The Broncography of Lee Robinson

The Broncos promoted LB Lee Robinson from the practice squad last week, and I'm thrilled to see him. Why the fervor for a PS player? Robinson was originally signed by Denver as a college free agent following the 2009 Draft, and I thought he was well worth an enduring look at the time. Robinson was an outside linebacker in college who, like so many Broncos linebackers, has also spent some time with his hand on the ground at DE.  However, Robinson is also a player whose maturity and dedication have given the Broncos a new level of competition for any and all of their linebacker slots. Inside linebacker is as good a place to begin as any.

To start, he’s a solid 6’2” and 256 lbs of linebacker. The Broncos once moved to smaller, lighter linebackers, but it’s fair to say that Josh McDaniels preferred something contrastive. He said that he wanted big, physical players who are versatile and can work in multiple situations, which is a choate description of Robinson. One way to consider Robinson is as a bigger version of Wesley Woodyard. In 2008, Woodard took the Broncos by storm. Robinson might be the player at ILB that Denver right now is lacking, freeing up Mario Haggan to stay with his move back to OLB. He can also move into OLB situationally.

At one point he was considered too small for some teams, but he played well beyond his metrics as he grew into a 250 lb, strong-bodied linebacker. Robinson plays fast but he times slower in his 40-yard dash, at 4.76 seconds. In watching his film last year, I realized that he’s potentially a heck of a player. How do you decide if a player is worth keeping? Go to the film, which I'll provide in a moment. Here's what's happened to him in the past year.

The Broncos added him to their practice squad in October, bringing back a player who competed in training camp as a rookie free agent last season and has spent time with Denver on the PS, who knows most of the playbook already. Now he's going to get a shot at playing ILB. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy - off the field. On the field, he hasn't been so nice.

“The crazy thing about it is when you leave, you don’t know if you’re ever going to come back again or what,” Robinson said. “It’s crazy. I’ve been around four teams and I ended up right back where I started.”

Robinson spent parts of  his NFL time with practice squads in Arizona and Tampa Bay. After being dropped from the Buccaneers practice squad earlier this season, the Alcorn State product spent a few weeks as a free agent.

Robinson was headed home after a tryout with Green Bay earlier this  season when the Broncos came calling. He jumped at the chance to return to Denver. After several stops along the way, Robinson smiled today when thinking about being back in the same locker room where his NFL journey began.

“I feel like I never left,” he said.

Robinson had been called a “Late-round, high-impact player” by Sporting News prior to the 2009 Draft. Late round is relative, as are draft ratings. Robinson was rated in the 5th–6th round, roughly, before his performance at Texas vs the Nation. Practicing, playing and dominating on that stage, he became an instant ‘new thing’. Some had him rising as high as the 2nd round. But some pedestrian metrics, including a 4.79-second 40 at Combine burst that bubble (it has always interested me how much some teams waste on metrics. They're fine and they do matter, as do position drills, but game film is where you see most of what should excite an NFL talent evaluator). A draft loaded with OLBs and tweeners also hurt his chances. With some stiffness in his hips and potential problems in zone coverage, Robinson saw his draft weekend ending with a CFA phone call from the Broncos, welcoming him to camp. I consistently saw Robinson rated between the 4th and 5th rounds, so finding him at CFA was a possible gift.

There are always reasons that players rise and fall: Some are real, some not. Sometimes it's just how many players at your position and general metric there are - in 2009, there were quite a few. To begin some background, here’s a Draft Guys analysis of the player. It shows his lateral speed, and defines how much faster he plays than he tests, as well as documents his good eyes in coverage.

Clearly, he's got some ability in coverage. Denver has really lacked that at ILB. I don't expect him to come in and cover everyone, but he's going to see NFL game speed and the coaches will get some film on him, which is a benefit. The issue of his coverage skills was argued in some of his pre-draft scouting reports, and I often remind people that those reports are rarely updated in terms of skillset: contradictions are fairly common. Most often, a player makes certain mistakes early in their college career, and it never gets taken off the report, even if it's long been resolved. That may be true of Robinson, but the fact that one report just notes that since he hasn't played against top competition, he may need to be coached and developed, but may give a fine return for that time and attention pulls at me. It's so common that players are not given the time to develop - and granted, some aren't worth the time. It may well be that Robinson will turn into one of the players who takes a bit to get started right, but plays well to make up for it. Mike Vrabel was probably the poster boy for that kind of player. I'm not suggesting that Lee is a Mike Vrabel. I am suggesting that Denver doesn't know yet - and I'm cheerfully admitting that I'm rooting for him. There's just something about the guy.

This is what NFL DraftScout.com had to say:

He's a guy who looks like Tarzan -- and plays like him, too

They were referring to the fact that he has long arms, strong hands which he uses well, and a powerful body, upper and lower. He uses those to shed blockers with great skill. How important is that? It's essential - if you can't keep your legs 'clean', you're not going to be successful in the NFL as a linebacker. It's a problem that DJ Williams has had. Robinson also has a factor that seems to be in very good odor in Dove Valley, regardless of who's coaching. He’s a born leader and isn’t uncomfortable sharing this with his teammates. I found an excellent article that offers some insights into Lee from his college defenisive cooordinator:

“It all came together this weekend with him playing on the field the way he leads off the field,” Alcorn defensive coordinator Earnest Collins Jr. said. “That’s got to be one of those things Lee continues to do. This was a game that I’ve been waiting for him to show me, to play like I know he can play. It’s one of those deals where now I know he can do it, so I expect him to do it for the rest of the year.”

Seeing action at both inside and outside linebacker positions, Robinson leads the team in tackles and interceptions. (Emphasis mine)

“Lee has been a guy we’ve looked to for leadership the minute he walked into the door,” Collins said.

Collins also said having Robinson is like having a coach on the field since the senior played in 31 games since 2005.

“Lee’s play makes my job easier because they feed off him,” Collins said. “As long as he’s upbeat and has the right kind of attitude, they’re going to follow him.”

So, he can cover, he can catch the INT, he's a natural leader and he has played all the LB slots in the 4-3 system that he was trained in. What concerns people?  Other than the glut of 3-4 OLB/DE tweeners, which was populous, Robinson apparently has or had stiff hips in coverage and sometimes struggled to change direction. His footwork can be suspect, but that can be coached - his college coach states that Robinson is very coachable. The best analysis I read of him came from New Era Scouting. This is what they wrote:

Weaknesses: His competition level helped inflate his stats. Robinson is not a natural playing zone pass coverage. He has stiff hips and doesn’t turn directions well. His footwork can be choppy and he can be exposed by quicker backs and receivers. When playing a deeper zone responsibility, he doesn’t play as instinctively. When rushing the passer, does not have any well defined pass rush moves. Is not overly muscular and has a bowling-ball type frame that will need leaned out in the NFL. Tends to take too many false steps. Will let blockers get into his body.

Positives:

Best Fit Position/Role: Strongside linebacker

Ideal Scheme/Role: 4-3 over or 3-4

Games Scouted: Texas Southern, Jackson State

Strengths: Robinson is one of the best CFA prospects in this (2009) year’s draft. He is a thick, well built linebacker with great lateral speed. Has a nice first step and good ability to make plays on jump balls. Robinson is aggressive and can run sideline to sideline. Cleans up the outside run well. Against the inside run, he plays fearless and can handle a one on one assignment. Once he has a head of steam behind him, he is a huge hitter who packs a punch. Shows good tackling technique. He does an exceptional job cover the flat and can close well on the ball carrier. He has solid instincts. Does a good job in run/pass recognition. A good pass rusher who can stand up a blocker at the point of attack. Has a well built and thick upper body. Robinson has strong hands and can shed blockers with them. Has solid hands and can make plays in coverage.

You would have to notice that some of the negatives are in direct contradistinction to all the other scouting reports’ positives: welcome to the world of scouting. Even though most teams will use their own scouts in addition to the scouting services (or in preference over them), different scouts are looking for different things in a player. As I've mentioned, that’s common in scouting – people see things differently, and a single play can stick in your mind. In general, Robinson is very good at keeping blockers away and his physique at both Texas versus the Nation and at Combine turned heads. Against much tougher competition at the T vs. Nation event, he stood out and even dominated. The rest is accurate, though, and there is one other thing that was a consistent concern – he’s raw. He came to the game a little later - his best friend was the coach's son, and as a junior he went out for the sport. He needs to learn more technique. One problem with going to a lower-ranked school is that sometimes the coaching isn’t top level. But the Broncos’ can be, and we will quickly see how fast he learns. The two things that are constant issues for rookies are the speed and skill of the NFL players and the need to learn – fast.

Robinson will, if he stays, have to compete against DJ Williams, Wes Woodyard and Joe Mays. Over time, we will see if his prosperity of potential can turn into production. That’s why you give them a chance. And all that Robinson has ever asked for is a chance.

The Phinsider placed him in the Best Player You Never Heard Of series. This is a good article, by the way. Here is a DraftGuys.com analysis they cited of Robinson from that Texas vs the Nation game:

Lee Robinson (LB-Alcorn State) - Robinson had the defensive play of the practice with a twisting interception snagged out of the air at full extension on a Chase Patton fastball. Robinson showed excellent coordination staying on his feet and turning instantly into a returner after the spectacular pick. He’s clearly a tremendous athlete.

Robinson is by far the best athlete of the LBs on either squad, and he uses that edge to make plays. He stayed with speed demon Devin Moore step for step on a deep route, and also stuck to Bernard Scott down the field in backs on backers. He also displayed terrific quickness and drive to penetrate and shoot gaps against the run, and explodes into his tackles. Robinson is definitely one of the best prospects in this game.

You can see Robinson’s superior athleticism/size combo out there even if you’re not looking for it. He didn’t make huge plays like Joseph, but his burst off the snap, ability to fight through blocks, and one play where he easily threw an opponent to the ground all amounted to a good closing argument in the case he built to be a mid-round pick in the draft during the week in El Paso.

That's quite a mouthful for a kid from the FCS.

This laudatory short piece is from Chad Reuter at NFLDraftScout.com:

Texas vs. the Nation, Wednesday: OLB Lee Robinson (Alcorn State, 6-2, 249): He could challenge Owens as the top pick from this game because he's a physical specimen, and he can really play. Scouts value a guy like Robinson who can hold up a pulling guard in space but run with backs in coverage down the sideline.

Lee Robinson, a linebacker from Alcorn State, continues to impress with his athleticism. Even at 249 pounds, he has the ability to track running backs in the flat and get to receiver in short zones. He's a guy who looks like Tarzan -- and plays like him, too.  Of this week's participants, Robinson should be one of the first players drafted. - Chad Reuter, The Sports Xchange, NFLDraftScout.com

Between the two articles, a case is being built that when running in pads (a change I've always wanted to see at Combine), Robinson showed defensive back speed in covering a wide receiver one on one. Next, Reuter comments that he can get to the receiver in the short zone. These are two things that have been problems for Denver's ILBs. Now he just has to prove it. I'm hopeful that the Broncos will show a little more patience than they sometimes have in developing Lee Robinson. A year of proper coaching and an internship with Rich Tuten can do a lot to change a player's skillset. That's what the PS is for, until you get that chance to show your skills in the big league, and this young man shows a lot of potential - or, 'upside', in the vernacular. It's time to put that on the field and show the team what he can do. 

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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