The Buccaneers often reach into the smaller-school ranks for athletic talents. Could this FCS cornerback be the next?
The Buccaneers saw substantial growth from their young cornerback room as 2020 went on, and that collective improvement played a pivotal role throughout the playoffs as players like Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting routinely flashed.
Tampa will retain those young players for another year, and it received a strong boon to the depth when veteran Ross Cockrell re-signed. Cockrell started two games as an injury fill-in and contributed meaningful snaps on special teams through 12 regular season games and the playoffs.
While it is set for 2021, the secondary could see significant changes in following years with upcoming contracts, and it never hurts to invest in high-upside projects. Small-school standout Robert Rochell profiles as such a player.
ROBERT ROCHELL’S COLLEGIATE CAREER
Rochell stood out as an exceptional high school athlete in Shreveport, La., playing several positions on the Fair Park High School football team while also finishing third in the 100-yard dash at the state track meet.
However, he was not recruited at all by any FBS schools and had to enroll at FCS University of Central Arkansas in 2016. He logged three starts, playing in 11 games total, for the Bears as a redshirt freshman, picking up one interception and six pass breakups. In 2018, he started eight games, corralled four interceptions and made six pass breakups.
As a junior, he tied for 10th in the FCS with five interceptions and made first-team All-Southland Conference honors with 44 tackles and 13 pass breakups. UCA logged nine games in 2020 and Rochell started seven times (27 tackles, three pass breakups), missing two due to injury.
He earned an invitation to the 2021 Senior Bowl.
PRO DAY DATA AND ANALYSIS
Measuring nearly 6-foot tall with 32 ½” arms, Rochell is classic example of a small-school plus athlete who rises late in the draft process due to the tantalizing potential he offers. His physical tools at a premier position will garner heavy interest, as he put up elite testing numbers when it comes to explosion, speed, and agility.
His 43” vertical jump was one of the highest out of the entire Pro Day circuit at the position, as was his 11-1 broad jump. He ran an excellent 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and his 6.84 three-cone was equally impressive for his frame.
Robert Rochelle is a CB prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.65 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 63 out of 1784 CB from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/AOjRIsWGSH #RAS via @Mathbomb pic.twitter.com/yrocVH8VWC
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 15, 2021
Those traits show up on tape as a player who can keep pace with most receivers. He has the necessary length and physicality to play press-man and other coverages. He also possesses a clear nose for the football with 10 career interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 28 pass breakups.
The level of competition was lacking at the FCS level, but he displayed enough upside from a technical perspective to put him in the top 100 conversation. He will have to avoid being grabby while working to keep himself tight to the route stem after his initial jam attempt to become a more consistent football player.
WHAT HE BRINGS IN 2021
Rookie cornerbacks notoriously struggle when forced to play significant snaps right away, even those heralded as top prospects. Luckily for Rochell, he’d serve as a deep reserve on a Bucs team that already has Davis, Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Cockrell, and Herb Miller.
He could surprise in camp if he takes well to teaching, which wouldn’t be entirely shocking thanks to his presumptively strong fit with Todd Bowles’s defensive scheme. However, the likely result is that Rochell plays very few defensive snaps while contributing mostly on special teams due to his physical talents.
Davis is a free agent in 2022 and will likely command a significant contract if he replicates his exemplary 2020 campaign. Given Tampa’s tight skirting of the salary cap and other prominent free agents like Chris Godwin, Jordan Whitehead, and Alex Cappa also due, retaining Davis might prove problematic.
Murphy-Bunting and Dean will be due contracts as well in 2023, so this team will likely need to replace significant snaps in the secondary one way or another at some point soon. The ideal plan would be to bring Rochell up slowly, not playing much this season before phasing him in the following year. At that point, you’d hope he’s more ready for a heavy dose of starting action in 2023.
Currently, most projections have Rochell as a strong candidate for the Top 100, which would put him squarely in the Day 2 conversation. With the explosive athletic tools and elite ball production, as well as the history of teams gambling on these high-risk, high-reward types, seeing Rochell go as high as late Round 2 / early Round 3 shouldn’t be surprising at all.
It would be a small shock to see him fall any further than Round 4.
ON THE CLOCK…
Alright, Bucs Nation, what do you think of Rochell’s fit with the Super Bowl champions?