually you build a dog mentality. All right, they're going to keep coming my way, so prepare yourself so they see a better corner for the next game or the next series."
As a fifth-round draft choice in 2011, Skrine didn't enter the NFL with Gilbert's reputation. He logged time as a reserve as a rookie and has since played in all possible 32 games with 21 starts.
There were some difficult moments for Skrine early in his career. It seemed there were times when only his coaches (former coach Pat Shurmur in particular) had confidence in him.
"The main thing I knew when I made mistakes early in my career; I said they were going to keep coming at me now that I made a mistake," Skrine said. "If you smell blood in the water, the sharks are going to keep coming your way."
Haden, who's developed into one of the best corners in the NFL, also encountered normal rookie struggles in 2010
"My first preseason game we played the Packers and Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau (Field), and they went 13-of-13 against us, and they were picking me apart, too," Haden said. "It happens. You have to get used to it."
As Skrine said, Gilbert has no other choice.