LOS ANGELES — From the perspective of sheer physical talent, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby was perhaps the most impressive cornerback prospect in the 2014 draft. That’s saying something, considering that five cornerbacks were taken in the first round, but Roby’s tape and measurables do stand out when he’s playing at his best. At the scouting combine, Roby ran a 4.34 40-yard dash despite suffering a knee injury last December, and he aced the agility drills. No surprise there, as Roby showed through three seasons with the Buckeyes that he had the trail speed, short-area agility and raw technique to excel in this era of aggressive pass defense. Even at 5-11 and 194 pounds, Roby appeared to be an ideal version of the modern starting cornerback. The Broncos selected him with the No. 31 overall pick, and expect him to start in a secondary that also includes new acquisitions Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward.
Then again, there have been lapses in judgment on and off the field that have left NFL teams wondering. In April, he was arrested for driving a vehicle while impaired — the police found him in a parked car and smelled alcohol. Last July, he was charged with disorderly conduct based on his alleged role in a bar fight — the charges were dismissed, but in the rarefied air of the first round, these things tend to add up.
Similarly, as talented as he is, Roby will occasionally lose his bearings on the field. There was perhaps no better example than in Ohio State’s 31-24 win over Wisconsin last September: Roby amassed eight tackles and an interception, but was also exposed in coverage by receiver Jared Abbrederis, who used his route awareness and quick cuts to fool Roby to the tune of 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown. In straight routes, especially deeper ones, Roby stuck to his receivers like glue, but he also zigged too often when he should have zagged.
It’s a common problem for hyper-talented players when they leave the relative safety of the collegiate environment for the harsh glow of the NFL — how do you clean up the rough spots in such a short time? For Roby, that process has included training in Los Angeles with Travelle Gaines’ Athletic Gaines studio. Gaines has trained hundreds of college and NFL players since he started his business in 2007, and combine prep is one of his specialties. Roby’s knee injury forced Gaines to take things slowly at first without losing ground.
“My biggest thing here was that Travelle wanted me to rehab my knee, because it was still bothering me when I first got here,” Roby said from Gaines’ studio. “I didn’t do much in the first couple weeks — I wanted to rest, and I got with his doctors, and we got my knee back right. I had a severe bone bruise and a hyperextension, and it was weird, because the way the bone bruise was, it just hurt all the time. Any type of pressure on it, and it hurt really bad. It was something that lingered, so I didn’t want to start training until that fully healed. After that, it was just about getting my body back stronger, because I sat out before. Those types of things. Overall strength and speed.”
As Gaines said, it’s a delicate balance between intelligent rest and the kind of intensity that is required when mere weeks separate an athlete from the biggest job interview of his young life.
“The first thing you have to do is to continue to keep him on a track to peak out at the combine, while still being sensitive to his injury. You can’t just have an athlete sit on the sidelines and take mental reps; you have to make sure you’re still building up his core strength and his upper-body strength. Try and balance out his legs as much as you can, while teaching him as much technique as you can while building him up until he gets to full speed. Because the last thing you want to do is to have him get so far behind, and expect when he gets healthy to try to give him a crash course. You have to build confidence in the repetitions and what they’re trying to do, while still managing this injury.
“Most everybody comes here beat up. Most everybody comes here with some kind of injury. That’s why every single program is 100 percent customized to what these guys need — to address their strengths, and to, of course, address their weaknesses.”
Roby’s most glaring issue — and it’s one he knows all too well — is the perception that his athleticism has outpaced his maturity.
“I’m just learning more about the game,” he told me when I asked him about that perception. “When I get that overall knowledge of the game up — anything and everything. Who’s my [safety] help, how I fit in the system, what I’m supposed to do on this play, this and that. That’s where my game can be great. But I realize that when I wasn’t thinking that way. When I wasn’t thinking about Oh — I have help here, so I should be outside, or ‘I have outside help, so I should be inside… When you get away from things like that, you give up big plays because you make mistakes in areas you shouldn’t if you really pay attention to all the small things.”
Gaines’ training has helped, as has his time so far with the Broncos, as has his own self-awareness. While he preferred to leave the off-field incidents in the past, Gaines intimated that the impulse control that causes young men to stray from the path in the real world isn’t that different from the lack of fundamentals that have a defender running the wrong way on a skinny post.
“Yeah — the funny part about that is that it’s all about maturity,” Gaines said of Roby. “It shows how mature a person is when he can admit that he’s made mistakes. Brad has always been, ‘Hey, you know what? I messed up here and there, and I’m growing from it.’ That’s the thing I love about this kid. He knows when he’s messed up, and he knows when he’s done right. An athlete that is accountable for his actions — that’s an athlete who’s going to be successful.”
It’s a delicate and difficult balance — Gaines has had to kick a few players out of his offseason programs because they showed a red streak too often, or refused to put in the work required. Roby, for his part, hasn’t been that type of guy. He appreciates the customized program Gaines has put together for him and the familial feeling in Gaines’ new place in the San Fernando Valley. Gaines had set up shop in West Hollywood before, and the distractions could be onerous at times.
“You know he knows what he’s doing just by his resume — the people he’s trained over the years. A nice facility like this — today is the first time I’ve seen it — and it’s easy to have a camaraderie with him. He’s just cool.”
For Gaines, part of that “cool” is the ability to be more than a trainer — he can be a mentor at times when a player needs assistance and is willing to listen. The pace during daily training sessions is blistering, and the guys who have been with Gaines for years are fiercely protective of the environment. Gaines, who went through his own issues growing up in Louisiana before he found his way, has seen enough to know — both then and now.
“It’s a lot more of a mentorship now, because I’ve seen Bradley Roby before. I saw him last year and the year before that, [in different players]. Before Bradley, I had [Baltimore Ravenscornerback] Jimmy Smith. It’s now eight years of this for me, and I’ve seen every kid and every situation. I can use my experience in the past and build on the relationships, and I really want to be more of a resource for that. There are now guys I trained back in 2007 who are now two and three years retired, and I’m still here.”
Roby just arrived, in a relative sense. He’s learning and he’s willing, and if he keeps it together here, it will pay great dividends down the road.