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Would Denard Robinson make sense as an NFL Draft pick for the Detroit Lions this year? Let's examine how he would fit into their offense.
There has already been a lot of talk about Michigan's Denard Robinson being a potential draft pick for the Detroit Lions. With Robinson taking part in the Senior Bowl this week, talk of him ending up in Detroit is likely only going to increase. He's certainly one of the most intriguing players at the Senior Bowl, but would he actually make sense as a possible pick for the Lions? Yes and no.
While Robinson spent almost his entire career at Michigan playing quarterback, that will not be his position in the NFL. He doesn't have a good enough arm to play quarterback in the NFL, and after an injury limited his ability to throw in the latter half of the 2012 season, he transitioned to running back. His role wasn't necessarily limited to running back, but in the 2013 Outback Bowl against South Carolina, that was his main position.
What is working in Robinson's favor is that he isn't dead set on being a quarterback. He is "up for whatever," and in the NFL that means playing running back, wide receiver and possibly even cornerback. He could also be used as a return specialist given that he is so fast.
After he returned to action from a nerve injury in 2012, Michigan used Robinson in a variety of ways. Against Iowa, for example, he was often on the field at the same time as quarterback Devin Gardner, working as a running back and wide receiver. A week later against Ohio State, Robinson played more as the quarterback, but he was in the game strictly to run the ball and didn't attempt a single pass. In the Outback Bowl, we got a glimpse of how Robinson will likely be used in the NFL with him playing in a more traditional running back role. He finished with 100 yards rushing on 23 carries and 1 catch for 7 yards.
While the numbers may not seem that impressive, Robinson performed quite well given that his blocking wasn't great and he was going up against an SEC defense. Perhaps more important than the numbers was that Robinson showed he can effectively run the ball out of the backfield as a running back. He put up huge numbers in his career as a quarterback running mainly out of the shotgun, but his ability to move the ball on the ground as an actual running back was impressive. And considering how much Michigan struggled to get anybody else going in the run game, what he did was all the more impressive.
Basically, Robinson showed that he can get the job done as a running back in the Outback Bowl. How will he do as a receiver in the Senior Bowl? My guess is he will look quite raw considering this is so new to him. He is an expert when it comes to running the ball no matter the position, but having passes thrown at him is something very new. He is inexperienced, and it will take time for him to transition to wide receiver.
So what does all of this mean for the Lions? Clearly, they have a need for a speedy running back in the mold of Jahvid Best. The offense missed his explosiveness out of the backfield in 2012, and Martin Mayhew admitted that his greatest failure last season was not having a backup plan ready for Best. Given that it doesn't exactly seem like Best will be getting cleared to play football anytime soon, one of the Lions' needs this offseason is to find a replacement for him, and Robinson does seem like an ideal fit. Robinson can run the ball with great speed, and he's a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. His pass-catching certainly isn't at a level close to Best right now, but this is really just a case of Robinson needing more work as a receiver.
Based strictly on the fit in the offense, Robinson is an excellent option for the Lions. He could join a running back stable that already includes Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell and bring something those two players don't have -- elite speed. I know some people think he projects as a cornerback more than anything, but Robinson's best attribute is what he can do with his hands on the ball, and I can't see the Lions drafting him to play defense. He would be another playmaker for Matthew Stafford and someone who can line up in the backfield and at wideout.
While he does seem like a good fit strictly in terms of need, I don't necessarily think Robinson makes sense as a potential pick for the Lions because of where he will likely be drafted. ESPN's Mel Kiper said last week that he thinks Robinson will be taken no later than the second round. Obviously Kiper isn't the definitive word on stuff like this, but I would be surprised if Robinson makes it past the third round of the draft because of his speed. His stock could certainly take a tumble at the Senior Bowl depending on how raw he looks as a receiver, and he could see his stock fall at the NFL Combine if he doesn't run a fast 40-yard dash. Even so, Robinson has a lot of potential because of his athleticism, and I'm betting some team out there will take a chance on him in the first few rounds.
This is where Robinson doesn't seem like a good fit for the Lions. They have a lot of needs, and the first few rounds will be key for addressing positions like defensive end, cornerback, safety and even offensive guard and center. Given that they will be picking early in the first three rounds, they have a chance to fill some of those pressing needs with players who could come in and start right away. I do believe that there are more pressing needs than a speedy running back early in the draft, and quite honestly, I'd be disappointed if the Lions spend yet another high pick on an offensive skill player. Do the Lions need to find a running back to replace Best? Yes. But do they really have to fill that need with an early-round pick? No.
I will admit that you can certainly find impact players at positions like defensive end, cornerback and safety later in the draft. Especially at a deep position like defensive end, you may be able to wait and grab a player who is able to contribute from day one. I just don't want the Lions to ignore the defensive talent that is projected to go in the first few rounds. Adding a guy like Robinson would be nice for sure, but do you really want to spend a pick in the second or third round on him? To me, it just seems like the Lions would be wise to take a chance on a running back with speed later in the draft while addressing bigger needs early on. At some point they need to add a speedy running back, but in the long run, it seems much more important for the Lions to build their offensive and defensive lines and secondary.
Basically, what I'm trying to say is that Robinson seems like a luxury pick. Teams with great depth across their roster can afford to spend an early pick on a player like Robinson. There's a risk with him transitioning to a new position, and he does have an injury history. But those teams can justify the risk because the payoff could be very rewarding and they don't have bigger needs.
The Lions just aren't in that position. The offense needs help, yes, but we've been down this road before with Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles. At some point you have to address your big needs on the defense before spending more early picks on offensive skill players. Especially at a position like running back, you can often find someone late in the draft or even from the pool of undrafted free agents who can become a contributor. I just don't have a lot of faith in the Lions' ability to pull that off at positions where their biggest needs exist.
If this were a situation where the Lions had several picks in the second and third rounds, I'd be on board with the idea of picking Robinson. Given that they currently only have three picks in the first four rounds, I'd rather they address bigger needs on the first two days of the draft. If Robinson falls to the final day of the draft, go for it. But the Lions have more pressing needs than a speedy running back when it comes to the first few rounds.
The obvious caveat is that this whole process is one big crapshoot. You could pass on Robinson and pick someone who becomes a bust. And you could pick Robinson and he could end up not contributing much during his career. I just have a strong preference for the Lions to shy away from offensive skill players in the second and third rounds this year. They need a Best-like running back, but the Lions can get by without one. I don't think they can get by without addressing their needs on defense (and the offensive line to a lesser extent), and that should be the top priority on the first two days of the draft.
What do you think: If Robinson impresses at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, would you be okay with the Lions spending an early pick (second or third round) on him? Or would you rather they use their early picks on other (perhaps bigger) needs?