Last time we looked at the possibility of Denard playing special teams, cornerback, and quarterback in the NFL. This time I'd like to discuss more realistic options, and the options almost everyone is talking about: wide receiver and running back. There are many obvious reasons why people strive to see Denard Robinson in these roles, namely, he's extremely exciting to watch with the ball in his hands. I'd like to discuss what he brings to the table at these positions, along with what he still needs to improve and what he has improved in the past few months.
Here's about 25 minutes showing why Denard could possibly play RB at the next level:
Clearly, he is a very gifted runner. He has displayed power, balance, speed, allusiveness, an ability to cut horizontal on a dime, and an ability to pick up yards between the tackles and to the outside. He's run behind both man and zone blocking schemes. And he's done all these things very successfully. So what's the question? Why isn't he simply automatically considered a top level RB?
Improvements he's made already
Denard also needs to improve his footwork. Prior to receiving the ball, the RB must have the proper footwork to set up the play. These steps are like a dance, in a way, and Denard has yet to feel comfortable doing that dance, as one could see in the South Carolina game.
Notice that he essentially stops at the point he receives the ball. He has no forward momentum, hasn't taken the ball anywhere, and has to start from a stop. This affects not only the ball carrier, but the blocking as well.
Another thing to notice in this videos is the way he takes the handoff. Notice in the bowl game how he grabs the ball with his arms and hands. At least he has the correct arm up (the inside arm should always be up, because if it's down then your upper arm will cause fumbles), but this is a dangerous way of going about business. It's more likely he will muff the ball; it also forces him to slow down in order to make sure he receives it.
But see the improvement he has made.
Here, in his pro-day video, you see him taking the proper steps for an outside zone run. His first step points him outside the TE. It's quick and he gets up to speed by the time he receives the ball, making it so he can threaten the edge. The speed at which he takes the handoff also makes it so he won't get caught on backside pursuit, and also forces the LBs for fast flow to the outside, rather than being able to simply stick with his backside shoulder. Notice also in the new video how he lets the QB stick the ball in his belly and then wraps his arms around it. By doing this, he has better secured the ball and is also able to accelerate through the handoff. He still clearly needs to become more comfortable with this motion, but he has made marked improvement in a short time that pro scouts surely have noticed.
Improvements still to come
Most non-Michigan fans point to an assumption that "he's too small." Most Michigan fans counter that argument with "he's 200 pounds, he isn't too small." When in truth, both groups are correct. Denard has a strong lower body. His legs allow him to move piles and break tackles. But his upper body is still too small to take the consistent pounding at an NFL level. But don't blame the strength staff for this. Because Robinson is a bit of an arm thrower, and a quarterback in general, bulking up his upper body would have adverse effects. It's more beneficial for a QB to have more flexibility and longer muscles, because range of motion is better than pure strength. By the time Denard was moved to QB, his nerve injury didn't allow for him to work out his upper body much, and this explains why he doesn't have the mass that is desired at that position.
More bulk will help him to avoid many of the nagging injuries Denard has faced over his career. It will also help him to keep defenders at a distance, and perhaps most importantly, it should help him significantly with ball security. Outside of just being stronger, being bigger also leads to more of Denard's surface area on the ball, meaning there are less areas for defenders to contact and less room for the ball to squeak out. Upper body strength will also help him with regards to blocking.
His timing and understanding of run concepts from the RB position also need to be improved. This isn't necessarily his fault, he's been a QB his whole life and always had 10 blockers in front of him. Well now he has nine. Now he doesn't have an extra blocker on the back side to allow him to cut back. He does a good job being patient, but he needs to move a little quicker at times behind the line, he needs to understand his running lanes a bit differently, etc.
Not a whole lot has been seen out of Denard at the WR position, particularly not in real game scenarios. But we do have some evidence from the Senior Bowl, the combine, and his pro day, and he has made great improvements.
Improvements he's already made
Denard's biggest improvement has been his hand placement. This mostly comes from repetitions. But from the Senior Bowl to his pro day you see he is much more comfortable when to flip his hands. Watch the awkwardness in this video of Denard catching the ball.
Now look at how he catches the ball. He reaches out with his hands and snatches it. He looks much more natural seeing the ball in and understanding where and how to place his hands.
His route running has also drastically improved. Watch Senior Bowl video, and you see a QB running routes. You see someone that doesn't have the footwork down, almost as if he's still counting steps for when to make the break, where to place his feet, etc. He also struggled getting in and out of breaks. In the previous article I talked about how his quickness wasn't necessarily breaking in and out of cuts, but sudden stops and lateral cuts. In the video he struggles to sink his hips and accelerate out of that position without having to slow down, take some false steps, and then slide into the rest of his route.
In his Senior Bowl video you see a WR sinking his hips and doing a better job. His routes now would allow him to run someone off (threaten to blow by the defender so the defender has to turn his hips) before sinking hips and breaking fairly smoothly. He still has some work, but the big thing is he's improving.
Improvements he still needs to make
The first thing Denard needs to really focus on is not "catching the ball twice". This means that he needs to snatch the ball and catch it cleanly right away. In the NFL, defenders are on you very quickly; if you don't cleanly catch the ball the first time the play will get broken up.
I still think Denard has a lot of improvement to make on some essential routes for a slot. Right now he is good at making the easy catches and routes. He can run hitches, drag, slants, post, and ins. But routes where he needs to catch the ball over the shoulder, adjust his hands and body while the ball is in the air, he still seems to struggle. He often times lets the ball drop into his body instead of going and getting it. Outs, seams, and corner routes are still something he really needs to improve if he wants to be a consistent player on the field. Right now, defenders probably know his limited role: screens, quick inside game, and catching underneath with other WRs/TEs running defenders off. If he can threaten deep more regularly, especially stretching the field horizontally and vertically, then he becomes so much more dangerous because he is now forcing the defender to cover the whole field, forcing the defender to play off of him and more balanced, and allowing him to get open with space much more often.
Another thing he'll need to become comfortable with is watching the ball into his hands. He's used to having the ball in his hands already and looking for defenders. He's going to need to get at ease with an understanding of where defenders are coming from (so he knows how and where to turn up field, slide up field, or duck underneath head hunters). He needs to get better at recognizing zones and sinking in the holes in the zone, and he needs to get comfortable with working in space before getting the ball, and then have that switch turn on that he's always had when running after he has secured the ball.
In my opinion Denard does have an NFL future, but it's going to take a bit of a time to be on the field regularly. As some NFL scouts have indicated, I think his immediate future is mostly at RB and kick returner, while he plays occasionally in the slot. You run some risk throwing him out there right away, as there are limitations, including blocking from the RB spot, and running certain routes effectively from the slot. He can have a role though, and that will be enough for some team to draft him and let him play some.
Down the road I think he transitions further to WR and returns punts occasionally. I'm not sure he'll ever be a truly great pure WR, but perhaps his greatest asset, if used correctly, will be the fact that he can line up at multiple positions and threaten a lot of areas on the field. And having a role is the most important thing to having a successful NFL career.