At least Johnny Manziel had the excuse of inactivity.
While the most talked-about rookie on the Cleveland Browns roster — more accurately, the most talked-about rookie in any professional sport anywhere this year — spent the first game of his first NFL season on the sideline while veteran Brian Hoyer guided the Browns at quarterback, the highest-paid and highest-picked rookie on the Browns undeniably struggled in his debut.
Cornerback Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 selection in last spring’s NFL Draft, had a rough go in Cleveland’s 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. With veteran All-Pro corner Joe Haden busying himself with Steelers standout Antonio Brown, Gilbert was primarily assigned to cover unheralded second-year receiver Markus Wheaton, who finished with five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
While a lot of fans and media are naturally overreacting — and remembering that Gilbert also gave up three touchdowns in Cleveland’s final two preseason games — first-year Browns coach Mike Pettine told the Akron Beacon Journal he isn’t going to bench Gilbert yet:
“Looking back on it, maybe he did play too many reps,” Pettine said of Gilbert, who slipped and allowed Wheaton to break loose for a 20-yard catch late in the fourth quarter that set up Shaun Suisham‘s game-winning, 41-yard field goal as time expired. “We’re not looking to bench him, but maybe scale back his reps this week.”
That makes sense. Gilbert is clearly (supposed to be) a big part of Pettine’s grand scheme to rebuild the Browns. If the Oklahoma State product plays up to his potential, he and Haden will give Cleveland a pair of shutdown corners — ideally, a tandem reminiscent of 1980s stars Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield — who can allow the rest of the defense to put more pressure on opponents. Letting Gilbert fail a few times is a tried-and-true teaching method and perhaps best for his long-term development. As Pettine added on Monday, “there is no substitute for playing.”
But, as the coach also acknowledged, there’s a line between motivating a rookie and crushing his confidence that is hard to find and harder to navigate.
“It’s tough,” Pettine said. “Life in the NFL for a rookie corner is tough. There’s not many, if you go back through the years, that have come right out of college and been special right out of the gate. You walk that fine line of, ‘Do we play him?’ I think we’re going to try and find that middle ground.”