As Johnny Manziel slid in Thursday night’s NFL Draft, teams that needed quarterbacks — including the Cleveland Browns — took heat from their fans for passing on the controversial Texas A&M star.
The Browns traded twice, first back, then up to the No. 8 spot, with speculation swirling that they’d take Johnny Football.
Instead, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert was their man, although they eventually got Manziel, too, with the No. 22 pick in the first round.
But for a while on Twitter Thursday night, Cleveland fans were divided, some desperate for Manziel, some recognizing the need filled by Gilbert.
“That's not something I worry about at all,” Gilbert said in a conference call with reporters. “I think they made the right decision.”
Right decision for Gilbert, too, in returning to OSU after a subpar junior year, after contemplating an early jump to the NFL. Buoyed by a big senior season, Gilbert restored his reputation as a playmaker, then put himself in position to be called the top corner in the Draft at the combine, running a 4.37 40-yard dash and performing well in on-field drills.
“I knew I made the right decision coming back, because I didn't have the year that I wanted to have my junior year,” Gilbert said. “To come back and be around these guys that I came in with – I knew the heart that they have to go out every day and play on Saturday for each other. That's just something that I wanted to continue to be around.
“Coming back for another year, it couldn't hurt me, it could only do me right.”
In the days leading up to the Draft, the buzz was that Gilbert’s stock was rising. The Browns proved it true, after first moving back from their initial No. 4 pick with a trade, then swinging a deal with Minnesota — another team with a cornerback need — to move up one spot into the No. 8 slot.
“I had a meeting with them the day before I came to New York,” Gilbert said. “They kind of gave it away (that) they wanted me. I was thinking about it on the way up here.”
While the Browns need a quarterback, they also have a pressing need at corner.
With Pro Bowl corner Joe Haden in place, Cleveland has a lockdown corner on one side. Some reports suggest a plan to move the other corner, Buster Skrine, into a nickel role, but a candidate to push for a starting job was needed to facilitate such a move.
“It's a dream come true,” Gilbert said. “I became friends with (Haden) not too long ago and he's a great guy and I'm looking forward to playing with him.”
Gilbert becomes the sixth OSU player since 2009 to be drafted in the first round, a total that leads the Big 12 during that time period. It also marks the third time in the last five years that a Cowboy has been taken in the top-10 overall.
He’s the 19th overall first-round draft pick in school history and the 17th draft pick of the Mike Gundy coaching era.
“Justin is a very gifted football player who brings a lot to a team, both on defense and in the return game,” OSU Mike Gundy said in a release. “He is a playmaker. His decision to come back to Oklahoma State for his senior season really paid off because he established himself as one of the top players in this year’s draft.
“We’re very proud of Justin and happy for both him and his family.”
One of OSU’s recent first-round draft picks was another Browns selection: quarterback Brandon Weeden in 2012. While that didn’t work well for Cleveland, who released Weeden after last season, the organization didn’t hesitate to turn to the Cowboys for a first-rounder again.
First, however, it took some maneuvering.
The Browns picked up future picks from the Buffalo Bills to move from No. 4 to No. 9. Then they parted with a fifth-round selection in this draft to flip spots with the Vikings.
“The thought process was simple,” Browns general manager Ray Farmer told Cleveland reporters. “We had an opportunity to move back, pick up some future considerations. We knew where we were in the draft and we felt like it was a good opportunity to continue to improve our team with the number of picks we could get so we made a deal to move back.
“Second trade was another opportunity to get the player we thought we wanted. It didn’t cost us much to move back into position when he was on the board. We took that opportunity, and we took the pick with Justin Gilbert.”
The Browns finished 4-12 a year ago, losing 10 of their last 11 games. Entering the Draft, they were perceived to have many needs, with quarterback the biggest among them.
That’s why Cleveland’s selection of Gilbert set off the room at Radio City Music Hall and surprised ESPN’s famed analysts.
“Justin Gilbert is a big-play athlete,” said longtime draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. “He returns kicks for touchdowns. He returns picks for touchdowns…
Ray Lewis, the former Ravens linebacker-turned-analyst, signed off on the pick.
“If you’re in this division, and you watch football enough, this division is a defensive division,” said Lewis, who played in the AFC Central. “If I’m the Cleveland Browns, I need to find me a lockdown corner.”
Farmer clearly agrees.
“We’ve improved our defense,” he said. “We’re going to do some other things to make our overall team better, but we definitely like the corner combination that we’re going to have. Hopefully, we keep those guys together for a long time.”