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Denard Robinson and the NFL’s ‘Joker’ Role

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He’s a converted quarterback whose upper body might be too small to play running back in the NFL, and he’s stuck behind one of the sturdiest workhorse runners of a generation in an offense led by an abysmal signal caller.

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Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Denard Robinson runs with the ball after making a catch during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The arguments against Denard Robinson as a fantasy commodity, as you can see, are plentiful and, well, legitimate. If he’s used as more than just a kick returner and situational offensive gimmick – and there’s already reason to believe as much – I think he could have fantasy appeal, at best as a player used in a multitude of ways, and at worst as a bench stash who could pay dividends if injury offers him a piece of the Jaguars’ backfield pie.

Robinson, a four-year University of Michigan quarterback taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, was announced as a running back, and since confirmed as a back by Jacksonville officials and coaches.

Robinson will be more than that though, and that excites me.  He’ll be what Greg Cossell calls a “joker,” a multi-skilled guy capable of lining up across the formation, from the outside to the slot to, of course, the backfield. Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb are the best known “move” players – or jokers – in the NFL, breaking traditional molds as offensive coaches prove more willing to experiment with their best athletes.

Robinson has all the speed, shiftiness, and patience to take on this joker role for the Jaguars. He’s suited to assume the “amorphous” role that Cossell has trumpeted as the next evolution in the way NFL offenses seek favorable matchups for their most explosive weapons.

St. Louis Rams’ rookie Tavon Austin will likely take his team’s “joker” role this year. And it’s not just small guys who play anywhere in the formation – Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White was used out of the backfield occasionally last year, creating mismatches against linebackers who couldn’t cover White if White were on crutches. This role isn’t a fad – it’s here to stay, and the fantasy implications of the rise of the “joker” position are hard to overstate.

How do I know Robinson could very well be used as one of Cossell’s jokers? I have an Internet connection, and read this on the Detroit Free Press’s website.

“We’re going to play him at running back, and we’re going to play him a little bit at slot, so you’re going to see him in a lot of different formations,” Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell told reporters. “He’s a running back just like he’s a slot, and we’re going to use him as a kick returner, so we’re going to try and get the ball into his hands, and that’s going to be one of the goals. … We needed some speed an explosiveness here. … Not only does he have juice on the field in terms of his speed and play-making ability, but just juice in the building.”

Why Robinson works as a running back

Back to Robinson, the guy who posted 1,266 rushing yards last year for the Michigan Wolverines, at a tidy clip of 7.2 yards per carry, and finished his collegiate career with 42 rushing scores. Yes, 42, as in 10.5 rushing touchdowns a year. And if you think that 7.2 YPC average is the product of a few long, flukey touchdown runs, you’d be wrong: Robinson averaged 6.2 YPC on 723 carries at Michigan since 2010.

An argument leveled against Robinson’s fantasy value – whatever it may be in 2013 – often begins and ends with someone labeling him too small. That, for lack of a better term, is incorrect. Robinson is 5’11” and 199 pounds, the same height and eight pounds heavier than Chris Johnson, who has had a little success at the pro level.

rotoViz analysis has given some credence to the (less than popular) theory of Robinson as an NFL running back. When comparing Robinson’s size, average carries per game, yards per game, and yards per carry, he proves similar to runners like David Wilson, Kendall Hunter, and to a much lesser extent, Jamaal Charles.

Robinson held his own in rotoViz’s Explosion Index, which takes into account a runner’s 40-yard dash time (Robinson ran a blazing 4.43), vertical and broad jumps. Robinson ranked sixth out of 32 running backs measured on rotoViz’s Explosion Index, beating out highly-touted draftnik favorite Zac Stacy.

Robinson registered a run of more than 18 yards in eight of his 11 games against opponents from BSC conferences in 2012, according to rotoViz. Only two running backs had more games with 18-yard rushes against BSC conference defenses.

While Montee Ball and Le’Veon Bell are set to have immediate fantasy value – and lots of it — it should be noted that Robinson scored much higher in the Explosion Index. We look for two things in fantasy football: ability and opportunity. A lot of guys have one or the other, and inarguably, the latter is most important. Knowing that Robinson has the ability – by any measurement – is worth remembering for those in re-draft leagues with deep benches, or owners who take a chance this season on Maurice Jones-Drew, who missed most of 2012 with a foot injury and is entering the final year of his contract.

The Jaguars’ shift to a zone-blocking run scheme could be a boon for Robinson, who displayed impeccable patience in waiting for his blocking to develop on designed runs from under center and on the occasional run from behind the quarterback in college. Robinson, unlike a lot of guys with speed to burn, doesn’t try to blow by his blockers and oncoming defenders. Instead, he waits for blocks and watches for running lanes to open before turning on the jets – a skill he showed when he lined up at running back for the Wolverines after an arm injury forced him out from under center.

You’ll see a lot of Robinson’s patience in the video below.

What needs to happen

Robinson, as of this very moment, has limited – if any – clear fantasy value. It’s too early to know what coaches have in mind for their new offensive weapon. Robinson is the presumed third-string running back behind Jones-Drew and journeyman Justin Forsett, who is very much a replacement-level runner who shouldn’t be a hurdle for Robinson.

Jones-Drew missed 10 games with a Linsfranc fracture, and doesn’t expect to be at full speed until early June, a full nine months after he first hurt his foot. Jones-Drew is anything but an IR trip waiting to happen though – the guy had missed three games in six seasons before 2012. Unless his giant workloads are going to catch up with him in his age-28 season, it’s hard to peg Jones-Drew as anything but a 16-game starter, just as he has been four times in his career.

Even if Robinson gets a chance to man the Jacksonville backfield with Jones-Drew – or in lieu of him in some situations – he’s going to need to add bulk to his upper body. Robinson, like any quarterback hoping to maintain the needed flexibility to throw the football, has most of his muscle mass in his lower body, giving him the leg drive that let him drive through would-be tacklers in college. Scouts and general managers – named and unnamed – have said Robinson would need to more evenly distribute his muscle mass if he’s going to withstand an NFL beating.

Even without a traditional running back’s upper body, Robinson was never afraid to lower his shoulder during his days at Michigan.

Robinson never made a peep about being drafted as a running back. That willingness to do what it takes to get on the field is good news for a guy who needs to change his body for his team’s needs. I don’t see any reason this (current) lack of upper body mass would keep Robinson on the bench.

Pass protection could be the short-term death knell for Robinson’s fantasy value. He had close to no experience protecting the quarterback in college in his rare appearances at running back, and that lack of upper body strength can’t help his prospects. We’ve seen a lot of mouth-watering fantasy commodities have their values submarined by the inability to block blitzers, so Robinson’s development as a blocker is something to watch this summer.

Robinson as a matchup nightmare

The rise of the NFL’s crop of joker players, versatile and imminently dangerous wherever they’re lined up, is what Cossell has termed “the new normal.” Robinson, I think, has a place in that new NFL normal.

“The overriding, and superseding point is that they are all movable chess pieces, all ‘Jokers,’ to use the term that I’ve used before and I think is aptly descriptive,” Cossell writes in a March blog post. “That’s the Cosell Doctrine, and that’s the direction I see the NFL game trending. It’s about passing, and how you can create, and ultimately dictate favorable matchups. You do that with players that are amorphous and fluid in their ability to be utilized in ways both multiple and expansive, yet somewhat unstructured based on conventional definitions.”

Robinson’s fantasy value, of course, will depend almost entirely on the Jaguars’ ability to put the ball in his hands in space, where he can use his proven rushing skills to make guys miss with the lateral agility that made him a homerun threat at Michigan.

“It always takes a small leap of faith to try something a little different,” Cossell continues, “but I sense strongly this is where we’re headed. It’s another step forward in the evolution of NFL offense.”

I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say Robinson, along with a lot of other supremely talented players, is part of that evolution.

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