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