Fourth-round pick Rashard Robinson a bright spot on 49ers' defense
Through five games, the season looks to be a dismal one again for the 49ers. With Arizona starting backup QB Drew Stanton on Thursday night, it seemed for a time that San Francisco would be able to grind out an ugly win, but mistakes crept in, and the game went the Cardinals’ way.
The 49ers’ rookie draft class has so far been underwhelming, with even top pick DeForest Buckner yet to really hit his stride. There has been one exception, however, in the form of CB Rashard Robinson, who through five games, has a legitimate stake for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
With injuries in the San Francisco secondary, Robinson has found playing time early on, and has earned an expanded role with his performance in those limited snaps. Over the first three weeks of the season, he played just 45 snaps, but didn’t allow a single catch on those plays, and was targeted only once.
Robinson has started at cornerback for the 49ers the past two weeks, and has risen his play even more. Against Dallas and Arizona, he was targeted a combined eight times, but allowed only four catches for 31 yards. He broke up three of the four incompletions.
Robinson has always been a talented player, but was not a guy that married that talent to academic endeavor in high school or college. He barely made the eligibility deadline before his freshman season at LSU, and was suspended indefinitely during his sophomore season—a suspension that effectively ended his college career, causing him to sit out the 2015 season and then enter the draft.
Obviously those kinds of problems are huge red flags for a draft prospect, but the hype machine around Robinson briefly took off before the combine when somebody put word out that he would run a 40-yard dash time in the 4.2s at 6-foot-3 in height—the ideal traits NFL teams are looking for in prospects, long cornerbacks to combat today’s giant receivers. He ended up only running a 4.43 and measuring two full inches shorter, at 6-foot-1, but those are still pretty attractive numbers. Robinson’s measurables may not have been enough to overcome the aforementioned red flags and catapult him up the draft board, but they do help explain some of his early success.
The 49ers snagged him in the fourth round of the draft, 65 picks after the first cornerback they drafted—Will Redmond from Mississippi State—but Robinson got the chance to leap up the depth chart when Redmond went on injured reserve.
In the preseason, his play was excellent, and he ended with the highest coverage grade among all corners in the league, having been thrown at 13 times, surrendering seven catches for 58 yards. He didn’t allow a touchdown, but notched an interception and two pass defenses, and when targeted, yielded a passer rating of just 33.5—actually worse than if the QB just threw the ball into the dirt on those 13 targets.
His college tape showed some incredible make-up speed, but the propensity to get beat often enough to need it, even in man coverage. With the 49ers this season, he has been used primarily as a man-to-man corner, but he looks far stickier in coverage and less prone to getting badly beat.
When watching him, it’s notable that Robinson tries to maintain contact all the way through his route, with a textbook hand on the hip of his receivers on most plays. At times that strays very close to the line in terms of illegal contact, but he has yet to be flagged for anything in the regular season, at least on defense.
Robinson is still far from a finished product. He is a raw player that, at the moment, is far more comfortable in man coverage than he is in zone, and that will need to expand if he is to develop into a legitimate player in this league. So far, however, he looks much better than the pick invested in him would suggest, and has the kind of potential that could reap big rewards. GM Trent Baalke was bullish after drafting him that the team had done their homework—receiving intel from a strength coach that knew him from their times at LSU—and that he was a talent worth taking a chance on. So far he has been right, and Robinson has been one of the lone bright spots for the 49ers this season.