By Jeremy Hritz
Cornerback has always been a position of frustration for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is only over the last few years that the team established a level of consistency through the likes of Joe Haden and Stephen Nelson. Now, with Nelson gone, Cameron Sutton is being called upon as the next man up to play opposite Haden, while the slot corner position is still up in the air, with James Pierre and Justin Layne vying for the spot. Pierre, an undrafted free agent, and Layne, a former 3rd round pick, are both unproven, though Pierre showed more promise last year than did Layne. It is worth noting that the Steelers added to the competition with the selection of Tre Norwood, and the signings of Shakur Brown, and Mark Gilbert. While Norwood and Brown have received the majority of the attention, Gilbert is a prospect worth paying attention to, as he may be the dark horse to make the 53 man roster to start the 2021 season.
Production Early, Injury Late
Gilbert played his college football at Duke, and at 6’, 186 pounds, he brought the length necessary for the position, but not the weight to manage the demands of the position as evidenced by hip and foot injuries that required multiple surgeries to fully recover. In 2020, he opted out of the season after 2 games due to COVID concerns, so the time to rest and recover was plentiful to overcome this adversity that impacted his collegiate career.
Prior to his injuries, Gilbert showcased significant promise and a penchant for the ball, recording 6 interceptions in the 2017 season. Gilbert plays with anticipation and can pounce on routes to create interceptions, as his vision of the field and awareness of quarterbacks and ball placement puts him in the right spaces to splash. This playmaking element of his game makes him a worthy player to vet out in camp to see if his injuries are behind him and his talents are ready to be fully actualized in the NFL.
Gilbert also has NFL bloodlines, as he is the nephew of Sean Gilbert and cousin of Darrelle Revis. If you believe in pedigree, Gilbert possesses the DNA to be a productive NFL player.
Mark Gilbert is the quintessential undrafted free agent. Lots of upside, tremendous potential, but… can he overcome the undeniable injury history?
And that is where it stands with Gilbert. If his injuries are no longer a factor, and he can stay healthy and execute his organic talents, he has a real shot to stick with the team and pursue the slot corner spot, or maybe less ambitious, depth at the position. There is no question he has what is necessary to succeed, but he must show he has moved beyond his adversity.
If Gilbert can do that, his name could be one we are talking about for years to come.
Gilbert, like all undrafted guys, is a high-reward, low risk opportunity. He signed with the team because he sees the need that exists within the cornerback room. If he fires on all cylinders, the Steelers win. If it’s a win for the Steelers, it’s a win for the team, and a bolstering of the cornerback position.
So while you are keeping an eye on Brown and Norwood, don’t forget the name Mark Gilbert. Hopefully his play makes it hard to do so.