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Justin Gilbert's long path begins in OTAs

Justin Gilbert’s rookie season was tumultuous — and disappointing.

The Cleveland Browns selected Gilbert eighth overall in the 2014 draft. As a rookie he was nearly a total bust, which is not supposed to happen with top-10 picks. Late in the season he received pointed barbs from teammates turned off by his attitude, sense of entitlement and lack of professionalism.

He finished the season by being late for a meeting at the team hotel on the road, then was deactivated for the finale in Baltimore. Coach Mike Pettine called it essentially a suspension.

Glbert's offseason approach was to join Joe Haden in Florida for workouts.

Who instigated the move is up for debate. Pettine said the team asked Haden to mentor Gilbert; defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said Gilbert got things rolling.

Regardless, it happened, with the team hoping Haden’s approach rubbed off.

Time will tell, and at this time of year, everyone is optimistic. Putting too much stock in an offseason practice is not wise, but with Gilbert, any step forward is a good one.

“He’s been much more engaged with players in the locker room,” O’Neil said at rookie minicamp. “I’m excited to get to OTAs and get into 11-on-11 drills and see how he’s grown.”

Grown is the key word. One of the phrases Donte Whitner used about Gilbert was that he had to stop acting like a kid.

Gilbert wasn’t thrilled with the criticism, but if he did something about it in the offseason, it’s a step.

“He flashes the talent,” O’Neil said. “But he did that last year, too. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

GIlbert’s path is more cluttered; essentially he’s working from the bottom up, having wasted an opportunity as a rookie.

Last summer, the starting spot opposite Haden was Gilbert’s to take.The Browns were eager to move Buster Skrine inside to the nickel spot, except Skrine performed admirably and Gilbert wallowed -- he was even beaten out for the nickel spot by undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams.

In the offseason, Skrine signed with the Jets as a free agent, but the Browns added veteran starting corner Tramon Williams in free agency.

At this point, Gilbert has to earn what he gets. With Pierre Desir playing well late last season, it’s probably fair to say Gilbert and Desir are even on the depth chart behind Haden, Williams and Williams.

Gilbert has to climb the ladder. Not only does he have to show he’s mentally engaged, he has to show he can play consistently.

“That is a hard position to play in this league, especially in our defense, where we’re going to put you out there on an island, but I would expect Justin to make a jump just because it’s Year 2 for him,” O’Neil said. “It’s not his rookie year. I do see a new focus with him coming into this season.”

Offseason focus means something, but in-season focus means so much more. The Browns know that. They have to hope Gilbert does as well.