There were high hopes for defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson entering 2019. The Detroit Lions’ 2016 second-round pick put together a great 2018 campaign after starting the year as a healthy scratch. Things seemed to finally click for him, and the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. mid-way through the year seemed to only help his development.
Unfortunately, this season was not what many hoped it would be for the young defensive tackle. He struggled mightily—just like the rest of the Lions defensive front seemed to—and despite all the buzz around a potential extension for Robinson last offseason, he now finishes the final year of his rookie contract with his future in Detroit in limbo.
Robinson notched 40 combined tackles through 13 games this season—his lowest total since his rookie season. He has also been credited with 1.5 sacks on the year, his highest total since his rookie year. Like almost every other defender, though, the stats do not tell the full story for Robinson.
The defensive tackle was a huge part of the team’s regression defending the run (13th in DVOA in 2018, but 19th in 2019). Despite his 6-foot-4, 330-pound frame, he had trouble holding gaps when defending the run. He would often get shoved out of the way by offensive lineman and rarely provided much resistance.
Robinson played a majority of his snaps on the interior, usually at 3-tech with Damon Harrison playing the nose. He often had trouble performing his job holding the middle and forcing runs to bounce outside or cutback the other way.
This play against the Minnesota Vikings is a good example:
If Robinson holds his gap here, he could either stuff the run for a minimal gain, or force running back Dalvin Cook to cutback to his left into an area where there are more Lions defenders, though. He gets shoved out of the way with ease, though, and Cook is able to get to the second level for a good gain.
Robinson is bigger than the average edge defender. This should make him better against the run out wide, as the tackles tasked with blocking him will not be used to blocking guys of his side, and he only has to hold ground against one person usually, but he has trouble out there as well.
The defensive tackle often struggles to set the edge and force runs back insider. Even against tackles, he gets shoved out of the way with ease and can’t seem to hold ground.
On this play, Robinson was matched up one-on-one against the tackle as the tight end was occupied with another defender. He gets shoved out of the way, though, allowing Ezekiel Elliott an open gap to exploit for a good gain.
Another part of Robinson’s job as a defensive lineman is rushing the passer, and he may be even worse there then he is as a run defender. Detroit’s coaching staff knows this too, as they almost always pulled him off the field for third down plays that required more than a yard or two to convert.
He has two main problems: His pad level is not very good, which is surprising for a Matt Patricia coached player, and he has poor (or basically non-existent) hand usage.
Robinson fails to get beneath the pads of his opponent and drive them back when he is rushing. The defensive tackle does not use his hands either. Once he is blocked, he is blocked. If he cannot drive the lineman back into the pocket, then he basically has no hope of causing any problems to the opposing quarterback.
Even when he does try to counter punch the offensive lineman, it rarely works out. He usually can earn himself a bit of space and disengage from a block, but he is not nimble or quick enough with his body to work his way around the blocker to get in the quarterback’s face. It usually takes longer from Robinson to recover from his own punch than the lineman.
Should the Lions re-sign Robinson?
While Robinson definitely has a place in the NFL, he is a replacement-level run defender that can hold a role in a defensive rotation. He probably is not good enough to be a starter, but he showed in 2018 that he does have what it takes to contribute at a high level.
It is always easier to roll with what you have rather than attempting to add a new piece to the puzzle, so it is feasible that the Lions sign Robinson to a cheap deal this offseason. They could potentially give him a deal that gives him somewhere between $1-2 million a year over a few years. They should not be willing to pay a premium to keep around, though, and if he wants a big one-year deal to bet on himself or a mid-level multi-year deal they should let him walk and test the market.