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Jim O'Neil 'very optimistic' about Browns CB Justin Gilbert bouncing back

Jim O'Neil looks at his group of defensive backs and sees a problem.

It's a "good problem," mind you, and it will only become more problematic (better) if Justin Gilbert elevates his performance during his second NFL season.

O'Neil, the Browns' second-year defensive coordinator who spoke confidently about his entire group of players during an interview last week on Cleveland Browns Daily, expressed optimism that the former first-round pick will do just that.

"I know he's working hard," O'Neil said. "I'm looking forward to getting him back and see where he's at two weeks from now. I'm very optimistic for Justin in Year 2."

The Browns' offseason workout program begins April 20 and runs on and off through mid-June. A workout that went viral just a couple of months ago is one of the reasons why optimism is building about a potential bounce-back 2015 for Gilbert.

Gilbert spent multiple weeks working out alongside Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden in Miami. Haden's Instagram picture of the two was universally viewed as a step in the right direction just a few months after a handful of Browns veterans openly implored Gilbert to improve his approach to the game.

"We've gotten very positive feedback on how his offseason is going," coach Mike Pettine said at last month's owners meetings. "And like every other player, we are very much looking forward to getting him in town in April and we'll see the progress that he's made. I thought it was great of him to go seek out Joe. I know Joe works hard in the offseason down in Miami. It was good to see it."

Gilbert's 2014 season ended on a sour note, as he was relegated to the locker room for the Browns' season finale at Baltimore because of a violation of team rules. It was an unfortunate moment in a rookie season that dished its fair share of adversity at Gilbert, who struggled to adjust to the rigors of the NFL and saw his playing time dip as the year progressed.

O'Neil wasn't surprised. Even for a player as talented as Gilbert, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft, the NFL is unforgiving to those who play a position with such a thin margin of error.

"I think that expectations for corners in this league for first year are always a lot higher than they should be. I can't remember a rookie corner that's had a successful season in his first year," O'Neil said. "I know nobody wants to hear this, but it takes time, it takes time to learn how to play corner in the NFL. Quarterbacks are too good, receivers are too good."

The loss of Buster Skrine in free agency appeared to increase the pressure for Gilbert or fellow second-year player Pierre Desir to rise to the challenge and snatch the starting cornerback job opposite of Haden. But the addition of veteran Tramon Williams, one of four Browns defensive backs who have made at least one Pro Bowl, has eased that burden.

Still, there will be competition at cornerback just like there is at every other position on the field. O'Neil said he also plans to cross-train his defensive backs, allowing them to play at multiple spots and increasing their opportunities to make an impact within the scheme.

The platform remains for Gilbert to impress and be rewarded for showing the improvement his coaches expect him to make.

"Having too many good corners is a good problem, especially on our defense," O'Neil said. "The best three will play and if we got a fourth or fifth one that deserve to play, we're going to play those guys, too. We all know it's a passing league and you need guys that can cover."

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