Justin Gilbert isn’t the highest-rated cornerback in the draft, but he’s likely No. 1 on the 49ers’ draft board.
The reason? His long arms.
Gilbert, from Oklahoma State, is ranked No. 2 among cornerback prospects on most boards, behind Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State, who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top collegiate defensive back. But Dennard, who at 5-foot-11 is just an inch shorter than Gilbert, has an arm length of 30¼ inches, significantly shorter than Gilbert’s 33 1/8 arms. In fact, Gilbert’s arm length is almost two inches greater than every top cornerback prospect in this year’s draft.
And Niners general manager Trent Baalke – who has a history of loving players with long wingspans – has no doubt noticed.
Last year, Baalke chose tight end Vance McDonald, defensive lineman Tank Carradine, linebacker Corey Lemonier, wide receiver Quinton Patton, running back Marcus Lattimore and safety Eric Reid – all players who had better-than-average arm length at their positions.
“I like long arms,” Baalke told reporters recently. “Last year’s draft should tell you that. Length’s important. It’s important in every sport.”
Which could make Gilbert a target for the 49ers in this year’s first round.
Wide receiver and cornerback are considered the team’s two greatest areas of need. The 49ers don’t pick until the 30th position, so it’s likely Gilbert will be gone by the time it’s San Francisco’s turn. He’s been projected to go as high as 10th in some mock drafts and as low as the mid 20s in others.
With as many as a dozen picks available to them, the 49ers could package two or more draft choices in a trade to move into the top dozen to have a chance at Gilbert. Last year, the 49ers moved up from No. 31 to No. 18 to take Reid.
And, with a deep crop of wide receivers in this year’s draft, San Francisco might well be able to take a deep-threat receiver in the second round after pocketing Gilbert in the first.
As a senior, Gilbert led the Big 12 with six interceptions, and also returned six kickoffs for touchdowns during his four-year college career. And at the NFL Combine this past week, he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, the fastest time among corners. The knock against him has been that his technique and performance have been inconsistent. In trying to make big plays, he’s often bitten on fakes and given up big plays, according to Rob Rang of CBS Sports.
With his fast 40 time, arm length and performance at the Combine, it’s possible Gilbert’s stock could rise too high for the 49ers to be able to get into position to take him. But if he should slip at all, Baalke might be very tempted to make a deal to collect yet another long-armed athlete for his roster.