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The Next Big NFL Playmaker: Jaguars Receiver Allen Robinson

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 7, 2016

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 6:  Allen Robinson #15 of the Jacksonville Jaguars makes a catch against Tennessee Titans during the game at Nissan Stadium on December 6, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

If Jacksonville wide receiver Allen Robinson slipped past you last year, you are not alone. Many NFL cornerbacks were in the same boat. 

Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards last season. He tied for the league lead with 14 touchdowns. He caught 31 passes of 20-plus yards, the highest total in the league. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best deep-threat receiver in the NFL, ahead of Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown and Sammy Watkins. He ranked 31st in the NFL Network's top 100 countdown, ahead of veteran defensive backs like Kam Chancellor and Aqib Talib, who are paid to not let upstart Jaguars receivers beat them. 

So Robinson slipped past a lot of people. Not bad for a second-round pick who wasn't even the first wide receiver his own team selected in the 2014 draft.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 13:  Allen Robinson #15 of the Jacksonville Jaguars crosses the goal line for a touchdown during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Field on December 13, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In fact, the whole Jaguars passing game may have escaped your notice. Fellow Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns also surpassed 1,000 yards, earning a new four-year, $40 million contract (with $20 million guaranteed) in the offseason for his troubles. Led by quarterback Blake Bortles, who threw 35 touchdown passes last season, the Jaguars are brimming with offensive playmakers aged 25 or younger: Bortles, Robinson, Hurns, Marqise Lee, Rashad Greene and T.J. Yeldon.

Robinson, the star of the bunch, just turned 23 in August. He is younger than Josh Doctson, Washington's first-round pick this year, as well as rookie wide receivers Braxton Miller (Texans), Chris Moore (Ravens), Malcolm Mitchell (Patriots) and others. Like many of the other biggest names of the 2014 receiver class (Watkins, Beckham and Jarvis Landry all start the season as 23-year-olds; Brandin Cooks is actually younger), Robinson is still young enough to show significant improvement.

No wonder the Jaguars were chirping all through the offseason. Bortles told the Move the Sticks podcast (via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling) in April that Robinson and Hurns form the best wide receiver duo in the league. Hurns concurred a few days later, per ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco.

And what does Robinson have to say?

"I think we have the talent to be the No. 1 offense in the NFL," he told B/R in a spring interview.

That's not just hope-springs-eternal, everyone's-undefeated-in-springtime optimism. Robinson and the Jaguars really do have the talent—and chemistry and attitude—to finally bring some excitement back to Jacksonville.

   

Face in the Crowd

Robinson seemed destined to get lost in a shuffle, first in a draft class full of superlative receiving prospects, then in Jacksonville, where impressive rookie receivers usually disappear completely.

He was the second wide receiver selected by the Jaguars in the second round of the 2014 draft. Lee was drafted ahead of Robinson, as were many of the standouts of what may someday be remembered as the greatest receiving class in NFL history.

Truth be told, Robinson wasn't really overlooked on draft day; there were just too many good receivers to go around. "At the time, I thought I was a first-round guy," Robinson recalled. "The class was so deep. In hindsight, it was almost interchangeable."

Indeed, impact receivers such as Landry, Martavis Bryant and John Brown were drafted after Robinson. Hurns was not even drafted; he joined Lee and Robinson in Jaguars minicamp and quickly made a name for himself.

Robinson had a hard time separating himself from the 2014 pack because he lacked, well, separation. He looked the part of a possession receiver at Penn State, doing much more damage on short passes and end-zone jump balls than long bombs. He ran a relatively pedestrian 4.60-second 40 at the 2014 combine, an event that receivers like Beckham, Watkins and Cooks treated like Olympic qualifiers.

Allen Robinson's body of work at Penn State appeared to predict he would be more of a possession receiver than a deep threat in the NFL.
Allen Robinson's body of work at Penn State appeared to predict he would be more of a possession receiver than a deep threat in the NFL.Eric Francis/Getty Images

Even those who loved Robinson's tape saw a guy who would average about 12.5 yards per catch in the NFL, move the chains on third down but rarely get behind the defense for a 50-yarder. Possession receivers always play second fiddle to the Beckham types who have the speed to make safeties play 15 yards deep and backpedal at the snap.

Robinson lived up to his scouting report as a rookie, catching 48 passes before suffering a foot injury. He averaged just 11.4 yards per catch, with just five receptions of more than 20 yards.

But he aspired to be more than a possession receiver. "One of my goals was that I wanted to create more down-the-field plays for my team," Robinson said. "In my rookie year, I was pretty solid in the short-to-immediate game. But I wanted to create more [deep catches]."

Specifically, Robinson focused on his release from the line. "That's where it all starts. If you can get a good release, get a good jump off the ball, beat the defender quick, it gets you that extra edge down the field."

Robinson left college with a pretty good release. But there were limits to what he could perfect while at Penn State, where he often faced defenders with no hope of jamming him at the line.

Differences between college and NFL rules affected his downfield production in other ways as well. College defenders can harass receivers well down the field, whereas NFL cornerbacks must play hands-off defense after five yards. Robinson discovered that a quick win at the line of scrimmage in the NFL can lead to a big play, not just a defender dangling from his jersey for 25 yards.

"Some things that work in college may not work in the NFL," Robinson said. "But there's a little bit of vice versa as well. Some things that I never thought would work in college ball work in the NFL game."

The adjustments transformed Robinson into not just a better receiver, but also a different one. His 17.5 yards per reception last season equaled Watkins' mark (who caught fewer passes) and topped Beckham (15.1) and just about every deep-threat receiver in the NFL. Only five receivers averaged more yards per reception in 2015, as opposed to the 76 receivers who bettered Robinson on that count a season before. Of receivers with at least 50 catches, only James Jones averaged more yards per reception (17.8), and he caught 30 fewer passes than Robinson.

"It's awesome just being in the conversation with those guys," Robinson said. "Whenever you get those comparisons, it's a sign that you're doing something well."

Only five receivers averaged more yards per catch in the NFL last season than Robinson.
Only five receivers averaged more yards per catch in the NFL last season than Robinson.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

What's most remarkable about Robinson's sudden transformation is that it came after a truncated 2015 offseason. Robinson suffered a stress fracture in his foot in November 2014, ending his rookie season early. Severely limited in OTAs, he gradually worked his way back into participation by minicamp last June.

Complicating matters was the Jaguars' decision to replace offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch with Greg Olson before last season. The timing meant Robinson had to learn a new system in the meeting room while fellow youngsters like Hurns and Lee mastered it on the practice field. Newcomers Greene and Julius Thomas arrived to bolster the passing game. Robinson once again risked getting lost in the shuffle.

Robinson took another step forward instead, in part because Gus Bradley and the Jaguars coaching staff gave him the opportunity. Instead of focusing on what Robinson had not perfected, Bradley put Robinson on the field and let him learn on the fly.

"Coach Bradley really honed in on me," Robinson said. "He told me not to worry, to just go out and play. Everything that happens will happen, and we'll coach you off of that. Go out, make plays and catch the football."

A tremendous work ethic also helped. He returned to the practice field ahead of schedule last summer. This year, he's taking advantage of his good health. "Whenever he needs to work on, I tell you what, he's working on it," general manager Dave Caldwell said during OTAs, per DiRocco. "I don't think the guy's taken a day off since the season ended. It's unbelievable the drive and the work ethic the kid has."

Caldwell and the Jaguars coaches now face an unfamiliar problem: too many weapons. "I think the problem is going to be how we're going to spread the ball around," Caldwell said at the combine. "We have Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Rashad Greene, Bryan Walters, Julius Thomas, T.J. Yeldon…with one football."

So many young players clamoring for opportunities can cause problems. Luckily, the Jaguars' skill-position corps is a close-knit group. And the players share a memory of a simultaneous mass baptism under fire.

      

Lumped Together

Jaguars quarterbacks and receivers don't need to make special arrangements to get together in the offseason. No flights need to be arranged to some sunny location to throw some footballs around and "develop chemistry."

Most stay in the Jacksonville area each offseason. "Typically, we're around," Robinson said. "That's another thing that's so special about us having such a young group. We're all around the same age and like similar things. We're around each other a decent amount."

The receivers joined Bortles and backup quarterback Chad Henne at a local high school for informal practice sessions this spring. "We've got the weather right in our backyard. We may as well take advantage of it," Robinson said.

Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles helped organize offseason workouts for a handful of Jacksonville offensive players, including Robinson.
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles helped organize offseason workouts for a handful of Jacksonville offensive players, including Robinson.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Chemistry and timing shouldn't be major concerns, anyway. Bortles has been throwing to Robinson, Hurns and Lee since the first rookie-camp practice of 2014.

The Jaguars regularly had five or six rookies in the offensive huddle two years ago: Robinson, Bortles, Lee, Hurns and linemen Luke Bowanko and Brandon Linder. Their inexperience showed—the Jaguars ranked dead last in points and 31st in yards that season. Despite flashes of brilliance and potential, there were long stretches where the whole offense appeared to be scratching its head.

"When you look at a team, you might have a rookie receiver or one rookie on offense," Robinson said of the 2014 Jaguars. "If that rookie is taking his lumps, that's one player. For us on the offense, it was like 'wow, we're all taking it at the same time.'"

The group started growing up together in 2015. Jacksonville finished in the top half of the league in points scored for the first time since 2007. The Jags ended the season 10th in the league in passing yards and third in receiving touchdowns.

Robinson, in particular, began attracting national attention after some massive games: six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 2 win over the Dolphins; 10 catches for 153 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout loss to the Titans in Week 13.

"In the long run, it's helping us now," Robinson said of those rookie struggles. "We saw that last year. We were thrown in the fire early, but it gave us so many good experiences on the field, seeing different things, running different things, what works and what doesn't at such an early time."

The Jaguars still finished 5-11, but they at least had an identity. A midseason hot streak (by Jaguars standards—four wins out of seven) created some buzz. And fans began to take notice. Robinson made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, replacing Calvin Johnson on the roster, while he and Hurns began drawing some "great receiving tandem" praise.

"I don't think other people knew about us," Robinson said, "but we knew what type of guys we had in the room. We had hard workers. We had hungry guys. We had humble guys.

"We had guys who really wanted to get better and help this team out. We saw the plays we could make in our rookie year. So we decided to improve on that, get better and really take this thing and run with it."

      

Bringing the Frenzy Back

It wasn't that long ago that the Jaguars were one of the NFL's marquee organizations, an expansion team that grew quickly into a playoff contender. In the late 1990s, a young receiving tandem of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell partnered with quarterback Mark Brunell to give Jacksonville one of the NFL's most reliable passing games. The Jaguars reached the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, including a pair of AFC title-game appearances.

Aug 28, 2015; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns (88) celebrates with wide receiver Allen Robinson (15) after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter of  an NFL preseason football game against the Detroit Lions at E
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Since then, the Jaguars have had a rotten record selecting wide receivers, whether early in the draft (R. Jay Soward, Matt Jones, Reggie Williams, Justin Blackmon) or via free agency. (Who can forget Laurent Robinson? Everyone who didn't have to pay him.) The Jaguars have made mistakes at nearly every position during their extended doldrums. But the misfires at wide receiver have made them look not just bad, but hapless—a team that's unlikely to challenge you, let alone defeat you.

Not surprisingly, Robinson has heard comparisons between that 1990s receiving duo and the current Jaguars. "Those guys really had the city of Jacksonville in a frenzy for the time they played here," he said. "Being able to bring that excitement back to the city is pretty awesome."

Smith himself is on board with the new Jaguars receiving duo. "I have the same feelings about those guys that our fans do," he told Mark Long of the Associated Press (via the Washington Times). "We are all hopeful that these guys are the second coming.

"Let's get it right, though: I don't want these guys breaking my records, but I want them to win."

Brunell, Smith and McCardell didn't blow opponents away statistically; Brunell threw just 14 touchdowns in 1999, when the Jaguars finished 14-2. The great Jaguars receivers of the past were sometimes explosive but always efficient.

The current Jaguars are just the opposite. They ranked 28th in the NFL last season with a 58.5 percent completion rate and finished 26th in the league in third-down conversion rate. They also committed 28 turnovers. There's plenty of boom with these Jaguars, but far too much bust.

Robinson isn't blind to the problem. "I want to become more efficient in my catch-to-target ratio," he said. "That will help everything out."

Targeted 142 times, Robinson dropped eight passes last season, according to Pro Football Focus. But he's doing more to increase Bortles' completion rate than just working on his hands. Robinson said that he is working to improve his route running and create more separation to widen Bortles' passing windows.

Robinson is also doing his part to cut down on that turnover rate. "I never want a turnover to be thrown to me," he said. "Everybody feels that way." The Jaguars receivers plan to fight harder for contested balls and be better defenders when a pass gets away from Bortles.

That may be what's most exciting about Robinson and the Jaguars. They already know the hard part: how to burn opponents for 50-yard touchdowns. Now it's a matter of filling in the details. It's a lot easier for an offense to get more detail-oriented as it matures than to get more explosive.

The Jaguars bumbled together as rookies. They mixed highlights with lowlights as sophomores. What happens if everyone grows up at the same time in year three?

Maybe a return to the days of Smith, McCardell and Brunell. Maybe the best offense in the NFL.

Robinson is ready to find out. "We already know we have a top offense," he said. "Everything else will just play out."

     

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.

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