The Buffalo Bills released three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Shawne Merriman on Monday in part because they liked a trio of younger ends behind him on the depth chart. Unlike Kyle Moore and Robert Eddins, however, Jarron Gilbert hadn't been playing defensive end all off-season. How, then, did Gilbert get himself into this race? And who exactly is this guy?
To answer that question, we'll go all the way back to his playing days at San Jose State, where from 2005-2007 he was a steady contributor at defensive end. During that three-year stretch, Gilbert recorded 20 tackles for loss and 12 sacks - solid, if unspectacular production that didn't quite meet his athletic potential.
Then came 2008, a senior season in which he led NCAA Division I with 22 tackles for loss after the team moved him inside to defensive tackle. He also registered 9.5 sacks that season, and at 6'5" and just south of 300 pounds, Gilbert was suddenly a hot pre-draft commodity. When Gilbert jumped out of a swimming pool and killed his pre-draft workouts (4.76-second 40-yard dash, 37-inch vertical jump, 10'7" broad jump at 288 pounds), he became not just a YouTube sensation, but a guy on everyone's draft radar.
Many considered it a surprise when Gilbert fell to the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, where the Chicago Bears made him the No. 68 overall pick. Given his senior year production and not-terrible statistics prior to his meteoric 2008 rise, Gilbert was a pretty clean prospect (he also had a father, Daren, that played in the NFL for four years) that many believed could develop into a top-tier pro.
Yet Gilbert was a monumental disappointment in Chicago. He was a virtual non-entity as a rookie, making just four game appearances while spending the entire season on the active roster. Gilbert was then unceremoniously released by the Bears before his second season after being outplayed by 2009 fourth-round pick Henry Melton (who, as it turns out, has evolved into one of Chicago's best defenders). He was released despite the fact that his rookie position coach, Rod Marinelli, had been elevated to the defensive coordinator post that year. Gilbert landed on his feet soon thereafter, with Rex Ryan and the New York Jets stashing him on the practice squad.
Gilbert made it to the Jets' active roster for a three-game stretch in 2010, and even dressed for one of them, making one tackle in that game. He ended that season back on the practice squad, however, and when he failed to make the team's final roster in 2011, he was again stashed on the practice squad. The Jets ended up waiving Gilbert from the practice squad last season, but then brought him back, where they experimented with him at tight end for a while when injuries thinned them out at that position. (Gilbert was recruited as a tight end coming out of high school.)
The Bills, banged up along the defensive line, signed Gilbert off of the Jets' practice squad last December 17, and Gilbert spent the final three games of the regular season as a member of the team's inactive list. Gilbert got a two-year deal from Buffalo, which is typical of the Buddy Nix regime; he likes to ensure project-type players are around the following summer. In essence, the Bills were bringing in an outstanding physical talent that had not remotely lived up to the hype, and who had only appeared in five regular season games in three years, for an extended trial.
For much of that trial, the Bills played Gilbert at defensive tackle - the position he'd played in his dominant senior season at San Jose State, and the position at which he was made a third-round draft pick. According to several reports over the past few days (here's one of them), however, when the Bills needed an additional body at end during training camp this summer, Gilbert got the nod - and his position coaches (and likely Dave Wannstedt, too) were so impressed (or maybe just intrigued) that the Bills are now keeping him there.
Suddenly, a guy who has been largely invisible over his three-year career is running with the Bills' second-team defense (though we'll see if that continues when a dinged up Mark Anderson returns to the lineup). Perhaps it's something to do with Gilbert returning to a position that may be more natural to him, considering that's where he played most of his college career. Or maybe it's just post-release rhetoric designed to lessen the still-surprising blow of Merriman's ouster. Either way, Gilbert is a guy that should be squarely on the radar of Bills fans now - and he's got a very legitimate chance of making the team outright, particularly if they can find room for nine defensive linemen.