There was a time not so long ago when the Denver Broncos defense ruled the land. Their pass-rush was so devastating that quarterbacks had only a couple seconds to make their decision and let fly, and when they did the “No Fly Zone” was waiting to pounce, waiting to make that crucial game-changing interception that would completely turn the fates of a game.
Denver’s defense is still good, they still make it hard on their opponents to make plays but the daunting task of going up against the “No Fly” isn’t as fear-inducing now. That’ll especially be the case this Sunday, with Aqib Talib sitting out due to a one-game suspension for fighting Micheal Crabtree. Talib's absence means that the “heirs” to the “No Fly Zone” will have to step up, and the first of those is Bradley Roby, a man who is usually an essential third cornerback on the team.
Much of Denver’s success in building their vaunted secondary has stemmed from Roby’s ability to be trusted in man-coverage and make crucial plays when needed.
That has continued this year to an extent, though, like other members of the defense, Roby hasn’t been playing at an elite level, with two touchdowns allowed against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11 being prime examples.
As the de-facto starter a week ago, Roby faired well against the Oakland Raiders second-string receivers. He’s played well before, but it’s performances like the one against Cincinnati that are concerning as the Broncos have to start thinking about the future and how Roby—whose contract expires in 2019—factors into that future.
We dug into the coaches tape from the last three weeks to see what Roby’s missing and properly evaluate his projection for the future.
Why he’s the future
In watching Roby on the all-22 tape, it’s easy to be reminded of how good and physically gifted the former first-round pick really is. As easy as it is to dwell on the two or three plays he’s allowed in this recent stretch when watching the broadcast view, the all-22 is a great reminder of how No. 29 is locking some of the NFL’s best wideouts down 90 percent of the time.
Roby’s combination of length and speed really stands out, allowing him to stick with speedsters on the outside or even when shifted to the slot, a versatility that’s key to this defense along with that of Chris Harris Jr. and Talib. You see this when he runs with Brandin Cooks or quickly turns to close in on the receiver to make an explosive tackle on a screen. Big or small, Roby can hang with the best of them, and his speed is off the charts in turning to run with wideouts or in having to close plays quickly downhill when playing off-coverage.
The closing speed he possesses is also pretty special, and he’s shown himself to be a willing tackler who can bring his opponent down when in space. This is especially valuable for an aggressive defense that relies on its permitter defenders to make tackles and read screens effectively, two of Roby’s major strengths.
Roby plays with fairly good technique and is rarely out-leveraged by receivers when playing press coverage on the line. His ability to then recover and come back to the ball, running routes for receivers on outs and comebacks, makes him really dangerous. This is probably his strongest skill as his ball instincts can shine, along with his break speed. Even the NFL’s best—whether it be Cooks, Green, or even Amari Cooper—had trouble getting open on short to intermediate routes.
Is this the best Roby can be?
When you watch Roby in coverage, two defects stick out. First, is his ability to contest passes from bigger receivers. The video below is a prime example, while Roby is right there stride for stride with one of the NFL’s best receivers, Green is able to haul in the catch thanks to his greater size. Roby doesn’t get his head turned around quickly enough, and his eye discipline is something that needs to improve.
Generally speaking, the former Buckeye has shown solid ball skills, especially when coming back to the action, but down the sideline, he’s struggled running behind guys and keeping his eye discipline effective.
Getting beat by A.J. Green on some well-covered routes where he makes a few plays on the rock is nothing to be ashamed of, that’ll happen even to the top cornerbacks in the league. More concerning, though, is Roby getting beat by Cincy’s diminutive slot receiver Alex Erickson, who burned him for a big TD on a go route after being put in motion. 29 just never got into a backpedal, and once Erickson went by him, he just didn't have the speed to turn and catch up. Part of that is instinct and part of it is a need to be less aggressive, respecting even no-names like Erickson.
Roby's discipline needs to improve, especially against inferior receivers that have no business beating him.
A tough decision
Roby is good, certainly good enough to start for just about every other team in the NFL and this next game will be his chance to shine as the full-time starter. The only reservation is that the same thing could’ve been said a season ago about Roby.
The progression from a quality starter with great natural gifts to lock-down corner who’s interchangeable with Talib still hasn’t occurred, and that’s where the conversation on Roby’s future in Denver becomes interesting. As a young cornerback who has the size and speed combination to play in a man scheme, Roby would command big money on the open market, but he’s still no Talib. Would paying him at the level of a top-10 player at his position be worth the $10-to-12 million annual salary that would come with that?
When you look around the league at another former first-rounder out of Ohio State in Marshon Lattimore, who’s already one of the best corners in the NFL in just his rookie year, it's hard not to wonder why Denver's Buckeye isn't at that level yet. Roby, after all, is 25 and it's time to start wondering if he’ll ever be more than a top-20 corner in the league. Lattimore was thrown into the fire, while Roby is still the third guy on the depth chart in Denver, maybe that’s part of why he’s hit a developmental wall. Or maybe Roby is simply in the unfortunate spot of being the guy quarterbacks would rather pick on then Talib and Harris.
With Branden Langley getting exploited in his true rookie debut, the Broncos future at cornerback is Roby and a whole lot of uncertainty, not a place you want to enter as keeping defensive standards high while resources are invested in fixing the offense won’t be easy. Deciding on Roby’s future in 2019 and beyond might be one of the biggest crossroads of all in striking the proper balance for the Broncos roster. The Roby decision will come into play already this next offseason as the Broncos have to decide on paying Shaquil Barrett and Matt Paradis starting in 2018. There’s still some time to make a full evaluation on Roby and time for Bradley to grow into his own, starting with Week 13 against the Miami Dolphins as the full-time starter.
If he's to be the heir to Talib and Harris, Roby needs to show it now as the Broncos will need him most.