The University of Alabama has had at least one player selected in the first round of each of the past seven NFL drafts, the longest active streak of any university. If junior interior defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson declares for the 2016 draft, their streak will likely extend to eight.
Heading into the 2015 college football season, the defensive tackle position appears to be one of the deepest for draft-eligible talent.
Some of the top talents at the position project more favorably to specific defensive schemes over others. Robinson, however, is a player who should be near the top of the watch list for any team, regardless of scheme, that wants to bolster the middle of its defensive front in 2016.
For the purposes of this article, the sixth of 10 installments in Bleacher Report’s series of the 2016 NFL draft’s preseason top prospects at each position, Robinson is being classified as a defensive tackle, the position he would play in a 4-3 defensive front. That said, a big part of his appeal is that he could also project as either a defensive end or nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment.
College Football's Best Interior Run Defender
Alabama’s defense allowed the fourth-lowest average of rushing yards per game in 2014, and the presence of Robinson up front was a big reason for that.
Listed at 6’4” and 312 pounds by Alabama’s official athletics website, Robinson exhibits an excellent combination of size and strength.
As NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah pointed out in a tweet last week, Robinson consistently holds his ground at the point of attack.
Robinson simply doesn’t let blockers push him around, even when he is double-teamed.
When blocked one-on-one, Robinson routinely shows the ability to stack and shed his opponents. He demonstrates very good understanding and execution of leverage. Advantaged by his long arms, Robinson does a great job keeping blockers off his body while getting into his opponent’s pads and thrusting his power forward to get offensive linemen moving in the wrong direction.
A textbook example of a stack-and-shed can be seen in the following clip from Alabama’s SEC Championship Game victory over Missouri this past season. Robinson (No. 86) shoots straight at Missouri left guard Brad McNulty, extends his outside arm into McNulty’s chest and then rips his inside arm across McNulty’s body to get off the block and stop Tigers running back Russell Hansbrough short on a 3rd-and-1 conversion attempt.
Robinson will need to continue refining those hand skills to be a consistently dominant run defender at the next level, but at times, he can also win at the line of scrimmage by simply overpowering his man. You can see that at work in the following clip—from the same game but this time against a different left guard, Mitch Hall—as Robinson pushed Hall backward to force a run wide left then worked off the blocker to make the tackle for a three-yard loss himself.
One can watch virtually any Alabama game and see those skills at work from Robinson. The GIF below, courtesy of Draft Breakdown, is another example of Robinson holding his ground and muscling himself off a blocker—this time, Mississippi State left guard Justin Malone, to make a stop for no gain moving outside left on 1st-and-goal.
Teams looking for a flashy, one-gap penetrator will want to look in a different direction from Robinson. Although he is a good all-around athlete for his size, he is not a player who will win at the next level with an explosive burst off the snap.
On the other hand, teams looking for a player who can consistently fill gaps, occupy blockers and shut down running lanes should be enamored by Robinson. He has the size, strength and skill to step in and provide immediate production as a run defender on an NFL unit.
Robinson's range to make plays along the line of scrimmage is somewhat limited, but he does show the hustle to chase runs downfield when needed. The following play against Mississippi State was one such example, when the defensive tackle showed his speed in chasing down Bulldogs running back Josh Robinson—a sixth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft—12 yards downfield on a screen play.
Versatility to Fit Any Defensive Front
As previously mentioned, Robinson is a player who should garner interest from 4-3 and 3-4 teams alike. The experience he has gained playing multiple positions across both alignments at Alabama should increase his readiness to step in and play in the NFL regardless of front.
Robinson might technically be considered a defensive end this year, as the Crimson Tide typically use the three-man front in their base defense. But as the following screenshots depict, he plays everywhere from the 0-technique (where the 3-4 nose tackle typically lines up) to the 3-technique (penetrating 4-3 defensive tackle) and the 5-technique (3-4 defensive end).
Robinson has the anchoring strength to play nose tackle and the length to play as a 5-technique, and he combines those with the all-around athleticism needed to play either spot in the middle of a four-man front.
Assuming a team that selects him highly plans to maximize his ability, it’s likely that Robinson will see time playing multiple spots on his NFL team’s defensive line.
Can Robinson Be an Impactful Pass-Rusher?
That is the question, Robinson will need to answer affirmatively if he is going to be among the top picks in the 2016 NFL draft, assuming he declares for the draft following his junior year.
As a true freshman in 2013, Robinson actually led the Crimson Tide with 5.5 sacks. In 2014, however, Robinson did not record a single sack for the year.
In itself, Robinson’s ability to defend the run should make him a first-round selection. His ability to provide a consistent impact in that area gives him huge value as an interior defensive lineman, and he could play a part in making an NFL run defense instantly better.
Yet because pass-rushers are at a premium in the modern NFL, Robinson could end up being surpassed by numerous interior defensive linemen in advance of the 2016 draft if he does not show more ability to put pressure on the quarterback in 2015.
Using the same skills as demonstrated earlier, Robinson can generate a powerful bull rush that jacks a blocker backward toward the passer. He appears to be strong enough to be able to bring pressure in that capacity even at the next level.
Beyond his bull rush, however, Robinson has not demonstrated any regularly effective secondary rush moves. If Robinson is going to be an effective pass-rusher in the NFL, he must be able to do more with his hands to fight his way off blockers when his power rush gets absorbed.
When Robinson is able to get free with an angle toward the quarterback, he has enough closing burst to bring pressure. His long arms can once again be an asset in this regard, as they increase his reach to the quarterback while also allowing him to disrupt and even deflect passes by getting his hands up in the passer's face.
The problem for Robinson is that NFL offenses will move faster than opponents do at the collegiate level, and he will be less likely to get shots at the quarterback that he does not earn by winning with technique.
Given that, Robinson will need to make significant improvements to his pass-rushing repertoire before he will be able to make a significant impact on an NFL pass defense. For at least the beginning of his career, Robinson will likely be a player who substitutes out of the game in obvious passing situations.
Even if he does make large strides as a pass-rusher from a skill standpoint, it's also unclear whether Robinson has the stamina to be an every-down player. Because Alabama rotates its defensive linemen in and out of the lineup regularly, Robinson has not been tested to an extent of having to play every series for an entire game.
How Robinson Should Stack Up in 2016 Draft Class
Because he does not project to be a game-changer in pass defense, Robinson could potentially slide from early first-round consideration to being a late first-round player. As it currently stands, however, Robinson projects as the player with the most complete combination of size, strength, athleticism and skill among interior defensive line prospects for the 2016 draft.
"Though he can eat up blocks on the inside, he's actually in the backfield a lot, because he's got strength and impressive athletic ability for a man his size," Kiper wrote on Robinson in May. "To be an instant-impact player at Bama is usually a good sign, and Robinson should continue to get better."
Robinson's teammates, including linebacker Reggie Ragland (who himself is a potential early-round pick), also hold the defensive lineman in high regard.
“You can tell he’s the best player on our team," Ragland said in April, according to Ken Rogers of the Dothan Eagle. “He’s hard-nosed, physical, and the sky’s the limit for him.”
With that being said, Robinson should have plenty of competition among defensive tackles/3-4 defensive ends with the potential to be first-round picks.
Some of the draft's top 4-3 defensive end prospects, including Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche, also project as potential 3-4 defensive ends and as players who could kick inside, at least situationally, in four-man fronts. Those players were not considered for the top spot in this article, however, as defensive ends will be in focus in the next installment in this series.
Among true defensive tackles, Robinson's steepest competition for draft position might come from Baylor junior Andrew Billings.
An outstanding physical specimen who broke the Texas state powerlifting record in high school, Billings has a truly rare combination of agility and strength. A more explosive athlete than Robinson, he offers more pass-rushing ability than his counterpart but is not as stout against the run. His appeal could also be limited for 3-4 teams, as he is undersized for a nose tackle (6'2", 300 lbs) and has poor length for a defensive end.
Among Robinson's other competition, a case could be made that he is not even the best interior defensive line prospect on his own team. Jarran Reed, a similarly built player who projects to start at nose tackle for the Crimson Tide in his senior year, is coming off a breakout junior season in which he often topped Robinson as the most disruptive player on the team's defensive line.
Another school with two potential early-round prospects on the interior defensive line, depending on how those players progress in their junior years, is UCLA. Physically gifted and highly touted, Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes have exhibited flashes of brilliance that could vault them up draft boards if they can take their games to the next level this fall.
There are also a number of interior penetrators, prospects who project as either 3-technique defensive tackles or 5-technique defensive ends, with the tools to end up in the first-round mix in 2016, including Penn State redshirt junior Anthony Zettel, Nebraska junior Maliek Collins, Ohio State senior Adolphus Washington, Notre Dame senior Sheldon Day and Mississippi State junior Chris Jones.
With so much prospective competition to be a top pick on the interior defensive line, Robinson will need to play up to expectations to be the early first-round selection he has the potential to be in 2016.
Robinson's game is not as flashy as that as some of the other top prospects, and that could hurt him in the draft process. From a standpoint of consistent substance, however, Robinson offers the skill set that will likely bring the most immediate impact to a team that drafts an interior defensive lineman next year.
This article is part of a series on the projected top prospects at each position for the 2016 NFL draft. Also read:
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.