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Hope for Justin Gilbert -- rookie corners often struggle

BEREA, Ohio -- Justin Gilbert's rookie year included a few bright spots that were overshadowed by about 18 bad ones. The No. 8 overall pick got beat out by undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams, was inactive for the season finale at Baltimore for missing team activities and got torched by his own teammates who want him to "grow up."

Yep, couldn't have gone much worse for Gilbert, the rangy cornerback whose maturity level the Browns hope one day matches the sizable skill set.

But there is one reason to be patient with Gilbert, and it's the same reason for patience with all rookie corners.

The position is famously difficult to master. Quick, when's the last time a corner won the NFL defensive rookie of the year honors? Charles Woodson, in 1998. That's about right. Playmaking defensive backs like Woodson come around every, oh, 16 years or so.

Save quarterback, you could argue no position requires more technique, precision and footwork than cornerback. That's why they are paid enormous amounts in free agency.

A look at Pro Football Focus' top 40 cornerbacks based on a "cumulative summary" of 2014 performance highlights the difficulty for rookies transitioning into top-shelf play. From the top 10, one player (second-year Falcons corner Desmond Trufant) has less than three years of experience.

Three rookies made the top 40, but one (St. Louis' E.J. Gaines) played more than 500 snaps. Williams was the top-rated rookie corner but played 341 snaps. Carolina's Bené Benwikere played 459 snaps. Gaines was the only rookie in the top 40 that played at least 50 percent of his team's snaps.

Maybe these stats speaks to the current crop of rookie cornerbacks, which included five first-round picks, but it's worth noting Darrelle Revis, a fixture among the top five of PFF's rankings over the years, ranked 25th as a rookie in 2007.

Former 49ers defensive back Eric Davis once compared young players navigating the cornerback position to driving in a high-collision Autobahn lane. "Your receiver is always open," Davis told the Star-Ledger.

One of my favorite draft picks was Chicago corner Kyle Fuller, but watching him try to guard Calvin Johnson on Thanksgiving day was just a tad unfair.

What's telling with Gilbert is the Browns didn't ask him to be a shutdown corner from Day 1 -- they had enough defensive backfield depth to disguise him -- and he still struggled to be a pro. He admitted he never had to play with technique in college and struggled to adjust. But as coach Mike Pettine points out, teammates have criticized Gilbert because they see how "talented" he is.

And as the numbers show, talent is never enough at corner.