One name that has begun to pop up with greater and greater frequency, however, is cornerback Bradley Roby of Ohio State.
Over the past few weeks, multiple mock drafts have begun to circle in on Roby, or another cornerback, with the 30th overall pick in the draft. Roby, an All-American in 2012, is listed as one of the top five cornerbacks in the draft, with his precise ranking varying from expert to expert.
How would Roby fit into San Francisco’s scheme? Let’s take a closer look at the Buckeye and try to break down his potential role on the 49er defense.
Weakest Part of the Defense
The largest defensive need for the 49ers is in the secondary, specifically at cornerback. Football Outsiders ranked them tenth overall against the pass last season, and only middle-of-the-pack in stopping multiple receiver sets. Carlos Rogers struggled last season as age and lack of speed caught up with him; Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had him as only the 71st-best cornerback in the league last season. With a salary-cap number of nearly $8.1 million next season, he’s very likely a cap casualty.
Behind him, Tarell Brown is a free agent. That would leave Tramaine Brock—who had a coming-out party in the 2013 season—and Chris Culliver, who was on the injured list for all of 2013, as the starting cornerbacks. That’s not the ideal situation to be in entering the 2014 season.
If Brown is re-signed, then the need for a cornerback drops down a bit—a Brown/Brock/Culliver nickel defense is adequate, if not exemplary. However, if Brown does leave in free agency, talent must be added to the position. With that in play, it’s entirely believable that San Francisco could be looking to draft the best cornerback available it picks in the first round.
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
The first thing that jumps out at you about Roby is his speed—he’s expected to run somewhere around 4.40 or faster in the 40-yard dash at next week’s combine. It’s not just straight-line speed, either. Roby has shown the burst and acceleration needed to run with receivers down the field. When your division rival's offense boasts Percy Harvin in its arsenal, a cornerback of Roby's athleticism is needed to match up.
He also has high-level skills playing the ball. He’s a battler; he’s not going to give up too many easy completions. He’s aggressive and physical—perhaps overly so at times. He’s a big hitter, but almost more importantly, he’s for the most part a legal hitter. He’s got great form on his tackles, which minimizes shots to an opponent's helmet so that you get more fumbles and dropped passes, but fewer penalties.
When it comes to pure athleticism, he’s right up there with any current NFL corner. Speed, size, agility—he’s the prototypical cornerback prospect. Of course, there’s more to being a solid NFL corner than just an athletic frame.
Roby occasionally overrelies on his physical gifts, trusting them to make the play rather than improving his technique. Subsequently, he was occasionally burned in 2013—see the matchup against Wisconsin, where Jared Abbrederis had 10 catches for 207 yards. Double-moves can occasionally leave him sprawling. At the collegiate level, his speed allowed him to catch up, but the margin for error decreases in the NFL.
Some evaluators might, therefore, be concerned that a large extent of his excellent tape is a result of matching up against receivers from the Big Ten, which isn’t the most athletic of conferences. The bad angles and occasional shoddy footwork—these flaws, if not corrected, will be punished in the NFL.
Ohio State’s defense as a whole had a poor 2013, which lowered Roby’s stock, but in terms of upside, Roby has the potential to be a top-10 cornerback in the league. You can’t teach his speed, and his technique can be coached up in the NFL, especially if he’s used in a scheme that fits his talent.
One major concern about Roby isn’t about his play, though, but his off-field conduct.
In July of last year, he was charged with misdemeanor battery after a barfight in Indiana. Those charges were later dismissed outright, however, though he’s still required to complete a diversion program. Video evidence showed that Roby was innocent of the battery charges, though I’m sure teams will be asking him about that at the combine—questions about maturity always seem to stick.
Would He Fit?
Roby’s a bit rough around the edges, which is what’s dropped him towards the back of the first round on most people’s draft boards. However, his talent in and of itself is still incredibly tantalizing. You can improve technique, but his size, speed and athleticism can’t be taught. He’s got a competitive motor and the right mindset when on the field, and he is very good in man-to-man coverage.
In the 49ers secondary, he may not have to be the starting cornerback right away, though he can still get plenty of snaps as a nickel corner as he works his way into San Francisco’s system.
He’s not a perfect prospect by any stretch of the imagination, but if the 49ers stand pat at the 30th selection and get a player of Roby’s caliber, they should be satisfied with that.