Where and How Does Michigan QB Denard Robinson Translate to the NFL?
No prospect is as enigmatic in the 2013 NFL draft than Michigan Wolverines QB Denard Robinson. While "Shoelace" has had a down year—way down because of both play and injury—he's simply too athletic for some team not to take a chance on.
The big problem with Robinson, however, is that he's not a very good passer. He had moments as a quality quarterback in Brady Hoke's first year in Ann Arbor, but a senior-year regression has put far too much bad tape out there for any team to seriously take that aforementioned chance on him under center.
In fact, even at his peak popularity, when people felt he was a 2011 Heisman favorite, it was clear he lacked significant arm talent—both strength and accuracy—and wasn't a very great decision-maker. As time progressed, he didn't get any better under Al Borges, who has previously been able to eke elite production out of guys like Tony Graziani, Jason Campbell, Cade McNown and Gibran Hamdan.
Asked about Robinson on a conference call, ESPN's Todd McShay said this (via Detroit Free Press):
I think ultimately, you’re going to see he’s too quick and too fast and too explosive to get out of the second day of the draft. I’d be surprised if on Day 3 he’s still available. He’s such an explosive weapon, especially in offenses today in the NFL, there are just so many different ways to use a guy like Denard Robinson. I think he’s got a lot of value in that regard.
So, we know that Mr. Robinson is going to the NFL, but where is he going to play and how is he going to fit in to a professional offense?
Maybe Robinson Doesn't Translate At All
Perhaps the darkest timeline for Robinson is that he doesn't fit in anywhere on an NFL field.
It would hardly be the first time a college superstar has fallen off the map. Head to your local college town and check with the car dealerships and insurance offices. I guarantee you'll find one of the many "Uncle Ricos" across the country who will regale you with game stories right before he asks if he can get you into a well-insured Honda Civic.
There's no shame in graduating from a fantastic educational institution and ending up "going pro in something other than sports."
Dennis Franklin has made his mark on the world. Anytime you turn on Wheel of Fortune or make a dated Oprah reference, you have Mr. Franklin (at least in small part) to thank for that. As vice president of King World Productions, Franklin made his mark on the TV world and is now selling real estate in California.
Before that, he was Denard Robinson before Denard Robinson was Denard Robinson.
As Michigan's first black quarterback, Franklin led the Bo Schembechler-coached Wolverines to 30 wins, two losses and one tie. In 1974, he was a team captain, first team All-Big Ten, honorable mention All-American and finished sixth in the Heisman voting.
He is, still, one of the top-20 passers and top-20 rushers in Michigan football history.
The NFL didn't have much use for option quarterbacks in 1975, though, and he lasted until the sixth round of the NFL draft and became a member of the Detroit Lions as a wide receiver. He lasted two seasons in the NFL and caught a total of six catches.
Robinson Could...Possibly..In the Right Situation Be a Legitimate NFL Receiver
A lot of NFL fans don't remember Freddie Solomon, they remember Dwight Clark. You see, before "The Catch," Solomon had caught two first downs and ran for another on the San Francisco 49ers' game-winning drive. He was so dominant that the Cowboys blanketed him in the end zone, allowing Clark to run free across the back of the end zone.
Solomon won two Super Bowls as a member of the Niners. In total, he played 11 season in the NFL after being selected in the second round of the 1975 NFL draft (yes, four rounds before Dennis Franklin in the exact same draft) by the Miami Dolphins.
Before his Super Bowl heroics, Solomon was the last quarterback of the University of Tampa Spartans, a Division II school that hasn't fielded a football team since 1975. He finished 12th in Heisman voting his senior season after putting up 5,803 yards of total offense, 3,299 yards of which was rushing.
Like Franklin (and like Robinson), NFL teams wanted Solomon on their team, but didn't know where to put him. The Dolphins used him mainly as a returner before he met his greatest success under Bill Walsh and the Niners.
Earlier this year, Solomon passed away at age 59 after his battle with colon and liver cancer.
While Solomon might be the most successful running college QB turned receiver, he's hardly the last to make that transition. Antwaan Randle El left Indiana after passing for 40 touchdowns and rushing for 40 more. While he's thought of mostly as a special teams ace, he played a valuable role on the Pittsburgh Steelers offense and even threw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XL. He parlayed that success into a huge contract from the Washington Redskins.
Julian Edelman is probably the latest successful QB to successfully make the switch. He even played defensive back for the New England Patriots last season. Anquan Boldin could, conceivably, be thrown into the mix as a stretch—he battled for the Florida State QB position in 2001 before injury. Less successful examples include Matt Jones and Ronald Curry.
The problem with projecting Robinson as a receiver, however, is that it's just that—a projection. There's little to no evidence that he would succeed there at the next level. Sure he's a phenomenal athlete, so was everyone else listed above and a host of other guys who are little more than footnotes.
While Robinson certainly could succeed as a receiver, he's no sure thing.
Perhaps Robinson Ushers In a Post-Position Era in the NFL
One thing is certain. When Robinson has the ball in his hands, he is dangerous.
Because of that, what about the possibility that Robinson ushers in an era that redefines the positions we've come to know and love, or just scraps them completely?
Where Does Denard Robinson Play In the NFL?
It's already started—is Aaron Hernandez a tight end, a fullback or a receiver? Is Tim Tebow a quarterback, fullback, punt protector or gunner? Is Darren Sproles a running back or a lightning-quick figment of our collective imagination?
Seriously, the NBA has already had this happen to them, and NFL fans could be next. Maybe Robinson is the first of the NFL's version of "combo guards" or "point forwards." Or, maybe he's more like Nate Robinson—an ultra-small player who does one thing really really well.
Kordell Stewart was one of the first guys people thought could redefine NFL positions. After stunning Michigan with one of history's best Hail Mary passes (and contributing to this columnist's early-age swearing habits in the process), Stewart was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and took snaps at quarterback, running back and receiver during his career.
Joshua Cribbs has had a similar career path as Stewart, but while "Slash" eventually settled in as a quarterback, Cribbs is definitely a receiver. Yet, the amount of time Cribbs spends out on the perimeter running routes is dwarfed by his effectiveness as a "open-space" player. "Put the ball in his hands and go" is really the only play call Cribbs has enjoyed in the pros.
Brad Smith and the aforementioned Tebow are the best examples of how fans (and media) can get really excited about the role these former college quarterbacks can play and how unoriginal coaches can be about using them.
Former B/R columnist and head of Optimum Scouting Eric Galko has preached this message as well:
The three other quarterbacks in NCAA history with two seasons of 2,000+ passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards are the 49ers quarterback of the future Colin Kaepernick, and two very comparable players: Joe Webb of the Vikings and Brad Smith of the Bills...Despite being 2-3 inches taller, Brad Smith may be a fantastic comparison for Robinson.
If Robinson has any chance as a "slash" type player, he'll need to have a coach who is willing to use him that way and the patience to learn multiple positions while not having a truly defined role.
At the Very Least, Robinson Could Be A Fantastic Special Teams Player
He is rarely brought up in these kind of discussions, but the best college quarterback who didn't play quarterback in the NFL is arguably Brian Mitchell.
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Mitchell, a quarterback at Louisiana-Lafayette, was the first player in NCAA history to pass for 5,000 yards and rush for 3,000 (Robinson has since eclipsed those marks). He was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1990 and later played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants.
Along the way, Mitchell established himself as the best returner in NFL history—a mantle he has since passed to Devin Hester—and plastered his name all over the NFL record book.
Robinson is roughly the same height as both Mitchell and Hester and a similar weight to both as they came out of college (Mitchell, admittedly, gained a lot of muscle mass as a pro, perhaps more than Robinson could.) He is also as dynamic with the ball in his hands as either of those guys and has elite speed.
His speed would make him tempting as a receiver, although we don’t know what kind of hands he has, or what kind of route runner he would become. Could Robinson return punts? Maybe. When I see Robinson in the open field, the NFL player he reminds me of most is Devin Hester.
The question here, of course, is if Robinson would stay healthy in a special teams role. As great as Mitchell was, longevity is part of why we think of him as being so great. Robinson has taken a lot of hits at Michigan and hasn't always gotten back up unscathed.
That is a question that simply can't be answered until it actually happens. Prior injuries don't always foretell future ones—especially between the college and the pro ranks. Adrian Peterson was injured multiple times in multiple ways during his time at Oklahoma, yet was the pinnacle of health as a Minnesota Viking up until his recent knee injury. Even then, Peterson bounced back from that ACL tear as quickly and as powerfully as anyone before him.
If Robinson is put on special teams and stays healthy, he could end up being one of the most impactful players in NFL history. That's a lot of ifs though, because a "sure-thing" in regards to Robinson is almost unheard of.
Then Again, What if He Just Plays Quarterback?
Look, let's make this clear right now—Denard Robinson is not and never will be Michael Vick. But, for a team desperate at quarterback, experimenting with a poor man's Michael Vick might not be the worst thing in the world.
If I know one thing about NFL coaches, it's that they have egos. Without fail, every NFL coach from head honchos down to minor assistants believe they can change the world with one marker strike on the white board. They have to, it's part of the intrinsic qualifications of the position.
So, it shouldn't surprise anyone if one quarterback coach stands up on the table and says he wants to be the guy to turn Robinson into an elite NFL passer. In fact, let us take that one step further because of personnel men or head coaches ask their quarterback gurus if they can work with Robinson, all 32 are going to say yes. They have to, it's in their blood and they'd be forfeiting their jobs if they didn't.
So, incredibly unlikely and foolish as if may be, it's not crazy that Robinson could be an NFL passer. He's sure to light up the pre-draft workout season, and he's charismatic enough to make someone out there fall in love with him.
Kerry Joseph couldn't get anyone to fall in love with him after a stellar career at McNeese State. He ended up working out for the Cincinnati Bengals after going undrafted and bounced around NFL Europe before ending up with the Seattle Seahawks as a defensive back.
While he spent six unassuming years in Seattle, Joseph would reach his greatest success as a quarterback in the Canadian Football League, where he is still playing (and playing well) at the age of 39.
I asked Yahoo's CFL wunderkind Andrew Bucholtz about Joseph and how Robinson compares:
At the college level, I'm not convinced Joseph was better than Robinson. For one thing, Robinson has his own accuracy issues...Also, Robinson has thrown as much or more as Joseph... However, what Joseph's done in the CFL has been better than what Robinson has done in college; his completion percentage has shot way up and he's been able to use his legs to consistently open up holes in the passing game.
Yet, when asked if he thought Robinson could make it north of the border, his response was:
Possibly. If I ran a CFL team, I don't think I would sign Denard Robinson. This is such a passing-oriented game up here thanks to our three downs, our expanded use of motion and our bigger field, and he really hasn't shown enough as a passer to convince me he can succeed as a CFL quarterback.
So, even if we're talking about doing it in Canada, Robinson probably has lots to do as a passer before he contributes meaningfully as a quarterback. Could he end up doing that work under a proven quarterback mentor and succeed even in the NFL? Of course. Anything is possible, but that road will not be easy, and even Robinson's most ardent fans shouldn't be betting money on it.
While the myriad of historical comparisons speak to where Robinson could end up in the NFL and how he could fare once he gets there, it's impossible to predict the future. However, we know this: Robinson is an incredibly dynamic football player and has a chance to prove even the most strident doubters wrong.
So, if you consider his potential as one big bell curve with "Hall of Fame Quarterback" on one end and "Rookie Training Camp Washout" on the other, perhaps the most likely point in the middle of the curve could be labeled: "Solid NFL Player Who Contributes in a Variety of Ways."
In all likelihood, however, all the historical comparisons above and any others invoked between now and April will fall short. Denard Robinson has been a mold-shattering player at the collegiate level and will likely find his own niche at the next level as well.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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