For any rookie their first NFL playbook is intimidating.
For Wan’Dale Robinson, the Giants’ second-round pick whose versatility allows him to line up just about anywhere on the field on any given snap, those plays could easily become an overwhelming tangle of ideas and concepts. Figuring out where he is supposed to be, where he is supposed to go, and how he is supposed to get there – all of which is different each time he is on the field – can be a lot to comprehend.
So how are the Giants easing him into this complicated quagmire of information?
“You don't,” head coach Brian Daboll said this week. “You throw a lot at him.”
All of which is fine with Robinson, who through his first month on the field with his new team has already displayed the kind of acumen and ability that spurred the Giants to draft him in the first place. Whether they have him running deep routes on the outside, slants from the slot, wheel routes from the backfield, or taking handoffs from any of those starting points, the Giants have yet to find anything that can baffle Robinson.
“For me it’s nothing new,” Robinson told Newsday. “Going into my freshman year (at Nebraska) I had to learn to play running back and receiver at the same time as a 17-year-old kid. Then even going back to Kentucky (last season) I had to learn two positions as well. This isn’t anything new to me having to learn a lot of new positions. It’s something I really wanted to do. The more that I can learn, the more I can do.”
In his three years in college, Robinson had nearly as many carries (141) as receptions (185) and last year at Kentucky he gained more yards per handoff (15.9) than he did when the ball was thrown to him (12.8).
Doing that on the pro level is very different but Daboll said he had no doubt Robinson would be able to digest his various tasks. It was part of the evaluation process for this draft with coaches inundating prospects with information to see who could handle it all and who came up short.
“He can handle it, he's smart,” Daboll said of Robinson. “We place a high premium on intelligent players. He's certainly one of them.”
At 5-8 and 185 pounds, he’ll have to be to survive in the NFL.
“He’ll be unique,” Giants wide receiver coach Mike Groh said. “I’ve worked more with your bigger size guys but his skill set really fits in with what we do here. There are a bunch of different ways to get open, different body types, shapes and sizes. As long as you can get the separation and you have the ability to get open and present that to the quarterback, you have a chance to be really productive.”
Robinson showed that in a practice last week when he made a leaping catch through a defender to snag a touchdown pass from Daniel Jones. It was the kind of tough, athletic, nothing-will-stand-in-my-way grab that retired All-Pro Steve Smith Sr., the patron saint of small receivers, used to make for the Panthers when Robinson was growing up.
“Being that smaller guy, as I was growing up as a kid, you see (big) receivers in the NFL and to actually see somebody who is like you it shows that you can go out there and do it,” Robinson said of Smith’s impact on him. “Then it’s just taking that mentality of how nobody can really stop me whenever I’m out there on the field.”
As if to reinforce the flash of similarity, Smith was attending practice that day, filming a segment for a future broadcast. He pulled Robinson aside shortly after the catch.
“I got to talk to Steve quite a bit,” Robinson said. “He worked with me a little bit on some receiver stuff and I got to talk to him about being a smaller guy and the transition into the NFL.”
Smith’s advice to Robinson: “He said make sure you use your hands and don’t let them touch you. As smaller guys, we have to make sure we are physical whenever we have to be.”
Smith isn’t the only receiver Robinson has taken cues from. As he has been learning the playbook he’s found himself picking up tips from watching how Daboll and the Bills used Cole Beasley and how offensive coordinator Mike Kafka used Tyreek Hill in Kansas City.
“But at the end of the day I just want to be myself and make my own game,” Robinson said.
That’s what the Giants want, too. And just as the staff is pushing Robinson’s capacity to grasp the playbook, he is pushing their creativity in coming up with new ways to use him. Whenever a new play is installed, the first thing Robinson has to do is find out where number 17 is supposed to line up.
Inside? Outside? Backfield? Somewhere else?
“I’ve had to play just about every position on offense, so wherever they want to put me I’m more than happy to be there,” he said. “We’re gonna play all over the field, be a real versatile guy, and do a lot of different things on offense to help us win games.”
The coaches have yet to stump him on any of it.
“I’m never surprised by where I’ll be,” Robinson said. “I’ve never been surprised in my whole life.”