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Allen Robinson Is a Risky NFL Free Agent, but Well Worth the Gamble

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 9, 2018

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Carolina Panthers, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

What an NFL team sees when it looks at Allen Robinson on the open market will say more about the team than the soon-to-be free-agent wide receiver.

Some general managers will close their eyes and see a field of giant red flags flapping in a stiff wind. They will pluck one of the flags and plant it on Robinson's left ACL, the one he tore in Week 1 of the 2017 season after he'd played a mere three snaps for the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

Other wide receiver-needy teams will see that risk and those flags and then carry on with the business of doing whatever is necessary to sign an offense-altering pass-catcher.

The latter direction is the right one, and the only one, especially in a weak receiver market after the Miami Dolphins placed the franchise tag on Jarvis Landry. The correct sequence of reactions when the Jaguars announced they wouldn't use their own tag on Robinson—and he would hit the open market on March 14 if not re-signed—is to acknowledge and examine the risk tied to his injury, then embrace it.

As the league's spending limit annually skyrockets and the average cap space heading into free agency is $34.3 million as of this writing, per Spotrac, there's never been a better time to give risk a warm hug. Particularly with Robinson, who is well worth the gamble.

There are two reasons for teams to hesitate before paying top dollar for a 24-year-old receiver not far removed from a breakout Pro Bowl season (Robinson recorded 1,400 yards on 80 catches with 14 touchdowns in 2015). In both cases it doesn't take much to push those concerns aside.

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Regarding the first, he suffered the ACL tear in early September, and though severe, is no longer the catastrophic career-altering issue it was a decade or so ago. When the 2018 NFL season begins, Robinson will be a full year recovered from his injury. And judging by the way he's moving already, it might feel like a lot more than that.

He was already putting full weight on his knee and jumping in late January.

Allen Robinson II @AllenRobinson

I have learned the true essence of time! A little over a month ago and today. Tell the 40 club the hiatus will be over soon lol https://t.co/gOCO4Icb4e

The act of jumping seems simple and routine until a rather important ligament isn't in one piece. Being able to first bear weight on the knee, then even more critically push that weight upward, is a major hurdle.

Clearing that obstacle came just over four months into Robinson's rehab. He took another notable stride at about the five-month mark. Actually, he took many strides, some of which look like half-speed.

Allen Robinson II @AllenRobinson

2 weeks ago to Today, knocking the rust off! https://t.co/OfgeXUfFip

Understandably then Robinson is confident about his health, and in January he told Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union that he'll be able to pass a physical before the start of free agency. The injury is scary to prospective employers because the NFL clings to certainty. But Robinson has already progressed to the point where it's becoming an afterthought.

We can now move on to the second reason for hesitation prior to free agency: the fizzled dud that was his 2016 season.

In 2015, his second NFL season, Robinson ended the year just outside the top five in receiving yards. He averaged 17.5 yards per reception (tied for sixth) and tied for first in touchdown catches.

Expectations were high in 2016 then, and Robinson produced only a steady diet of disappointment. He went from Pro Bowler to pedestrian, with his production plummeting across the board. That included his receiving yards (1,400 yards to 883 yards), per-catch average (17.5 to 12.1) and touchdowns (14 to six).

But assessing any Jaguars pass-catcher comes with an asterisk. The wild inconsistencies of their quarterback gives them only so much control over year-to-year swings in production. Or even week-to-week swings in production.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 24: Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates with Allen Robinson #15 after scoring a touchdown off a pass from Marquise Lee, not pictured, during the fourth quarter of the game against the Tennessee Titans at Eve
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Blake Bortles will be the Jaguars quarterback for the foreseeable future after signing a three-year contract extension that includes $26.5 million in guaranteed money. He earned that by improving his accuracy and ball security in 2017, most notably with a career-high 60.2 completion percentage and career-low 13 interceptions.

But that version of Bortles has taken time to come into existence, and in the process every offensive weapon around him has been victimized by his erratic play.

That is especially true with Robinson, a deep-ball specialist who was on the other end of Bortles' strong, often pinpoint arm in 2015, when he recorded the best deep-receiving season since 2006, according to Pro Football Focus. The 6'3", 211-pound wideout finished with 672 yards on balls that traveled 20-plus yards through the air.

He went from that brilliance to searching for sprayed footballs in 2016.

Bortles saw his wobbly ways come to a head when he gave Robinson only 10 catchable balls on go routes, down from 25 in 2015, per PFF. Sure, Robinson had a role in that downward spiral, but at some point no amount of midair acrobatics, sideline tiptoeing or simple raw speed can make truly impossible catches possible.

After a year of stretching for the most routine throws, Robinson muttered what he really thought about Bortles during training camp (NSFW):

PewterReport @PewterReport

Robert McClain on Allen Robinson. Plays him well, ball thrown too far out of bounds (unfortunately for one man too close to the sideline) https://t.co/9iBQd0Iq03

Robinson has shown what he's capable of when given remotely consistent quarterback play, which is why he should expect a contract at least in the neighborhood of Davante Adams' deal with the Green Bay Packers.

Like Adams, Robinson is entering his age-25 season in 2018. In December the Packers signed Adams to a four-year contract extension worth $58.75 million, which came toward the end of his fourth NFL season. In 59 regular-season games he's caught 237 balls for 2,811 yards and 26 touchdowns.

Robinson, meanwhile, is either ahead or not far behind in all of those categories, having logged 202 catches for 2,848 yards and 22 touchdowns over 16 fewer games. Remember, that's coming from a receiver who was on the field for just a handful of snaps in 2017.

Robinson likely won't need to settle for a one-year deal like the Philadelphia Eagles' Alshon Jeffery when he was one of the top free-agent wide receivers in 2017. That's often standard procedure for a talented player who is either recovering from an injury or carrying character concerns after suspensions.

But interested bidders will be ready if the Jaguars don't re-sign Robinson before March 14 at 4 p.m. ET, which will drive up the price for his services. The Washington Redskins will reportedly be hovering, according to JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington. The New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears also have clear wide receiver needs and $60-plus million in cap space.

The desperation for premier receiving talent in a thin free-agent market is matched only by the amount of money flowing around. That should end with a young, athletic and proven receiver getting paid accordingly. And with a general manager taking a big gulp, then happily swallowing any risk still tied to Robinson.

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