Compared to the XFL, it may be harder for those in the USFL to latch onto the NFL. But Pittsburgh Maulers’ cornerback Mark Gilbert is going to be back on the league’s radar and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep tabs on him.
Gilbert’s professional career began with the Steelers, signed out of Duke as an undrafted free agent in 2021. The cousin of Darrelle Revis, Gilbert possesses a long but leaner frame, 6001, 186 pounds. He struggled with injuries his final three years at Duke, which tanked his draft stock. But when healthy, he was productive, swatting away 15 passes in 2017, his last fully healthy season with the Blue Devils.
Gilbert went through his first camp with the Steelers and started the season on the team’s practice squad. His first summer in the NFL had mixed results, it wasn’t outstanding but far from terrible, and we gave him a C+ grade in our annual camp review:
“He uses his length well and is able to close on the ball, playing the pocket or getting out in front of the ball. He tied for second on the team with a pair of interceptions during practice.
Gilbert is a willing hitter but has to work on his technique and fit – he gave up the edge on a 40-yard Anthony McFarland run – but there’s enough tools here to make him worth keeping around. He got through it healthy, luck he didn’t have his final three years of college.”
Pittsburgh’s plan was to stash and develop him. But the Detroit Lions interrupted those plans, poaching Gilbert off the Steelers’ practice squad mid-way through the year. From there, he was on an NFL 53-man roster and appeared in eight games. He made an impact against his old team the Steelers with an overtime forced fumble that led to a tie game.
Gilbert returned to Pittsburgh last fall, signing back with the practice squad in early September. He yo-yo’d his way on and off it throughout the month before sticking in October and remaining there the rest of the season. He didn’t sign a Futures contract with the Steelers or any other team and ended up signing with the USFL Pittsburgh Maulers – who play their home games in Canton, Ohio – in March.
Despite being a relatively late edition, Gilbert has flourished. While the Maulers have continued to sputter offensively, their defense has been stout and kept them in games. Through five games, Gilbert has picked off a pair of passes and easily holds the team lead with 10 pass breakups, an average of two per game. In fact, those 10 deflections are by far the most in the USFL; only one other player, Philadelphia’s Amani Dennis, has more than five.
Gilbert hasn’t just been making plays in coverage either. He’s showing hit power, too, flashing it at the end of this incompletion earlier in the year.
Could the third time be the charm for Gilbert? It’s odd for a player to get three stints in one place. But the Steelers didn’t completely willingly lose him the first time. Sure, they could’ve blocked Detroit by promoting Gilbert to the 53-man roster when the Lions went to poach but there’s plenty of logistical reasons that can get in the way of that. It’s fair to say something happened as to why Gilbert didn’t receive a Futures deal after the 2022 season ended — it’s not like he immediately signed somewhere else — but if his game has improved enough, that’s the main calculation the team can make.
Steelers have come and gone and come again before. Tuzar Skipper had three stints with the team. Ola Adeniyi would’ve had two had a neck injury not caused him to fail his physical. Fifteen years ago, there used to be practice squad lifers. Guys who would hang around there for three or four years as a time because the league simply had a little less turnover. Things didn’t quite move as fast. In today’s world, players are more likely to bounce on and off rosters, especially as de facto feeder leagues like the XFL and USFL give these guys more chances to refine their game and more tape for teams to evaluate as opposed to just the same old practice film and the tryout circuit.
Maybe Gilbert doesn’t end up back with the Steelers. He’s at least a Mauler and we like to cover them too. Based on his strong play midway through the year, he’s going to make it back in the NFL. His biggest issue will be timing. The USFL regular season ends June 17th, meaning Gilbert – and every other player in that league – will miss all of OTAs and teams’ three-day minicamps. If anything, that makes it more logical for him to return to the Steelers. He’s knowledgeable about the coaching staff and the playbook and can pick things back up when the team returns to Latrobe in late July.