By the end of the NFL season, most of the league’s impact rookies have already made themselves known to the public. Some came out of the gates hot, like Kelvin Benjamin and C.J. Mosley, while others didn’t make an impact until the second of third month of the season, like Odell Beckham Jr. and Isaiah Crowell. With that in mind, Chris Tripodi takes a look at how some prominent defensive backs performed last week, as well as a few late-round picks that have seen a recent increase in opportunity thanks to injury.
Bradley Roby (CB-Den)
Like most rookie cornerbacks, Bradley Roby has experienced an up-and-down year in his first NFL season. The 31st overall pick out of Ohio State has played behind Aqib Talib and Chris Harris this season, mixing in a few solid performances with some stinkers as well. Roby did battle with fellow first-round rookie Sammy Watkins on Sunday, and while the former Clemson star got the better of Roby for most of the afternoon, the first-year corner didn’t allow much to the Bills’ other receivers and made a great play to force an early turnover.
On the game’s first possession, Roby lined up in press coverage against Watkins. Beaten badly by a sudden slant route to the inside, Roby had to make up ground to catch up to Watkins after he made the catch. The corner noticed Watkins holding the ball in his left arm while he cut back towards him, and Roby smartly clubbed his arm down on the ball to force a fumble that was recovered by Denver in Buffalo territory. The drive resulted in no points for the Broncos, but it was a big play that helped set the tone for the Bills’ rough day on offense.
Other than that mistake, Watkins dominated Roby for most of the game, catching all six of the balls thrown to him for 113 yards in Roby’s coverage. Roby struggled in both press situations and off coverage, struggling to find the ball on an 18-yard back-shoulder grab in the second half. Roby wasn’t called for illegal contact, but did have his hands all over Watkins 15 yards down the field once the receiver stopped to make the grab. That was the second big play Roby allowed to Watkins in the game, as he was beat deep for a 35-yard grab in the third quarter as well. Roby backpedaled and committed too soon to Watkins’ route, allowing the receiver to get behind him. With his back to the ball in an effort to catch up, Roby wasn’t in position to react to another back-shoulder throw.
Despite some struggles with the explosive Watkins in the aforementioned situations, Roby did show good awareness and sure tackling ability with Cover 2 responsibilities. A couple of short dump-off passes to Fred Jackson were stopped right around the line of scrimmage, as Roby closed quickly on Jackson and got into good position to make the tackle. He did make one mistake on a late crossing route by Watkins, however, not recognizing the receiver coming from the other side of the field and doubling the tight end inside instead. This allowed Watkins to turn the corner to get the first down and more after the catch.
Overall, Week 14 was indicative of Roby’s season so far. He made some good plays and showed an ability to come up hard against short passes, but also had some issues with footwork in the secondary as well as playing the football. Roby has looked more like the 2013 version of himself at Ohio State that dropped his draft stock into the late-first round rather than the emerging star he was viewed as after the 2012 season. The former Buckeye still has time to figure out the NFL, but his first year hasn’t exactly erased the doubts some had about him after his rough junior season.
Justin Gilbert (CB-Cle)
After a few early-season struggles, the first cornerback drafted in May was demoted to fourth on the depth chart recently, behind undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams. After seeing just 39 snaps in his past three games and losing his nickel role to Williams, Gilbert took over the spot Sunday when Williams left with a hamstring injury. The first-rounder out of Oklahoma State acquitted himself well against the high-powered Colts passing attack, recording his first career interception in the third quarter and returning it for a touchdown.
The interception was an impressive play from Gilbert, who was initially covering Hakeem Nicks on the outside. Feeling pressure in the pocket, Andrew Luck stared down Reggie Wayne running an out route from the slot. Reading Luck’s eyes, Gilbert squatted around the first-down marker awaiting the throw. With the pressure finally getting to Luck as he released the pass, Gilbert undercut the route for an easy interception, then forced a missed tackle and busted through the rest of the Colts for a 21-yard touchdown return. Gilbert was willing to take a risk on the route knowing he had safety help over the top, showing a good understanding of his responsibilities within the Browns’ coverage schemes to make a big play.
It wasn’t all positive for Gilbert, as he allowed a key 27-yard reception to Donte Moncrief on third-and-18 during the game’s final drive, keeping the drive alive that eventually resulted in the game-winning touchdown. Lined up over Moncrief in press coverage, Gilbert did little to impede the receiver and found himself trailing Moncrief for most of the play. Moncrief broke to the inside and made a nice grab for the first down, while Gilbert didn’t stand much of a chance after losing the initial battle at the line of scrimmage.
On just two plays, Gilbert summarized his strengths and weaknesses as a player. His seven-interception senior season proves his ability to make game-changing plays, but most of those turnovers came when Gilbert was playing off the line of scrimmage, giving him a chance to keep the receiver in front of him and read the quarterback. His closing speed combined with elite ball skills for a corner will allow him to make plenty of big plays in these situations at the NFL level. When asked to handle receivers in press coverage, however, Gilbert’s deficiencies show up. He isn’t quick or smooth moving in reverse, which was obvious when he lost Moncrief over the middle. If the Browns put him in situations where he can be successful, he has serious playmaking potential. Throwing Gilbert in press situations, however, is a good way for Cleveland to get a minimal return on their high first-round investment.
Bene Benwikere (CB-Car)
With the Panthers cutting Antoine Cason after their Week 13 game, Benwikere stepped into a starting role in Week 14 opposite Josh Norman. Playing every defensive snap for the first time this season, Benwikere turned in a great performance that has to make the Panthers feel validated in cutting Cason and promoting the rookie. A fifth-round choice out of San Jose State, Benwikere did a great job of keeping plays in front of him as well as making plays on the ball, including the first interception of his NFL career.
With his team already out to a 10-0 lead early in the game, Benwikere picked off Drew Brees on a deep pass intended for Joe Morgan. Lined up off the line of scrimmage in zone coverage, Benwikere flipped his hips quickly when Morgan got within five yards of him, doing what was necessary to keep stride with the speedster. While Morgan had a step on Benwikere, the ball was slightly underthrown and the rookie did a great job of tracking the ball in the air and cutting in front of Morgan for the interception. With his safety help not getting enough depth, Benwikere’s trailing coverage was the difference between an interception and a touchdown and a possible 14-point swing with Carolina scoring on the ensuing drive.
Benwikere continued to show excellent coverage instincts and fundamentals throughout the game, understanding when to leave his man in both man and zone coverages. On a third-and-two in the second quarter, Benwikere recognized Kenny Stills breaking open on a short route and left his man to stop Stills right at the first-down marker. While the play still resulted in a first down for the Saints, Benwikere was very close to stopping Stills short and forcing a tough decision on the offense thanks to his instincts.
Lined up in Cover 2 late in the first half, Benwikere executed his assignment perfectly and almost came up with his second interception. After pressing the receiver at the line and letting him run down the sideline after taking a few steps with him, Benwikere closed on a short pass to Pierre Thomas and was a split-second from another pick. He still did a nice job breaking on the ball to force the incompletion, and this was a textbook play from the rookie corner that could be found in instructional videos.
Benwikere also showed good instincts as a tackler in the short passing game, taking an outside route against a block on a short pass to Thomas to force him back into the defense. Thomas had nowhere to run and Benwikere got back up off the ground and got back into the play to assist on the tackle.
Overall, this was a very impressive performance for Benwikere in his first career start. His size (5-11, 195) and speed (4.6) dropped him into the third day of the draft despite an impressive college resume. That lack of speed did show up on the early interception if the ball had been thrown in stride, but Morgan is tough deep cover for most NFL cornerbacks and Benwikere did an excellent job playing the ball, one of the strengths he showed in college. If he can continue to play with great instincts and fundamentals, Benwikere may have a shot to be an NFL starter despite his below-average measurables. The rest of the season should be a good barometer to evaluate his 2015 potential.
Marqueston Huff (CB-Ten)
Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s early injury against the Giants on Sunday opened the door for additional playing time for Huff, a rookie capable of playing both cornerback and safety. A fourth-round pick out of Wyoming, Huff stepped in to make an impact in his best game of the season despite the Titans’ getting blown out by the Giants. In fact, Huff was the only reason Tennessee wasn’t shut out in Week 14, returning his first NFL interception for a third-quarter touchdown.
The Titans used Huff well Sunday, giving him opportunities as both a nickel cornerback and at the safety spot. His interception came with the Titans down 30-0 lined up as a safety. Huff initially showed blitz up the middle, but backed off the line before the snap and dropped into coverage. Once tight end Larry Donnell finished his chip and went into the flat, Huff was all over the play and positioned himself between Donnell and Eli Manning. Manning inexplicably threw to Donnell on the play, leading to an easy interception and 30-yard return for Huff.
While that was the play that put Huff on the highlight reels, he was otherwise solid and didn’t allow any big plays on a day when the Tennessee defense gave up plenty. The only pass completed in Huff’s coverage was a short five-yard pass to Donnell in the red zone. With the rest of the defense lined up in tight man coverage and Huff playing 10 yards off the ball, Manning made the quick read to find Donnell in the flat. Huff came up to make the stop after a five-yard gain, but it’s tough to fully judge this play without knowing the coverage. Lining up so far off the line on the snap implies he was responsible for the back end in a Cover 1, in which case he reacted quickly to come up and stuff Donnell. If it was Cover 0, which seems less likely, then the cushion Huff gave was unacceptable.
The first-year defensive back was called for a face masking penalty on a punt, but other than that he stayed within himself to keep the Titans defense on schedule. With Wreh-Wilson hitting injured reserve, Huff should play out the rest of the season in a hybrid role as the team’s nickel back while also getting reps at safety. His versatility makes him a nice depth player to have in the secondary, but nothing in his profile suggests starting potential at either position. His size (5-11, 196) plays best at corner, but his hard-hitting and sometimes overaggressive style fits better at the safety spot. Despite not having a true position, Huff has the potential to make a role for himself at the NFL level, and the final three weeks will go a long way towards solidifying the Titans’ confidence in him heading into 2015.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com/