Last week, we looked at Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Murray, who could be rising up the depth chart into a full time starting role this season — as long as he polishes a few aspects of his game.
This week, we’ll highlight a player who may not see the enough snap counts to be widely considered to have made a leap. But if his production can become less variable, he could become more effective on fewer snaps than last year.
I’m talking about third year wide receiver Demarcus Robinson out of Florida.
Where he currently is
The two most commonly cited rankings of NFL players within a position group are Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report’s Top 1000. Both of these publications provide positional rankings after evaluating every player in the NFL meeting a minimum snap count.
Pro Football Focus rates Robinson as the 106th best wide receiver in the NFL with no distinction for X, Z, or slot wide receivers. One stat from PFF regarding Robinson:
Only 0.58 yards per route run after taking over as a starter in his second season (2017).
While some of that could be attributed to working within the last year’s Chiefs offense, some of it has to do with one of his issues: an inability to be on time and in the right spot when he isn’t the quarterback’s first or instant read.
Unlike PFF, Bleacher Report does separate outside and slot wide receivers into different categories. Robinson was graded as an outside receiver, and was rated the 82nd best wide receiver in that group. B/R also had this to say:
His route running is becoming a strength. He had issues catching at times, and until he cleans that up, the 23-year-old shouldn’t be considered anything more than a situational player.
So these two publications agree that last year, Robinson was very clearly not playing at a starting level, and is best suited as a backup wideout.
Where he's winning
Robinson’s best trait is easily his footwork and body control within his routes. This allows Robinson to excel in short areas, and his start-stop ability help generate separation in these routes.
While he’s still working on the technicalities of his route running, Robinson is very good at getting open during the play. He shows different breaks out of his stems, and uses his hands and head to help sell the fakes. His one to two step cuts (bam and rocker steps) can generate a lot of separation for being such quick moves.
Robinson certainly has quick feet and when he attacks a defender with a good get off he can make them look silly. Uses a bam step and head nod to sell the slant before breaking back outside on the fade. Good adjustment to the ball as well. pic.twitter.com/XGkfCVMWSt— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 29, 2018
Robinson has struggled with consistency in both securing catches and working within the structure of the play, but he excels when the ball gets outside his frame and he is allowed to freestyle.
These strengths can be attributed to his time in Florida, where the very subpar passing offense was poorly structured. Most of Robinson’s college career was spent dealing with inaccurate quarterbacks; he simply ran to generally open areas. (No, it wasn’t quite that simple — but it kind of was).
This has translated well to the NFL. Robinson does a good job of recognizing his quarterback’s movement, and works into open spaces on the defense. Robinson then shows the body control to adjust to the ball in the air, and can make spectacular catches in the air and along the sideline.
1st thing to watch DeMarcus Robinson was his get off the LoS. His stance and get off was inconsistent in college and full of wasted movement, here he's still slow to react but it cleared up as the year went on. 2nd point, a good chunk of his production was out of structure. pic.twitter.com/9mDbxgraI2— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 29, 2018
While he hasn’t played in the slot very often, Robinson’s quickness, size, and willingness to block make him a prime candidate to be used as slot receiver. Last year, Robinson saw the vast majority of his snaps on the outside, but that was equal parts the need for an outside wideout, and Albert Wilson only playing in the slot.
In the slot, Robinson’s physical nature as a blocker allows him to set the edge and be used coming back into the box, rather than just as a decoy running down the field. While he has certainly shown the ability to stretch the field vertically and track the ball well, he still excels more in longer-developing underneath routes that allow him to produce yards after the catch.
The opportunity ahead
Currently the third wide receiver position is up for grabs — although Chris Conley remains the favorite to win the job. But unlike Conley, Robinson’s physical traits align with a traditional slot role — which could give him a slight edge for a coach (and a quarterback) who don’t normally operate with a big slot receiver.
Even as it stands now, the two players could be in a pretty even split as the third wide receiver for the Chiefs, as both excel as blockers and perform best in specific wide receiver roles.
While Robinson might not step up in terms of overall production or playing time, the effectiveness of his play could see a big uptick this year. Last year he was used in short, extremely effective spurts followed by long stretches where he was largely unnoticed.
To build on his 2017 season, the Chiefs need Robinson to maintain his ability to take over a given drive, while improving his down by down consistency and reliability in the eyes of the quarterback. With more stability in his practice time — and working in a clear last-weapon-on-the-field role — he could become a player who makes the most out of a few opportunities.
Who ya got? Demarcus Robinson vs. D’montre Wade pic.twitter.com/MWy6lTadSS— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) August 1, 2018
The final step
The first step Robinson has to make is cleaning up his inconsistent hand technique when receiving the ball.
Unlike Demetrius Harris — whose issue with catching is hard to pin down — Robinson doesn’t always extend his hands out to the ball. He’ll let the ball eat him when he’s square to the quarterback. This definitely causes the majority of his drops, so learning to meet the ball away from his body should immediately improve his catch percentage.
The next biggest step for Robinson is to continue improving the technical portion of his routes.
Robinson is still expanding his route tree, while also trying to run them all proficiently. This makes it a longer process. Still, on release, his hands and feet have improved greatly, his breaks are numerous and explosive, and he plays well over his toes. His spacing and depth are still a work in progress; he’ll play into a defensive back’s leverage a bit too often, and will short change some routes when he absolutely can’t.
In a offense with West Coast principles, there will be plenty of times in which a quarterback will be throwing to a specific spot at a specific time. In an Andy Reid West Coast offense, receivers must learn the X, Z, and slot positions, which makes learning the routes - and their technicalities - more difficult.
Robinson on two different Dig routes, left from off LoS and right from on the LoS. Slightly different breaks out of the stem (tighter square cut on the right with no drift) but both result in "higher" passes. Both routes are run about 10 yards at break instead of the usual 12-14 pic.twitter.com/pZ7gcuZbwf— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 30, 2018
The final step in Robinson’s ascension to a productive player is getting his timing down with Patrick Mahomes.
Last year, Robinson spent the majority of the offseason practicing with Mahomes, but then was thrust into game action with Alex Smith as his quarterback. Wide receivers constantly work with multiple quarterbacks, but very rarely do players have to deal with such different styles of play as Smith and Mahomes. Robinson definitely has to work in this area, but it’s equal parts his own hard work and spending time with a single quarterback — or at least, a consistent style of quarterback play.
Wide receivers and quarterbacks have to be on the same page, knowing what read that receiver is given, and how quickly they need to uncover. Last season, there were a few too many plays in which Robinson was putting moves on defensive backs while the quarterback was waiting for him to break. More reps with each other — and more experience for Robinson — should help get his own clock right, and help stay in sync with Mahomes.
Obviously not identical routes but similar concepts which show the difficulties of playing with two QBs that have different timing demands. More rhythm by QB and the ball is out earlier during the WRs route on the L, ball gets there quicker post-release w/o feet being set on R pic.twitter.com/GhLgUDSoxl— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 31, 2018
Being able to perfect his timing with a single quarterback would allow Robinson to excel as receiver — one that is slightly different than anyone else on the team — and allow him to get a more steady stream of targets. Even as a third or fourth receiver, he could carve out a niche for himself - as long as Mahomes knows where he’ll be and when he’ll be there.
Robinson has all the physical talent to be a quality starting NFL wide receiver. He just needs to continue to develop technically to progress out of the seven-on-seven wide receiver he was when he entered the league.