BBD Assistant Editor: Ryan Talbot
No one, including the Buffalo Bills, knew what they getting when they signed Nickell Robey as an undrafted free agent. Generally, an undrafted player making the 53-man roster is a story in itself. Having an undrafted free agent earn playing time in all 16 games? A rare feat.
Making the Team
There was only one reason that Nickell Robey went undrafted: his size. Robey is listed at 5’7″ and 165 pounds. Typically, you don’t see players that size finding success at cornerback in the NFL. Simply put, wide receivers are getting bigger and in turn cornerbacks have been increasing in size as well.
Regardless of his size, Robey had a terrific collegiate career. He finished his career at USC with 163 total tackles, two sacks, seven interceptions with three returned for touchdowns and 24 passes defensed.
Much like his USC days, Robey showed in his rookie season that he could play in the NFL regardless of his size.
Robey impressed from the get-go in Buffalo. After seeing first-team snaps at slot cornerback in last year’s OTAs, the rookie received high praise from head coach Doug Marrone:
“I think he’s made plays. … Now today he made a great break on the ball, had it. He could’ve caught that ball and scored a touchdown. That’s what we expect him to do. But I think he’s someone who’s come in and really done a nice job as far as a free agent and made plays and made an impression on the staff.”
By training camp, it was no longer a question of if Robey would make the team, but instead whether he would be the team’s nickel cornerback. He earned that job in training camp and maintained it during the preseason.
That’s an unreal amount of playing time for an undrafted rookie free agent. However, as Joe Buscaglia of WGR550 recently pointed out, one of the biggest reasons Robey played so much in 2013 was due to the team’s aggressive defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme called for an aggressive nickel cornerback who could get to the quarterback on blitzes. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Robey rushed the quarterback 45 times in 2013. The analytics site graded Robey 2nd in pass-rush productivity among all NFL cornerbacks.
Aside from rushing the passer, Robey proved his worth in coverage as well. Throughout the season, Robey was targeted 61 times, according to PFF, and gave up a total of 32 receptions (52.5%). When playing specifically in the slot, Robey was targeted 51 times and gave up 28 receptions. In terms of coverage snaps per reception, PFF graded him fifth among all NFL cornerbacks.
With 39 total tackles, 10 passes defensed, three sacks, one interception (returned for a touchdown) and one forced fumble, Robey had a very successful 2013 season.
There was something about the Miami Dolphins that brought the best out of Robey.
In Week 7, Nickell Robey started the scoring for the Bills by intercepting a first-quarter Ryan Tannehill pass and returning the ball 19 yards for a touchdown. His three passes defensed in that game were his most for 2013. PFF gave Robey a +2.5 overall performance for the game with a +2.9 in pass defense. Buffalo squeaked out a 23-21 win.
In Week 16, Buffalo once again faced the Dolphins. Miami was shut out 19-0 and Robey once again had a few highlights. He finished the game with four total tackles, two sacks and one pass defensed. PFF also credited Robey with four quarterback hurries. He finished the game with his highest rating of the year, a +5.3 overall, from the analytics site.
Arguably the worst game of Robey’s season took place against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14. Pro Football Focus graded Robey’s performance against the Atlanta Falcons one week earlier as his worst of the season, but against the Buccaneers he was targeted three times and gave up three receptions for 57 yards and one touchdown. It was one of only three touchdowns he was charged with giving up all season. This performance was just a bump in Robey’s overall terrific rookie season.
Entering 2014, Nickell Robey still has the inside track at being Buffalo’s starting nickel cornerback. The team added Corey Graham to their cornerback ranks, but Buffalo has mentioned the possibility of playing Graham at safety. Few imagined that Buffalo would get such a positive contribution from Robey in 2013, but expectations will be raised this season.
Robey isn’t likely to blitz the quarterback as much as he did in 2013. Unlike Pettine’s scheme last season, new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense doesn’t blitz much from the secondary, as he expects his defensive line to generate pressure.
Blitzing the passer may be Robey’s best trait, but his coverage skills are nothing to scoff at. Robey’s size might not be ideal, but as long as he produces on the field, he should stay on the field.
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