We’re still 11 months away from the 2013 NFL draft, but I can already guarantee you that Michigan QB Denard Robinson will end up being one of the most debated about and discussed prospects of the 2013 draft class.
Since bursting onto the national scene with an extremely impressive five-game breakout performance to start the 2010 season, Robinson has become one of college football’s biggest stars and one of the sport’s most recognizable names.
The supremely athletic dual-threat signal-caller is one of the most dangerous playmaking quarterbacks to grace the college game since the turn of the millennium, and he’s used his tremendous physical gifts to make opposing defenses look downright foolish on a regular basis during his two seasons as a starter in Ann Arbor.
After compiling over 7,600 yards of total offense over the last two seasons, and after leading the Wolverines to an impressive 11-2 campaign last year that culminated with the school’s first BCS bowl victory since 2000; Robinson will now enter his final collegiate season on the short list of preseason favorites for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Given the type of awe-inspiring performances we’ve seen the 6’1’’, 193-pound senior All-American candidate put together over the past few years, there’s no question that he deserves the publicity. He's earned the right to be mentioned in the same conversation with college football’s other elite quarterbacks.
Still, there’s one big question floating around that has to be answered this year: Is Denard Robinson an NFL caliber quarterback?
If you go by just what we’ve seen from Robinson over the past two seasons, admittedly, there are obvious concerns about whether he actually possesses all of the necessary traits to one day develop into a starting NFL quarterback.
When you break down top college quarterbacks and try to judge if they have what it takes to become impact signal-callers in the NFL, you start with the basic traits you look for in a prototypical pro-style pocket passer. Size, arm strength, accuracy, intelligence, mobility, pocket awareness and field vision are all obvious keys that you search for.
To say that Denard Robinson doesn’t fit the mold of a prototypical pro-style pocket passer is clearly an understatement.
Listed at 6-foot-1 (listed being the key word there), Robinson obviously lacks the size you desire in an NFL quarterback, and his arm strength, accuracy and overall passing prowess will also be thoroughly scrutinized by scouts when they put on his game film.
Going strictly by the numbers, Robinson’s passing stats in 2011 weren’t bad, but they certainly won’t jump off the page at you, especially his pedestrian 55 percent completion percentage and his 15 interceptions, which was the highest total in the Big Ten last year.
Two other prominent quarterbacks, Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft, and Landry Jones, Oklahoma’s highly touted senior signal-caller, also threw 15 interceptions in 2011. However, when you compare Tannehill's 531 passing attempts and Jones’ 562 passing attempts to Robinson’s 258 total throws, you can see why that’s pretty concerning.
In fairness, it was his first year switching from Rich Rodriguez’s spread system to Al Borges’ more conventional pro-style attack, so a learning curve was to be expected. However, Robinson failed to take the necessary steps in his development as a passer that you want to see from a quarterback in his second year as a starter.
Right now, from what we’ve seen out of Robinson so far in his college career, it seems fair to label him with the “athlete playing quarterback” tag.
You’re probably going to hear a lot of people bring up names like Robert Griffin III and Mike Vick when talking about Denard Robinson this offseason, but you have to take those comparisons with a big grain of salt.
Aside from the fact that all three quarterbacks are tremendous athletes who can run extremely well, Robinson has almost nothing in common with either RG3 or Michael Vick in terms of makeup and playing style.
Griffin and Vick both have top-notch arm strength and they've routinely displayed the type of touch and zip on their passes that Robinson hasn’t come close to showing yet.
I realize it’s easy to say things like "Robinson is going to be this year’s RG3." Don’t be confused, though, when it comes to comparing them as quarterbacks, they are two distinctly different types of players.
While at Baylor, Griffin was a quarterback first, who possessed a rocket for an arm and tremendous passing skills. He also just happened to be a world-class athlete, who could burn a defense with his legs when he needed to.
Robinson is still very much a running quarterback who is learning the nuances of how to be a quality passer. It’s why he was classified with the dubious “Athlete” label by many recruiting services when he was a coveted young prospect at Florida’s Deerfield Beach High School.
Although he may possess great pure talent and physical ability, Robinson is still very much a raw and unrefined quarterback at this point.
As strange as it may sound, if I had to compare Denard Robinson to any NFL player, it wouldn’t be a quarterback. Instead, I think he most resembles Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson in terms of his explosiveness and overall playmaking ability.
Robinson has a versatile enough skill-set to fit into a variety of different roles in the pros. He's got the type of talent to be a speed back, a slot receiver, a wildcat-esque situational quarterback and he could even be a dangerous threat returning kicks and punts. However, if an NFL team wants to try to develop him into a drop back-style passer, I doubt that they’ll get the most out of his full array of skills.
A recent college quarterback prospect who has the most similar physical makeup to Robinson is former Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards, who was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft.
Carolina saw the type of raw athleticism and physical ability that Edwards showed in college, but because he was undersized and because he didn’t have an NFL caliber arm, the Panthers took him with the sole intent to switch him to receiver, instead of trying him out at quarterback.
If I had to give a definitive prediction on how Denard Robinson will ultimately be viewed as a pro prospect after this season, I think he’ll eventually earn a 2nd to 3rd round grade just based off of his rare physical gifts. However, it seems like he’s probably going to be considered more of an “athlete” than a quarterback, and he’ll likely be looked at as an Armanti Edwards-type of swing player, instead of a Cam Newton or Robert Griffin-type of pass-first dual-threat quarterback.
It’s true, with young, super-athletic quarterbacks like Newton and Griffin beginning to enter the league, and with the growing popularity of spread offenses in the high school and college ranks, we are going to start seeing somewhat of an evolution of the quarterback position in the NFL. Being considered a “dual-threat” college quarterback is surely going to become less taboo around NFL scouting circles in the years to come.
Still, what made Newton and Griffin such special prospects is that they were great passers first and foremost, who just so happened to be remarkable athletes that could create big plays with their legs.
If you look at a talented and highly productive dual-threat college quarterback like former West Virginia great Pat White in contrast to quarterbacks like Newton and Griffin, it’s easy to see a difference. White was a remarkable athlete who was a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez’s spread zone read offense, but he just didn’t have anywhere near the passing chops to make it in the pros as a quarterback. That’s why his NFL career lasted just one largely unimpressive and unproductive season.
With one more collegiate season to go, you certainly can’t close the book on Denard Robinson’s chances of one day becoming a successful NFL quarterback. However, as it stands now, his critics and his doubters do have legitimate reasons to be skeptical of his potential to succeed as a pro-style passer.
Robinson is undoubtedly the type of electric and explosive athlete that can certainly make a consistent impact for an NFL offense in some shape or form for years to come, but unless he can display considerable improvement throwing the football in 2012, he will likely have to make that impact at a position other than quarterback in the pros.