Ray Horton came to Cleveland with an open mind about all of his players. Even though a number of the players he coached in 2013 as the Browns defensive coordinator are still on the roster, Horton gave them all a blank slate; rookies, veterans and everyone in between.
Defensive back Justin Gilbert falls into the "in between" category, and he's looking to rebound from what have been consecutive seasons in which his potential has not been maximized. Horton has started at Square One with the former first-round pick, and the early returns have been promising.
"Coach Hue (Jackson) has done a great job of displaying the message – we weren't here and we don't know what went on," Horton said. "All we know is what went on film and tape from today. Everybody has a clean slate, and you go out and work hard."
Horton has been familiar with Gilbert's skill set since 2014, when he evaluated the cornerback in the months leading up to the draft. But the past few months, as Horton examined tape of previous seasons and gotten to work alongside his players during offseason workouts, have brought them closer together and on a path that will hopefully bring the best out of the athletically-gifted defensive back.
At their first practice together, Horton asked Gilbert to alter his stance -- a significant change for a defensive back at any stage of his career, let alone his third season in the NFL. Gilbert, Horton said, approached it with an open mind and has benefitted thus far.
"That's like asking you to drive a different way to work today," Horton said. "He changed it in one practice, we all commented on it, and it shows that he is going to do what we ask him to do. That's all we want as coaches, is to give us your best effort and Justin is right now."
The Browns took to the field as a part of the team's Organized Team Activities.
Horton equated the change to a golfer changing his stance, grip or swing. Gilbert's previous stance, Horton said, was "too elongated," and the defensive coordinator wanted the 6-foot, 202-pound Gilbert to give himself more balance.
Horton couldn't stress enough how significant of an "ask" it was.
"We were all amazed that it was like no big deal," Horton said. "We asked him to do it and he did it."
Gilbert appeared in just nine games last season and made his biggest impact on special teams, where he was used as a kick returner and at various other spots on punt coverage. He's started three games since he arrived in Cleveland as the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor confirmed Gilbert was among the options he was evaluating at kick returner after he averaged 28.3 yards on 12 returns in 2015.
How the Browns plan to get more production in both areas is a work in progress, but the optimism from Horton indicates it's heading in the right direction.
"Part of that is you have got to understand him, what makes him tick, and that's part of being a coach, for my philosophy. You have got to know your players, there are certain triggers that guys respond to," Horton said. "I am not saying that we can get that out of everybody, but that is what we try to do. He's responding right now, and he's doing everything that we ask him to do."