Allen Robinson and the Unknown

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Does anyone really know what Allen Robinson’s going to do this year?

There are a host of outstanding football analysts who do their best to project player performance from year to year using advanced scouting and statistical models, but even the best methods aren’t perfect, as every player reacts differently to new situations and to the multitude of variables that directly affect their play on the field. There is no player that embodies that confusion in 2018 more than Robinson.

When the ink dried on the three-year, $42 million deal between the Chicago Bears and 24-year old wide receiver Allen Robinson, it was universally lauded as an outstanding move by a team and organization turning itself around.

Robinson, when healthy and when Blake Bortles decided to be accurate, showed how truly dangerous an offensive weapon he could be through his first three years in the league. By the age of 23, Robinson had accumulated 201 catches for 2,831 yards and 22 touchdowns. Only six other receivers in NFL history managed to hit those numbers from Robinson in all three categories – Randy Moss, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandin Cooks and Hakeem Nicks.

After a breakout 2015 campaign, he struggled to maintain his statistical success in 2016, but that had more do with Bortles taking a step backward in his play.

His chance at retribution was halted in the first game of the 2017 season as a torn left ACL sidelined Robinson for the rest of the year. Jacksonville went on to a magical 2017 season without their No. 1 receiver and despite needing the weapons to surround Blake Bortles, the Jaguars allowed Robinson to get to NFL Free Agency. Thus, a 24-year old looking to rejuvenate his career hit the open market, signed with the Bears, and now we are presented with possibly the hardest player to project for the 2018 season.

From year to year, there is often at least some stability for players as they stay with the same team or coaching staff and don’t have the severe injuries that require major rehabilitation, but that’s not the case for Robinson. Robinson is seeing change in every major way; He’s recovering from a major injury on a new team that has acquired a few new weapons to play around a young quarterback and the team itself also has a new head coach. Change doesn’t get much more drastic than that. These five important variables are up in the air and thus leave questions as to what the former Pro Bowler will provide on the field this season.

Injuries

A torn ACL is a devastating injury. There was an outbreak of ACL injuries prior to Week 1 last year, as 24 players were lost for the season and each one of them will have a different level of success this year. Everyone reacts differently to recovery and the advancement of medical technology has allowed players to get back on the field quicker, but it still is a long road to returning to pre-injury level performance.

Looking at recent instances, there are three examples of wide receivers, age 25 or younger, tearing their ACL that perhaps provide a blueprint for Robinson’s return. One, Kelvin Benjamin, had an outstanding rookie year and has struggled to reach those same heights. The others – Keenan Allen and Jeremy Maclin – each set career highs in catches and yards in the first year after the injury. But each of those players stayed with their same organization, which leads us to…

Curse of the Free Agent Wide Receiver

Andre Rison. Alvin Harper. Javon Walker. David Boston. Jerry Porter. Peerless Price. Greg Jennings. Antwaan Randle El. Drew Bennett. Albert Connell. Terrelle Pryor.

I could have replaced those names with a picture of a pile of money on fire.  

The perils of investing heavily on the open market have been well-documented and cautionary tales exist at most positions, but it seems most of the free agency faux pas since the system was implemented in 1993 have been at the wide receiver position.

A change of environments affects all players differently, but when huge dollars are thrown at these pass catchers, how do you say no even with the added pressure of being the new, high-priced toy in the new city?

There have been some recent success stories, including Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Alshon Jeffery and Eric Decker. There was also the aforementioned Maclin who, following his stellar bounceback year from injury, signed with Kansas City and responded with an 87 catch, 1,088 yard season. He wasn’t able to sustain that success as a injury-riddled 2016 meant he was looking for a new job prior to last season, but his first season post-free agency was everything Kansas City hoped for.

More often than not, changing teams is about fit and being in the right situation that allows the receiver to thrive, which brings us to…

New Offensive-Minded Coach

The reviews from the players and those that have been to Bourbonnais for training camp are glowing thus far for Bears first-time head coach Matt Nagy. A young offensive-minded coach in tune with what it takes to put points on the board in the modern NFL couldn’t be further from what John Fox brought to the table. Not to discount the career that Fox has had, but when a team already has Vic Fangio in place at defensive coordinator and the centerpiece of your organization is a highly-drafted quarterback, more of a balance on the staff is necessary.

Nagy is well-trained, serving under Andy Reid in some capacity every year since 2008. In fact, his career trajectory is eerily similar to Reid’s ascent to Eagles head coach after serving under West Coast offense guru Mike Holmgren from 1992-1998 before taking the Philadelphia job in 1999. The Bears can only hope Nagy’s career comes close to the one Reid has established.

Since being hired, Nagy hasn’t disclosed much about exactly what his offense will look like, but has hinted on numerous occasions that he values versatility in his personnel (which would then give flexibility in personnel groupings based on matchup) and the ability to take shots down field.

We’ll get to the new found versatility of the Bears offensive personnel, but the downfield passing is exactly why Robinson was acquired. Last year, with a more aggressive approach, Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith was the most accurate deep passer in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He was 11th in the league with 12.3 percent of his throws travelling at least 20 yards in the air and he registered a 131.4 passer rating on those passes. Below is the breakdown from NFL Next Gen stats and something that should get Bears fans excited.

The reason for that is if Nagy decided to employ the same strategy, Robinson couldn’t be a more perfect fit. Again, according to information from Pro Football Focus, at Robinson’s apex in 2015, his 672 deep receiving yards were the most of any wide receiver in a season from 2006-2017.

While it appears to be a match made in heaven, these factors  may not translate to the same output he had in 2015. It is possible for a player to be a threat and a tremendous value to an offense while not compiling astronomical statistics. The best corollary for this situation may be, ironically, former Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery with another Andy Reid protege, Doug Pederson, in Philadelphia last year. They are built similarly (each standing 6’3’’ and weighing between 210 and 220 pounds) and I expect Robinson to be deployed as Jeffery was last year: mainly on the perimeter and in the red zone where his size can be used to his advantage. But the number of opportunities he gets really depends on…

The Bears’ New Toys

Allen Robinson is getting paid like a No. 1 receiver. But as I mentioned in the previous section, this doesn’t necessarily mean he will put up those type of numbers.

Chicago suffered from an extreme lack of playmakers on the perimeter in 2017 and while Robinson’s acquisition went a long way toward addressing that, the other moves that were made upped the ante on the versatility and possibilities for the Bears offense in 2018.

Only 42 percent of last year’s passing targets for the Bears return and everyone will be jockeying for targets with Robinson and the trio of other important offensive acquisitions. Trey Burton was blocked for more playing time by Zach Ertz in Philadelphia, but ultimately he is familiar with a similar offensive system and was acquired to serve the Travis Kelce role in Chicago. His production will almost certainly be greater than what the Bears got out of Dion Sims and Zach Miller last year. Taylor Gabriel, a shifty slot receiver, who had a down 2017 after a breakout 2016, immediately upgrades the Bears on the interior and becomes a chess piece that can move all over the formation. Rookie Anthony Miller, a player I had a first-round grade on, is a tremendous route runner who could find himself getting more playing time than your typical rookie receiver.

This isn’t even mentioning Pro Bowl workhorse running back Jordan Howard, diminutive and explosive second-year man Tarik Cohen, and the enigmatic wide receiver Kevin White who hasn’t managed to stay healthy, all of whom could have their play enhanced by a coach that knows how to get the best of their skills.

So while Robinson may be effective, his numbers may be down due to sharing the wealth with the new cast of characters. But in reality, the most important unknown variable may be…

The Still Developing Franchise Quarterback

Robinson has seen this story before.

This isn’t the first time Robinson has played with a highly-touted second-year quarterback. And it just so happened to be in Blake Bortles’ second year that Robinson had his own breakout.

The weight of the world is on Mitch Trubisky’s shoulders for an organization that has struggled for so long to find the long-term answer at quarterback. We’re not talking a Jay Cutler-type solution either. We’re talking quarterback that can win games himself and take a team to the Super Bowl.

The rapport developed between coach and quarterback is important as a system is installed and the continuity between head man and signal-caller needs to get filtered down to the huddle between Trubisky and his teammates. Trubisky flashed at points in 2017, especially near the end of the season, but this offseason the Bears made every move with the hope they are building their young player up for success.

What Robinson gives Trubisky is a dependable veteran he can look to when he needs to. But Trubisky’s success depends on Robinson not becoming a crutch. Smart offenses beat smart defenses by creating confusion and executing the plans designed. If Trubisky relies too often on Robinson, defenses will adjust to that and we don’t know yet if Robinson is capable of being a dominant player that makes any defensive adjustments irrelevant. Spreading the ball around is vital in Nagy’s offense. If Trubisky can do that, Robinson will still get his. And if Trubisky makes the same jump in Year Two that Carson Wentz and Jared Goff made, Robinson may be a large reason for it.

What to Expect

The positivity present in most people’s hearts (not on Twitter) believe Robinson will revert back to his glorious 2015 form when he asserted himself as one of the up-and-coming receivers in the league. Early indications from Bears camp make it seem like Robinson is back to his pre-injury self.

Based on the aforementioned variables and my own perception of what may happen, I expect Robinson to be a weapon for the Bears, but not put up the same numbers he did in 2015. If the Bears win more games and their young core shows progress, Robinson’s statistics will be irrelevant.

But let’s be honest. Until the real games start, no one knows a thing.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and find his other work here, including a comparison of modern Super Bowl teamsthe best playoff QBs in recent memory, and his evidence to the contrary on Bills QB Josh Allen.

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