Buffalo Bills rookie Nickell Robey has a motivational tool that should last him for however long he plays in the NFL.
There were 29 cornerbacks selected in the NFL draft in April. He wasn’t one of them. There was only one reason for it.
“That was the X-factor,” Robey said after Wednesday’s practice at One Bills Drive. “It hurt me, but I didn’t think it was going to hurt me that bad.”
Robey said he is sending a message every game.
“This is what you could have had if you would have drafted me. I’m so blessed that the Bills picked me up. It’s wonderful to be part of this organization. Now that I’m here, it’s all love now, and it feels great to be here.”
The Bills are glad to have Robey, whom they signed as a free agent out of the University of Southern California the day after the draft.
Robey won the starting nickel cornerback job out of training camp and played 67 snaps Sunday against New England. It’s not as if Robey got the job by default, either. He beat out speedy Ron Brooks, a fourth-round pick from last year, for the spot in the five-defensive-back defense. Brooks now is out with a foot injury, making Robey’s presence on the defense even more important.
Robey is listed at 5-foot-8 on the roster, but he officially was measured at 5-7¼ at the NFL Scouting Combine. There are about 175 cornerbacks in the NFL, and Robey is one of the three shortest.
Only three other corners are listed at 5-8. Two of them – Chicago’s Tim Jennings and the Jets’ Isaiah Trufant – also were measured at 5-7 coming out of college. Only 12 cornerbacks are listed at 5-9.
Robey, however, brings a lot to the field beyond his stature.
He has experience. He started from Game One as a true freshman for USC and finished with 37 starts over three seasons.
He has explosive athleticism. His time of 4.09 seconds in the shuttle drill at the combine was tied for fifth best among cornerbacks. His time of 6.74 in the three-cone drill at the combine also was tied for sixth best at his position. His vertical jump of 37.5 inches was tied for sixth best.
His speed at the combine wasn’t great – 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which tied for 22nd. But he ran a 4.44 at his USC pro day.
“His short-area quickness is among the best in the draft,” said Robey’s agent, Rob London.
Short-area quickness is the most critical factor in guarding receivers in the slot position, from where they can go in any direction.
“I know he doesn’t have the size, but he has everything you want from a corner to be quick and to always be in the hip of the receiver,” said Bills receiver Robert Woods, Robey’s USC teammate.
Perhaps the best thing Robey showed starting in spring practice was tenacity. There was no typical rookie tentativeness in his play.
“I wanted to be very aggressive,” Robey said. “I made sure I was physical and had my hands on. Because I knew with the stature I am, it was a question. I made sure at the end of the day I was physical.”
“That’s his mentality,” Woods said. “I remember the first game of our freshman year against Hawaii. I asked him, ‘Are you even nervous?’ He was like ‘No. It’s just playing football.’ ”
Robey got used to being competitive at USC, where he practiced every day against two of the best receivers in the country – Woods and Marquise Lee, who is likely to be a first-round pick in next year’s draft.
“First and foremost, the thing that impresses me about Nickell is he loves football,” London said. “You’ll find a lot of guys, guys drafted early, they may like playing the game and it’s a good living. But he actually loves the game. Every conversation we have, every conversation, is always about how hungry he is and how much he wants to be on that field.”
One example of how much Robey loves the game is he watched the NFL draft, all three days, from start to finish, waiting to hear his name called.
“At the end of the draft, my family was looking at me like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it,’ ” Robey said. “It was nerve wracking. It was aggravating.”
Robey aims to be the exception to the NFL’s cornerback prototype. Chicago’s Jennings is one example for him to follow. Jennings is in his eighth season and made one Pro Bowl. Another example is right in the Bills’ locker room. Buffalo safety Jim Leonhard is 5-8 and 3/10ths. Leonhard is in his ninth season and has played 111 NFL games.
“He’s like a hair taller than me,” said Robey, laughing.
Little big men There are roughly 175 cornerbacks in the NFL. Only three measure 5-foot-7:
Jets (3rd year)
Bears (8th year)
Note: All three are listed as 5-8 but were measured at 5-7 entering the NFL draft.