As the dust on the tampering season ended, the Texans swooped in on one of the worst-kept secrets of the NFL, signing former Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby to a one-year, $10 million deal. Depending on how much you want to emphasize his 2018 season, you can go from anywhere to “this is an acceptable gamble” to “the Texans just lit $10 million on fire.”
Let’s try to do the color before we get to the depressing clips. Roby was a first-round pick out of Ohio State in 2014, and he blew up the combine with elite athleticism. He was in the 84th percentile in the 40-yard dash among all cornerbacks, and he did it at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds — he had the beef to back up that speed. He was above-average in every test for cornerbacks, with his worst being the broad jump. Scouting reports emphasized his big hits and press-man coverage. Denver essentially had him as their nickel cornerback even though he mostly played outside, and he was pushed into a bigger role in 2018 when Aqib Talib was traded to the Rams.
Roby was fairly successful in 2017 under defensive coordinator Joe Woods, but I think in context that season was a fairly easy season. Roby didn’t draw many assignments against great receivers, and he benefited from seeing very few passes against the top offenses in the NFL. In other words, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady targeted Roby 13 times in three games, while Jay Cutler and Dak Prescott had 17 in two games. Roby’s success on downfield plays in 2017 was more about the situations than the player. Roby reacts very well to “see the underneath receiver, deck the underneath receiver,” as well as against fades. He was able to trap a washed-up Dez Bryant to the sidelines and out-physical him at the point of attack most of Week 2 (2017). When he reads a curl in front of him, he can be a menace:
The problems with Roby’s game as a whole were exposed in 2018. Given harder assignments without Talib, Roby struggled to corral the NFL’s best at the line of scrimmage. I think I saw about one pass at the line of scrimmage over the last two years where he was actually able to keep a slant in check. Sammy Watkins murdered him with slants in Week 8 against the Chiefs. Amari Cooper basically laughed in his face in Week 2:
Roby was mostly used in two roles in 2017 and 2018, both of which he struggled in when not given the right routes. When he played off the line of scrimmage, he was mostly in Cover-2/Cover-4 shells where he wound up giving way too much cushion to the receiver. I’m not sure if this was a design of the defense or Roby playing too far back, as I have no direct line to their coaching staff. But it was wildly ineffective.
In Cover-3, teams took Roby to the post over and over again:
Sometimes with disastrous results:
Roby demonstrated a lot of flaws in 2018. He didn’t read routes particularly well. His reaction to the routes, when he understood them, was slow. Especially if he was moving horizontally. He’s not a recovery speed cornerback, and is not the answer to Houston’s problems with speed receivers like T.Y. Hilton. He could not defend a slant to save his life. Finally, and this is more subjective, but I think he played really poorly when rushed or out of the normal structure of the play.
So you unpack a player like that and put him in Romeo Crennel’s system. The Texans played Cover-3 as a main change-up and ran a lot of zone. I think there’s a lot of work to be done with Roby in that role. He’s going to be fine on some routes, but I think there’s a lot of combustibility in last year’s performance. If you’re an optimist, you can point to the ankle injury he sustained in Week 8 — but a lot of the damage had already been done at that point.
The Texans are gambling that they can be a better place for these raw tools to express themselves. I’ve got no problem with the gamble, and no problem with the price because Houston’s cap space horde will never get spent. The problem is that I don’t think Roby is likely to blossom as long as he is placed against the league’s best.