INDIANAPOLIS — I’m on a Southwest flight headed to Indianapolis, bound for the annual NFL Scouting Combine. So is the passenger next to me.
Said passenger happens to be Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who has pulled out his tablet and is watching tape of Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham. Many scouts think Cunningham is the best linebacker available in the draft.
As the two of us talk shop — we’re headed to the same event, albeit separately — eventually he moves on from Cunningham and pulls up some film of Florida’s Jarrad Davis. At first, Davis is doing all the things you like to see from a linebacker prospect, from filling the proper gap to keeping his shoulders square.
But now Smith’s Microsoft Surface is showing the cut-ups from the SEC Championship Game. All of a sudden, Davis isn’t making any stops.
That’s because the Gators were skinned 54-16 by eventual conference champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide ran 38 times for 234 yards and 4 touchdowns, and a chunk of it was the result of going over, around and through Davis.
On one particular play, Davis is destroyed by ‘Bama left tackle Cam Robinson, which opens a huge cutback lane for running back Damien Harris. On another snap, Davis is responsible for sealing the edge on a wide run from tailback Bo Scarbrough — Robinson, of course, has other ideas. Scarbrough turns the corner for a big gain.
“That’s your guy, right?” Smith rhetorically asks me, as Robinson tosses aside the 6-foot-1, 238-pound Davis. “He looks pretty dominant to me.”
Previously in the conversation, after the safety instructions but before the beverage service, I told Smith that I was headed to the Hoosier State for the specific purpose of writing an extended feature story on Robinson.
While I didn’t plan on doing any additional research during the flight, now I’m getting a tutorial from someone who’s been doing it in the NFL — including seven seasons as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons — for the past 18 years. And he’s seeing the same thing I’m seeing: Robinson has the tools to be a star on Sunday.
However, not everyone is sold on him. Even though it’s a loaded draft, it’s considered weak at the offensive tackle spot.
Fundamentally, there’s no reason Robinson shouldn’t be a no-brainer first-round pick. He was the No. 1 recruit at his position coming out of high school. He started as a freshman. He won the Outland Trophy as a junior.
This is the pre-draft evaluation process, though. With the college football season ending in early January but the NFL’s selection weekend not taking place until late April, that’s a lot of time to nitpick even the top prospects — heaven forbid you’re a quarterback with small hands, for example — to death.
Robinson is a decorated All-American coming out of America’s most decorated program, but he still has questions to answer in Indy.
Some think he’s not light enough on his feet. Others believe he’s a bit late off the snap. Trouble with speed rushers. Helped by double-teaming tight ends and chipping backs. Not impenetrable at the second level. On and on and on.
Additionally, Robinson has an off-the-field issue. Last May, he was arrested — in his hometown of Monroe, La., — and charged with possession of a controlled substance, illegal possession of a firearm and possession of a stolen gun. The charges were later dropped, but he’ll repeatedly be asked about the incident.
Is it enough to push Robinson out of Round 1? On talent alone, he belongs there. But talent is the least of his worries. Smith agrees.
‘teams will be curious about it’
While Robinson seemed to be in big trouble last year following the drug and weapons charges, they were ultimately dropped.
However, the circumstances surrounding said dropping of charges were interesting, to say the least. Robinson and teammate Hootie Jones, who was also in the car, appeared to be on the receiving end of a boys-will-be-boys slap on the wrist.
Jerry Jones, the district attorney in Monroe, decided not to pursue the case. A bag of marijuana was found in plain sight on the floorboard. Two guns — including one classified as “stolen” in sergeant Tommy Crowson’s police report — were found in the vehicle. So it certainly wasn’t for a lack of evidence, although Jones believed he couldn’t prove to whom everything belonged.
Fortunately for Robinson, it gets hot in Monroe. As it does in Tuscaloosa, which is about 300 miles due East.
“I want to emphasize once again that the main reason I’m doing this is that I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and their teenage years working and sweating, while we were all home in the air conditioning, to play football,” Jones told KNOE-TV in Monroe.
From the outside, it looked like pigskin justice at its finest. Would an everyday accounting major have been given the same benefit of the doubt? Not a lot of tax returns are done in the blazing sun of the Deep South.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who doesn’t believe taking away playing time is any way to teach a lesson — especially for an All-American — refused to suspend Robinson for the opener against USC. Whatever punishment Saban deemed necessary was handled internally. With Robinson lined up at left tackle, ‘Bama crushed the Trojans 52-6.
This is one of the reasons more 5-star recruits sign with Saban than any other coach. He’ll be the bad guy and take the heat for his players.
But here in Indianapolis, Robinson can’t hide behind Saban anymore. One way or another, he’s going to be questioned about the episode by every team he interviews with, either formally or informally. Refusing to comment isn’t an option.
Let’s call the Scouting Combine what it is: It’s a job interview. There are 330 players on hand at the Indiana Convention Center, and every one wants to lace ’em up on Sunday. Very few have more to gain — first-rounders make most of the cash in the draft — or more to lose than Robinson. The arrest is a blemish on his résumé.
According to Mike Florio, who’s a lawyer in addition to one of the personalities on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” Robinson got the right DA.
“I think teams will be curious about it,” Florio tells me. “I think teams that get it will understand that. Even though there’s a perception that a judge is the most important and most powerful member of law enforcement in any community, the truth is that a prosecutor is the most important and most powerful person in law enforcement. Because the prosecutor decides who gets charged, what they get charged with and who doesn’t get charged. The discretion that a prosecutor has is very, very wide, and there aren’t easy mechanisms for challenging it other than public pressure or political pressure.”
Jones’ interview with the TV station checked all the boxes associated with special treatment for star athletes. Don’t let silly things like drugs and guns get in the way of the fact that playing football is, well, hard.
“I know there was some heat that was taken after that decision was made,” Florio says.
That being said, Robinson’s judgment will be questioned. There’s simply too much at stake — possibly eight figures worth of guaranteed money.
“Just because there weren’t charges filed doesn’t mean that it’s something we should just forget about,” Florio says. “From a team’s perspective, we have a security force, we should do our investigation, we should ask some tough questions and we’ll come to our own conclusion as to whether or not this is a guy we can trust.”
This is the portion of the combine Robinson has to nail. Not the 40-yard dash. Not the broad jump. It’s explaining away this one glaring red flag.
‘definitely. next question’
Robinson’s session with the media is Thursday at Podium 3, right after one of the prospects he’s jockeying with: Florida State’s Roderick Johnson.
Johnson, like all the other offensive linemen in the interview room, stood on the riser and towered above reporters with his 6-foot-7, 298-pound frame. However, Robinson (6-6, 322) asks for a chair and actually sits behind the microphone.
Still wearing his combine-issued Under Armour warmup jacket — he didn’t participate in the bench press, which was earlier in the day — Robinson appears to be perfectly comfortable. The media Q&A can be intimidating for some players, especially the ones from smaller schools. Alabama, of course, is used to all the exposure.
Clearly, Robinson’s representation at ProSource Sports have prepared him well. He answers the most important question before it’s even asked.
Cam, how have your interviews with teams been going so far?
“The interviews have been going well,” he says. “Obviously, we addressed the elephant in the room first, which is the incident I got into last summer. I explained that to them. I tell them what happened, exactly what happened. I’m 100-percent truthful with them, and we move on and we talk ball from there.”
A reporter or two tries to push him to go further with his explanation, to actually tell them what he told all the teams, but he doesn’t. He’s under no obligation to do so. Robinson needs to satisfy possible employers, not possible beat writers.
As the interview continues, Robinson’s confidence begins to swell. More of his personality starts to shine through with his answers — especially the abbreviated ones. Remember, these are largely NFL writers who don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of the Crimson Tide program. He’s quick to correct anyone who misspeaks.
Cam, you were a four-year guy on the blind side …
“Three-year,” Robinson interrupts.
An early entry for the draft, his response comes off as a little smartassy. In a good way, though. Hey, media guy, do your homework. I can respect that.
Eventually, the conversation moves toward what position Robinson is destined to play on Sunday. Even though he lined up exclusively at left tackle for ‘Bama, he’s not considered a classic blind-side pass protector.
He’s more tank than technician, which lends itself to the right tackle spot. Maybe he even slides inside to guard, where his physical style in tight spaces — Robinson doesn’t have the bouncy feet typically associated with most left tackles — can be more of an asset. Like every O-lineman at the combine, he says he’ll play anywhere.
Since most football writers know next to nothing about line play, it’s an easy line of questioning to ask about position versatility.
Are you trying to play guard at all?
“No, I never played guard.”
You said you’d be open to that, though?
“Yeah, I’m definitely open to that.”
How do you think your skills would translate to guard?
“I don’t know. I never played guard.”
Frankly, it’s an unimaginative query that gets repetitive answers. What’s Robinson supposed to say? No, I don’t want to play guard. I’m only interested in playing tackle. Left tackle, actually, because that’s where the money’s at. As if.
But make no mistake about it. While he might be diplomatic with reporters — people who can’t explain what he’s asked to do technique-wise from snap to snap — he’s walks the walk and talks the talk of a left tackle. The last true freshman to start at that position for the Tide, Andre Smith, went No. 6 in 2009.
Guards don’t get taken in the first round very often, and even less so for centers. That territory is typically reserved for tackles.
Do you believe you’re the top tackle in this draft?
“Definitely. Next question.”
Having played for Saban in Tuscaloosa, Robinson likely received more media training than most of the other prospects on hand. The crimson-clad types typically deflect questions about themselves. It’s part of The Process, naturally.
But he’s here to sell himself, not talk about an upcoming matchup with Chattanooga. He manages to toe the line between confidence and cockiness awfully well. Even when asked about his battles with Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett — potentially the No. 1 overall pick — he lets his play do the talking: “Just go watch the tape.”
Players can wax poetic like William Shakespeare and not really help themselves at the podium. They can only do damage. Robinson did just fine.
‘left tackle to guard’
Sometimes you need a face to put on your own personal dartboard. For Robinson, that face apparently belongs to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
One of the most respected draft experts in the business, not to mention arguably the best interview in Indianapolis every year, Mayock sees Pro Bowl potential in Robinson. The caveat? It’s inside at guard, not outside at tackle.
Throughout Robinson’s workout Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Mayock compared him to Kelechi Osemele of the Oakland Raiders. Like Robinson, Osemele was a left tackle at the college level — albeit at Big 12 doormat Iowa State, not SEC powerhouse Alabama. He began his pro career at right tackle before settling in at left guard.
He’s one of the best guards in the business, too. Osemele made his first Pro Bowl in 2016 and was also first-team All-Pro.
“He could probably survive out wide,” Mayock says of Robinson on the NFL Network broadcast. “It’s just, for me, it was a question of balance and getting overextended with some speed.”
In the 2012 draft, likely because most teams didn’t view him as a left tackle, Osemele was selected late in Round 2 by the Baltimore Ravens. If Robinson were to be taken at a similar spot, his rookie contract would guarantee him about $1.5 million.
However, if Robinson were to hear his name called late in Round 1 — that’s where a lot of the mock drafts out there have him going — the guaranteed portion alone of his first deal would be in the vicinity of $7.5 million. Needless to say, that’s a big difference. That’s what he’s up against if he slips in the draft.
Maybe it’s the arrest. Perhaps it’s positional fit. Whatever the reason, Robinson has been dropping in mock drafts recently.
“Left tackle to guard,” Mayock says, as he continues with his comparison of Robinson to Osemele. “They’re both maulers and really solid pass-pro guys, and I feel like they both are really seeded internally in that offensive line because of what they do best, which is they’re inside maulers.”
Finally able to get back on the field in front of a critical audience for the first time since the loss to Clemson in the national title game, Robinson responds with a solid workout at the combine. He looks more tackle than guard, that’s for sure.
His time of 5.15 seconds in the 40-yard dash puts him in a four-way tie for eighth place among the 47 offensive linemen — nine from the best conference in America. He’s also 14th in the 3-cone drill with a time of 7.81 seconds. While he falls outside the Top 15 for all the other tests, none of his results are alarming.
Various agility and blocking drills come next. He’s quick. He’s fluid. He’s powerful. Most of his measurables are superior to what Osemele’s were.
“Boy, I just think he’s going to be a Pro Bowl guard,” Mayock says, wrapping up his critique of Robinson and sticking to his previous evaluation.
To be clear, there are worse things to be on Sunday than a Pro Bowl guard. After a four-year run with the Ravens, Osemele signed with the Raiders as a free agent last offseason for a guaranteed $25.4 million.
Robinson said all the right things Friday at the podium. Sure, he’ll play right tackle. He’ll even play guard if that’s what a team wants. But the premier blockers on Sunday — standouts like Tyron Smith, Joe Thomas and Trent Williams — are left tackles. Only the most die-hard of fans can even name their favorite team’s starting guards.
As millennials are prone to do, Robinson took to social media after his workout to express what he didn’t to reporters the day before:
Those who still doubt are also welcomed to Pro Day in Tuscaloosa on March 8th. #2Gaurd
— Cam. (@crobinson_68) March 3, 2017
Keep in mind that he is far from a chronic tweeter. As a matter of fact, this is his first tweet in about three weeks. Some interpret it as a direct shot at Mayock. Regardless, it appears that Robinson’s ears have been burning at the combine.
‘he’s a first-round talent’
Even though the NFL’s yearly meat market is now complete, Robinson still has a few hoops to jump through in the pre-draft circus.
Alabama will hold its Pro Day on Wednesday. There’s nothing he really needs to show in Tuscaloosa that he didn’t in Indianapolis, with the exception of maybe the bench press. He hasn’t benched in a year due to a previous shoulder surgery.
Following his Pro Day, presumably he’ll have a series of individual workouts — Jeff Guerriero, his Monroe-based agent, plays a key role there — with teams at their respective facilities. Some will put Robinson through another workout. Others will simply want to speak with him a second, third or even fourth time.
Only one general manager has to like him enough to pull the trigger in the first round. In the end, none of these mock drafts mean squat.
“I like his size and his length,” says former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik, who is now an analyst at ESPN. “I think that he’s got the ability. You could try him at left tackle. I think he could settle in at right tackle. Either one, but at least the nice thing about Cam is that you could put him at left tackle and see if that’s a good fit. I think he’s a first-round talent.”
As mentioned previously, most of the draftniks view this to be a weak class of offensive tackles. While Robinson does have some competition to be the first one taken, the other top prospects have flaws, as well.
Dominik on Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk: “He’s a big, really good athlete. A better athlete than you realize, but he’s just a big power mauler. It just depends on what you’re wanting to do offensively, so I can see where some people might like him a little bit better. He has medical concerns, too, though.”
Dominik on Utah’s Garett Bolles: “He is a great athlete, right? We’ve seen him at the combine. He tested through the roof and did a good job. So, again, I think that they’re probably in the same mindset for most GMs. What separates them is the fact that I think Cam played at Alabama and has played against the best of everybody. I think that’s important.”
Dominik on Johnson: “I think you’re a little bit apart now. I think you’re starting to see a little bit of separation. Look, there’s second-round tackles that become All-Pros, but I think Cam’s just probably got a little bit better of a body of work.”
Running back, as opposed to offensive tackle, is chock full of fantastic prospects — led by LSU’s Leonard Fournette — available in seemingly every round. As a result, a ball carrier with second-round ability might still be there in Round 4. But it’ll tougher to find value at tackle later in the draft since the pickings are slim.
“I think it does help him because, inevitably, we need offensive line help in the National Football League,” Dominik says. “I think what happens is there’s going to be a cliff. There’s a dropoff that happens fast, and so in a way that could help the tackles.”
For teams that need bookend help, there could be a sense of, If I don’t get one now, I’m not going to get a good one. That’s a positive for Robinson.
When it’s all said and done, how early he hears his name called likely depends on whether the team taking him sees him as a tackle. He doesn’t have to be a left tackle, per se, but a tackle nonetheless.
“I don’t think you have to be convinced he’s a left tackle,” Dominik says. “It’s okay to take right tackles in the National Football League. It used to be taboo, like you can’t take him as a right tackle. Well, there’s a lot of really good pass rushers.”
Vic Beasley Jr. of the Atlanta Falcons led the league in 2016 with 15.5 sacks. Unlike most of the premier pass rushers in the NFL historically, he doesn’t line up exclusively on the right side. He brings pressure from the left — meaning he’s matched up with a right tackle — as this new breed of hybrid defensive end-slash-outside linebacker.
“It’s more is he a tackle versus do I have to kick him inside,” Dominik says, “and I think that’s where you start to see the concern.”
The draft is in Philadelphia this year. Several of the top prospects will be invited by the NFL to take part in the festivities.
Robinson is yet to hear anything from the league, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t. Should he be lucky enough to get an invitation, he plans to make the trip, walk across that stage and be greeted by commissioner Roger Goodell.
Of course, that means he has to hear his name called in Round 1 — Goodell only does his handshake-and-bear-hug routine with the initial 32 selections. Once the draft moves on to the second round, The Commish turns the podium over to other executives, alumni from each franchise, members of the military and even a few fortunate fans.
Cam Robinson wants that handshake. He wants that bear hug. But not a lot of guards get the chance. Tackles do, though.