FAIRHOPE, Ala. — Well, we knew it was going to be a process.
When former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson announced that he would enter the 2013 NFL Draft as a receiver, we knew it would take some time before Robinson, no matter how athletic he might be, would be able to show a comprehensive command of the position — or even sparks of the ability to excel as a pass-catcher.
After four days of Senior Bowl prep, it’s pretty obvious that Robinson has a long way to go. Through the North team practices, Robinson has struggled mightily with the most basic elements of his new proposed position. Recruited as a potential cornerback or receiver by several colleges out of Deerfield Beach High School in Florida, Robinson instead went to Michigan to run Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense as a running quarterback and eventually excelled under Brady Hoke as head coach and Al Borges as offensive coordinator. That’s what he did before, and the results were spectacular at times. But this week in Mobile, Robinson has also proved when so many receivers new to the NFL have told me through the years — once to hit NFL-level talent, it’s about much, much more than the ability to run fast.
“The biggest thing for me was preparation,” Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts told me last week about that jump from college to the pros. “You’re going up against guys who have been in the NFL for 7-8 years, and even longer with guys like Nate Clements or Ronde Barber. They’ve seen everything, and they’re preparing for you, as well. When you come into the NFL, you have a target on your back, and people are fighting for their jobs. Guys don’t know how to prepare, and they don’t know how big a business this is.”
Robinson, for his part, is looking pretty iffy against college seniors who are playing together for the first time (except for Connecticut cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who are both on the North team defense) in mixed coverages, which makes one wonder what will become of him when — and if — people like Darrelle Revis, Charles Tillman, and Richard Sherman get their shots at him.
Few question Robinson’s athleticism — after all, it’s the same trait that allowed him to make play after astounding play on Saturday afternoons. But there’s track speed, and there’s receiver speed, and right now, Robinson doesn’t know the difference. The 4.4-40 field burner actually looks slow on a number of routes, because his cuts aren’t generally quick and he tends to drift a lot. Outside of the standard go route packages, he might engineer the occasional quick cut, or meander inside after clearing a safety as a midfield mark. But there is precious little evidence of the route concepts he’ll need to succeed and survive in the NFL.
More than once this week, the Oakland Raiders’ coaching staff has had to reposition him at the line of scrimmage, and you don’t get to do that mid-game when you’re playing the Chicago Bears.
Robinson doesn’t sound to worried about the adaptation. On Tuesday, he talked about emulating Green Bay’s Randall Cobb as an all-purpose threat at the NFL level, and he mentioned former Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins multi-position guy Antwaan Randle-El as an influence in the quarterback-to-receiver transition. He’s also received advice from former teammates Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon, his top two targets last season.
“They just told me to go out there, use your speed and make sure you come out of your breaks at full speed,” Robinson said. “They told me to come back to the ball.”
Would that it were that simple. To be fair, Robinson will occasionally flash the kind of in-cut speed that could make him dangerous on any level, like when he caught a ball in the end zone off a jump on Thursday. His pure speed will allow him to outrun a lot of his mistakes — on Tuesday, he slipped on the field at Ladd-Peebles stadium and still was able to burn past the cornerback covering him. But he’s dropped a lot of balls this week, and once a defender locks him up, Robinson doesn’t yet understand how to use his hands to separate. And that’s a problem at the NFL level — it doesn’t matter how much pure speed you have, because there’s someone just as fast who can cover you, and you will get shadowed into oblivion if you don’t have at least some positional concepts together.
Robinson is also trying to adapt as a punt returner, but after dropping three of eight potential returns on the first day of practice, his primary problem became more clear — being a receiver and returner is a lot harder than it looks. And limited as he was to non-contact work through the first two days of practice due to nerve damage in his elbow makes the mistakes all the more unnerving.
“He has a lot of confidence in his ability, but at the same time he understands that he doesn’t know everything that he needs to know about playing the wide receiver position,” North team (and Oakland Raiders) head coach Dennis Allen said this week. “But he’s very willing to learn. That’s the biggest thing, is guys understanding and being willing to put forth the effort to try to learn the position.”
That much is true, and at least Robinson has the major stumbling blocks out of the way. He’s got a walkthrough on Friday and a Senior Bowl game on Saturday to try and up his stock, and a month before a scouting combine that will confirm it much more clearly either way.
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