Coming into the 2014 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos were not a team with many needs. The only wide-open starting job on the team was at middle linebacker, which is a part-time player in Denver’s defensive scheme.
Depth is always necessary, but the expectation is still that a first-round pick is an instant contributor. Since the Broncos were drafting 31st in each round, their first-round pick was their best shot at finding one.
That’s why it’s interesting that they selected cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st overall selection. It’s very hard for rookie cornerbacks to play well early, especially one that needs some technique work such as Roby.
The expectations for Roby vary from starting Week 1 to a backup for the entirety of year one. The former is risky, but the latter would be a disappointing return on such a premium pick. The truth may lie somewhere in between unless cornerback Chris Harris isn’t healthy by Week 1.
Harris is coming off a torn ACL, but if everything goes well, he should be back by the start of the season. If he’s not ready, the Roby pick makes more sense because the Broncos would ask him to step in and play immediately.
A rookie cornerback that can come in and play well immediately is rare. This is especially true in a scheme that uses more man than zone coverage like the Broncos.
In 2013, only one of the six cornerbacks drafted in the top 50 posted a positive Pro Football Focus grade (subscription required) over the first six games. The lone positive performer was Desmond Trufant, who played in the zone-heavy scheme of the Atlanta Falcons.
|2013 NFL Draft Cornerbacks|
|Player||Selection #||Grade (First 6)||Snaps (First 6)||2013 Grade||Total Snaps||Grade Diff|
Although it was a deeper draft in 2014 than 2013, there were still cornerbacks that went well ahead of Roby that didn’t perform well in their first few games as rookies. Transitioning from college to the NFL at the cornerback position is tough, even for athletes like Roby.
The cornerback most similar to Roby that came out of the draft last season was probably D.J. Hayden of the Oakland Raiders. Both Roby and Hayden are 5’11” and weigh just over 190 pounds. Both cornerbacks are also great athletes, even when compared to their position.
When you factor in Roby’s specific weaknesses, it gets a little scary that the Broncos would be considering using him in Harris’ place early on. The team may not be able to hide Roby if he starts his career in the slot.
“Relies on athleticism too often against the run and pass,” wrote featured columnist Ian Wharton. “Roby will need to clean up his technical ability to fully realize his potential.”
In other words, Roby has some work to do before he’s going to be a good NFL cornerback. It’s unfair to expect Roby to be able to work out all of his issues in training camp. Roby can make strides, but ideally, he’d get time as a part-time player or a reserve before the team throws him to the wolves.
“Could stand to iron out his pedal,” wrote Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com. “Gets caught peeking, lets receivers behind him and is vulnerable to double moves.”
There is a chorus of scouting reports that all say pretty much the same thing on Roby. When Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis beat Roby repeatedly during a 2013 game, it seemed to throw up more than a few red flags.
“For the NFL, Roby is a work in progress,” Charlie Campbell of Walter Football wrote. “An elite route-runner like Abbrederis destroyed Roby, and that is going to be an issue for him until he can improve his fundamentals and technique.”
Harris played more than five times as many snaps in the slot last season for the Broncos than any other player on the team. In many ways, playing the slot is more difficult than playing the boundary because routes can break either in or out and the cornerback doesn’t have a sideline to help him.
The player with the most snaps in the slot last year on the roster other than Harris was free-agent acquisition Aqib Talib, but the Broncos would rather have him on the outside defending the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver. That leaves the Broncos without many great options to defend the slot if Harris needs a few extra weeks and Roby isn’t ready.
A Less Than Ideal, Ideal Situation
The ideal situation is that Harris is able to start Week 1. That would leave Roby to compete with last year’s third-round pick Kayvon Webster for the nickel cornerback job on the outside.
On one end of the spectrum, Roby and Webster would both be playing a huge role as two of the team’s top three cornerbacks. On the other end of the spectrum, Roby and Webster would be competing for snaps as one of them.
Last year, Webster had decent early success because he wasn’t asked to play too much too early. Something similar for Roby makes a lot of sense, but his playing time would come at the expense of Webster’s playing time.
While a more measured approach with Roby may be ideal for his development, it’s also a bit disappointing for Webster’s continued development. The expectation is that Roby and Webster will both have a significant impact in 2014, but that could be very difficult if they are sharing time or one player is playing ahead of the other.
There are bad problems and then there are good problems. Having too many good cornerbacks is a good problem, but you have to wonder if the Broncos could have addressed a bad problem with their first-round pick since the team knows they have a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl.