Posted May 29, 2013

Jags must balance Denard Robinson’s athleticism with incomplete skill set

Jacksonville Jaguars
Denard Robinson still has progress to make as a receiver. (John Raoux/AP)

Denard Robinson still has progress to make as a receiver. (John Raoux/AP)

This much we know: Denard Robinson is a remarkable athlete. (Examples here, here, here and plenty of other spots on YouTube.)

But how will that athleticism translate to the NFL? No one’s really sure, and that includes the Jacksonville Jaguars, who used the 135th overall pick in this year’s draft to nab the former Michigan star. The Jaguars wasted little time deeming Robinson a running back, the position at which he played after a nerve injury in his elbow bounced him from the Wolverines’ QB spot last season.

Robinson rushed for 320 yards in his final three games following that position change (though 67 came on a designed run against Ohio State, with Robinson lined up at QB). He also caught three passes for 31 yards down the stretch — a glimpse at the transition to wide receiver many NFL folks assumed was in his future.

Jacksonville may still opt to develop Robinson’s game so that he can play at a slot receiver position. Regardless of where he winds up, GM David Caldwell told FOX Sports’ Alex Marvez the team wants Robinson to receive 10 to 15 touches per game.

To reach that goal, the Jaguars will have to game plan specific ways to get the ball in Robinson’s hands. Some of the options, based on the twilight of his career at Michigan:

Denard 3

That’s about as basic as it gets right there. The above shot, from Michigan’s Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, shows Robinson (boxed) lined up in a traditional running back set. Michigan had two tight ends on the line, then motioned a fullback into the backfield to create an offset I-formation.

The play was a straight handoff to QB Devin Gardner’s left, with Robinson following his blocking back into the hole. If the Jaguars are committed to Robinson as a pure RB and want to simplify the playbook, this is a starting point.

Robinson’s unique skill set, however, almost requires the Jaguars to play it a little fast and loose when he’s on the field. He had some success running between the tackles late in Michigan’s season, but Robinson was at his most highlight-worthy when able to turn the corner and get to the open field.

Most of the run plays Michigan called for Robinson (whether he was at QB or RB) were set up so he could clear the tackle box. That was true even when he did not line up in the backfield, as on this play:

Denard 6

Michigan ran a stacked-receiver formation to Gardner’s left, with Robinson wide right. Robinson then motioned back toward Gardner and took the handoff on a “jet sweep” headed toward the far sideline.

With Gardner and Robinson on the field together, Michigan also employed the “diamond” formation in its backfield — a full-house look with three backs in a V behind the quarterback. That is an approach that several NFL teams utilized with mobile QBs during the 2012 season, including Seattle (with Russell Wilson), San Francisco (with Colin Kaepernick) and Washington (with Robert Griffin III).

Denard 1

More often than not, we’ll see the quarterback back in the pistol for that set — Gardner was under center above. That formation puts any number of play possibilities on the table, including a zone-read in either direction.

Michigan took to the air, instead, swinging Robinson out on what essentially was a screen pass.

Denard 2

This play, in a nutshell, sums up where Robinson stands as a prospect. He badly bobbled the pass, which was just a soft lob from Gardner; Iowa also sniffed out the play, as the Hawkeyes were keeping a close eye on Robinson every time he was on the field. Despite all that, Robinson managed to completely reverse field and turn a very short gain into a 20-yard pickup.

Without oversimplifying Robinson’s role in Jacksonville, that is what the Jaguars have to work with in their rookie: He’s about as raw as possible as a pass catcher (Robinson himself admitted at the combine that he has trouble finding the ball downfield) and he’ll force offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch to draw up plays where he is the primary target, but the payoff might be worth it because of how bad Robinson can make defenses look.

The other possibility to get Robinson touches plays even further into the notion that his touches are obvious ones — in other words, when he’s on the field and lined up specific spots, it’s usually a pretty strong tip that Robinson will be getting the football.

Still, the Wolverines had success late with Robinson at QB in that diamond pistol look, even though Robinson’s elbow injury left him virtually unable to throw.

Denard 4

It was rather interesting to see the Wolverines run plays out of this formation with Robinson at QB, because they used, almost exclusively, designed runs for Robinson … but gave off the appearance of read-options.

Case in point: the continuation of the play pictured just above. Robinson faked a handoff to the back to his left, as a quarterback would in a conventional option. However, was there really even a read here for Robinson? He’s certainly not tracking potential 2014 No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney flying in from the backside and, prior to the play-fake, Robinson already was shuffling to his right.

He pulled the ball back and then ran behind his running back outside — basically a QB lead.

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Robinson scored a 67-yard touchdown against Ohio State on the exact same call a few weeks earlier. Again, he lined up at QB in the diamond and, again, faked the option handoff, only to let his running backs set up in front of him to pave the way.

Michigan executed that play against Ohio State about as well as it could have, and Robinson was off to pay dirt once he found a seam outside.

Denard 7

Even at 100 percent, Robinson may not have the wares to be an NFL quarterback. And though he’s shown progress as a receiver, he also has a long way to go before he’s a viable option at that position.

So, the Jaguars’ challenge will be to get the ball into his hands and find him some space to run — even as opposing defenses come to expect unique play calls and formations, specifically for Robinson’s benefit.

There are any number of ways Jacksonville could try to unleash Robinson. At least in the early stages of his NFL career, though, his still-developing skills as a running back and pass catcher will dictate what the Jaguars are able to do when he’s on the field.

31 comments
leehwgoc
leehwgoc

Burke's a bit careless with his newsfeed monitoring.  Caldwell amended that he plans for Robinson to have 10-15 SNAPS a game, not touches.  This was clarified weeks ago, btw.

Robinson won't do much for the Jaguars in 2013. If he ever does.

gary41
gary41

Speculate all you want.  Nobody knows whether he will be OK or not, but he was drafted to find out.  He reminds me a little of Randle El, who did just fine for the Steeler's for awhile.  The way the game is played today, seasons are longer and playmaker's get injured.      

supinger
supinger

Has there really been a guy out there like this that has had much success?  I can't imagine I'd even bother drafting a guy like this unless he was a great return man or something.  

ImmaFubared
ImmaFubared

I see a crunch hit and a welcome to the NFL by some MLB who will make this guy think about another career. He was hurt a lot in college. I do not see him being able to take the punishment. 

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger   A guy like what?  A guy who carries the ball out of the backfield with great vision, patience, speed, quickness, and shiftiness?  Watch some highlight videos of Denard rushing and then come back and say that a guy like him can't have success.

DonDStringer
DonDStringer

@ImmaFubared Jags aren't going to use him as much as UM did.  UM was very much depended on him offensively just like (I know you guys remember this name) the Titans were very much depending on Steve McNair which is why he had a injury filled career.  That kind of weight won't be put on Denard's shoulder.  At least for now.............................................................. hmmmmmmmmmmmmm... lol.  

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@ImmaFubared He led Michigan in both passing and rushing attempts each of the last three years.  He took a pounding, too.  Other than after the ulnar nerve injury in the Nebraska game last year, he missed hardly any time at all for three seasons.  There is zero evidence to support a claim that he is more injury prone than anybody else.

leehwgoc
leehwgoc

@JohnHerbster @supinger All that vision, speed, and shiftiness usually evaporated the second he faced a non Big Ten defense, e.g. Alabama.

Robinson is an NFL gadget player at best.  He'll be fortunate if he's even as useful as Josh Cribbs, but more likely he'll be another Joe Webb.

supinger
supinger

@JohnHerbster A guy who's small and fast and changing position.  There's been plenty of them and they all had "great vision, patience, speed, quickness, and shiftiness" and I can't think of a one who's succeeded in the NFL. 

It would be one thing if he were just a small and fast RB, I've seen that work (although they are few and far between), I've never seen someone like that change position and be good.  I could very well just be forgetting someone though.   If you're a Michigan fan I'm sure you're familiar with Armanti Edwards.  He hasn't exactly lit it up has he?

I get that you're a fan, my only point is there is no prior example to make you think he can succeed as an RB and it was a bad use of a fifth round pick by a team that can't afford to waste picks on projects like this.

DonDStringer
DonDStringer

@leehwgoc @JohnHerbster @supingerLook all sarcasm aside the Jags drafted him because they knew what he is so they weren't/aren't taking a chance on him.  Then the OTA's confirmed it but the crazy thing is he surprised them.  He tends to have a knack for doing that because when Brady Hoke became UM's head coach he surprised the staff at his QB skills as well as everything else.  He is a natural talent but what makes good is his work ethic, film study, and just simply his attitude to any and all situations.  

Last but not least he is going to be the second diamond in the rough found in the late rounds to come from UM and succeed in the NFL... Tom Brady R7

DonDStringer
DonDStringer

@leehwgoc @JohnHerbster @supingerUM wasn't trying to use him in the running game a lot in the against Bama.  Reason # 1 its the first game of the year (don't want to chance a major injury in game 1).  Reason # 2 they were changing to a pro style offense. And by the way he scored from 10 yards out on that vaunted Bama d on a QB POWER DRAW UP THE MIDDLE!!!  Plus he gained over a hundred yards against South Caroline's D as well... What conference are they from?  Oh right the SEC.  As for Robinson playing RB or a Cordell like "Slash" I believe he can.  RB will be the easiest transition.  As JohnHerbster kept pointing out abt his carries and   average per carry... one thing JohnHerbster forgot to mention on the fact was UM lacked a power back for short yardage or simply any type of power game.  So take a wild guess as to who carried the ball in short yardage situations.  That would be the one and only Denard.  And I am not just talking abt his short stint at primary RB I am talking abt his whole career at UM lining up at QB.  And wait check this out cause this is the best part... Majority of his runs the opposing teams knew that he was going to run it and yet they couldn't stop him... *Whispering* Even Bama on the 1st and goal play... Shhhhhh... That's a secret...

supinger
supinger

@JohnHerbster @supinger @DebBacon @JohnHerbster @supinger @DebBacon More power to him as far as being the first.  I'm not rooting against him or anything.  

And I have no clue, that's why I'm asking.  I know there have been some that have been able to make it as WRs but I don't know of any RBs.  I'm just saying why would you think that anyone, not just Robinson, is a no brainer to do something no one else has ever done before?  

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger @DebBacon Yeah, he went in the fifth round and then the first day the Jags saw him in camp they told the media they intend to give him 10-15 touches a game.  Guess why.

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger @JohnHerbster @DebBacon And I don't know why I didn't think to ask you this question in the first place.  You keep asking me to name a QB who has successfully transitioned to an NFL RB.  When you ask this, you are implying that there are a bunch of them who have tried and failed.  So here's my question:  How many have tried?  How many college QBs with anywhere near the number of rushing yards Denard has under his belt have tried and failed at making it in the NFL as a RB?  Name those guys.

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger @JohnHerbster @DebBacon I mean skill is skill.  I don't care if he spent 90% of his time as a kicker in college.  Watch the 10% where he carried the ball out of the backfield and judge what you see.  He's a natural.

supinger
supinger

@JohnHerbster @supinger @DebBacon I'm not arguing that he wasn't great at Michigan.  The few games he played RB he played well.  I'm just saying I do not think he will be a successful NFL running back.  Obviously most NFL teams don't think so either since he didn't go until the 5th round.  

If you can tell me a college QB who has successfully transitioned to an NFL running back in the last 20 years or so please do, I just can't think of any.  Doesn't mean they aren't out there but none come to mind.

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger @DebBacon @JohnHerbsterhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rMgUxkxeXE

There is a video of every one of his downs from his final two games against Ohio State and South Carolina.  He can't throw and can only carry the ball in his left hand due to the ulnar injury.  If you can watch that and still say he can't make it as a RB, I don't know what else to say.  Forget about all of the slot receiver/return stuff.  He's an absolute natural carrying the football.



JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger @DebBacon @JohnHerbster I'm not blinded by fandom.  You're blinded by the fact that I'm a fan.  Again, here's another fact for you:  Denard carried the ball out of the backfield 654 times for 6.5 ypc.  Don't ignore what I have to say just because you see a block M.

Have you watched any videos yet?  Hell, watch only the carries he had from the RB position if you want.  That alone should change your mind.  

supinger
supinger

@DebBacon @JohnHerbster Was Gregg Pruitt a QB for the vast majority of his career prior to joining the NFL?  If Robinson had always been an RB I'd see no issue with the pick. 

You guys are blinded by your fandom.  Who is my starting RB by the way?

JohnHerbster
JohnHerbster

@supinger @JohnHerbster Denard had 654 carries the last three years with an average of 6.5 ypc.  The vast majority of those were designed runs.  You're talking like he's Darren Sproles or something when he's 6'0", 197lb. He isn't that small and he hasn't been through an offseason conditioning program where he wasn't a QB yet.  If the Jags feel like he needs to add a little weight, I doubt that will be an issue.  

Again, go watch videos of all of Denard's carries and then see if you still feel he can't be an NFL RB.