A strong rookie season does not guarantee a promising follow-up campaign, and perhaps there is no better example of that on the Los Angeles Rams roster than cornerback Robert Rochell.
The Rams were camped out in a mansion tucked away in the Malibu hills when they set up for the 2021 NFL Draft. Coaches and staff promised they’d jump in the sprawling front yard pool if the right player came along - a “pool party pick”. The team selected receiver Tutu Atwell with their first pick in the second round, followed by MLB Ernest Jones in the third, and DT Bobby Brown in the fourth at 117th overall.
13 picks later the Rams were on the clock again and the team picked Rochell, a freakishly athletic corner from Central Arkansas. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and others jumped into the pool, which was prompted by measurables that draw comparisons to an elite group of defensive backs.
“Since 2015 — that’s when we started our internal scouting system, called ‘JARS’, we have 5,000 different defensive backs that we have (measurables) on,” said Jake Temme, who is a data and analytics manager for the Rams. “And within our internal mechanism for doing weight-adjusted/athleticism (measurements) — called RSDI (Rams Standard Deviation Index) — he was in the top 10 percent for the cornerback position.”
At 6-2, 195lbs, corners aren’t supposed to run a 4.39 40-yard dash, jump 43 inches in the vertical, or broad jump over 11 feet - but that’s exactly what the Rams were getting in Rochell. While it was clear based on his collegiate competition at both Central Arkansas and Western Kentucky that the corner was far from a finished product on the field, the Rams were working with a rare combination of both frame and athletic profile.
The early dividends of Rochell as a rookie suggested that bright days were ahead.
Rochell was thrust into starting action as soon as his fourth NFL game against the Seattle Seahawks, who pose a formidable challenge with receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. The rookie corner played 54 snaps in his first start and drew four targets. He did allow a completion for a touchdown - and three completions for 36 yards overall - but Rochell also went aerial to knock away a perfect touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Lockett.
His starting debut was exactly what the Rams thought they were getting when coaches jumped into the pool after turning in his draft selection.
Sure, Rochell’s production was up-and-down. He still has a lot of football to learn. But you also saw the promise that his athleticism brings, making a leaping pass deflection on one of the more productive deep threat receivers in the NFL. Taking away what seemed to be a sure touchdown played an important part in helping the Rams secure a victory over their division foe.
Rochell made another start the following week at the New York Giants, and it was a busy day for him in coverage. Daniel Jones and Mike Glennon targeted the rookie nine times, completing only five passes for 69 yards, but Rochell also came away with an interception - good for a traditional passer rating of just 40.7.
Cornerback Robert Rochell gets his chance to showcase this Sunday against the Arizona passing attack. The Rams reserves will need to step up tomorrow. Physically, Rochell has all the tools. He should get plenty of opportunities to make a play on the ball tomorrow pic.twitter.com/hqhmxr4ql0— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) September 25, 2022
The remainder of Rochell’s 2021 campaign would be blurred by injury, he’d earn starts in Weeks 9 and 10 but played only a combined 36 snaps in those two games. While the Rams made a deep playoff push and eventually earned a victory in Super Bowl LVI, Rochell played his last football of the year in Week 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was only one defense for one play in that contest.
Rochell’s disappearing act in 2022
The Rams went into the 2022 NFL Draft with a plan to rebuild their secondary. Eric Weddle, and important part of the Super Bowl team, was returning to retirement. Multi-year starter Darious Williams was slated for free agency and had a price tag Los Angeles was not willing to entertain, and safeties Nick Scott and Taylor Rapp were also set to hit the open market a year later.
With that context it was really no surprise that the Rams ended up using four draft selections in the later rounds to add new blood to the defensive back room. Cornerback Cobie Durant was chosen in the fourth round followed by Derion Kendrick in the sixth. At safety LA came away with Quentin Lake and Russ Yeast. The Rams also acquired a familiar veteran during the draft by trading with the Cleveland Browns for Troy Hill in exchange for a pick in 2023.
Robert Rochell got hit by the returner but still ended up making a ridiculous play to stop the ball going for a touchback pic.twitter.com/XBoUvUV2Au— (@TL_LARams) December 6, 2021
Suddenly Rochell faced stiff competition as the team looked to replace Williams’ starting gig.
As early as training camp, with star cornerback Jalen Ramsey limited by his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, there were signs that Rochell was buried on the depth chart. David Long, who’s had an up-and-down career as a Ram but was coming off an all-important defensive touchdown in the playoffs, was the first man up to replace Williams.
When Los Angeles lost both Hill and Long to injury as soon as the second game of the season, it was Durant that was called up over Rochell. Kendrick also earned the starting nod in Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals. Rochell was nowhere to be found.
Can the Rams rely on Rochell in 2023?
After playing 223 snaps and being targeted 20 times as a rookie, Rochell was on the field for only 27 snaps and a single target in 2022.
Can the corner’s lack of playing time be attributed to some sort of injury that he was fighting through in order to stay on the field and contribute on special teams? Rochell also had some follies in his role on special teams, failing to down multiple punts by Riley Dixon before they rolled into the end zone in the final game against the Seahawks.
Wowwwww that's twice the Rams could've downed it at the 1 and Rochell couldn't do it.— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) January 9, 2023
The Rams will likely add talent to the cornerback room ahead of the 2023 season, and a high draft pick could push Rochell to the fringes of the roster. Can the third-year corner show out during training camp and leapfrog either Durant or Kendrick on the depth chart?
In some aspects it’s unfair and unwise for the Rams not to put Rochell on the field: the team knew when they drafted him that they were investing in his athletic traits and needed to be patient with his football development. How can a young player develop football acumen without ever getting on the field? The Rams need a plan to unlock the full potential of their young corner, someone they were jumping in the pool for less than two years ago.
Is it time for the Rams to give up on Robert Rochell, or will he carve out a role on the 2023 team?