Shoelaces are supposed to be tied.
They’re supposed to be knotted, even double-knotted, when Denard Robinson takes the field.
When Michigan coaches visited his Florida high school to recruit the lightning-fast quarterback, Robinson’s laces were dragging through the dirt. When Robinson broke free time and time again inside the Big House, his laces would flow behind in his wake, like Superman’s cape when he soared through the night sky.
Robinson doesn’t do things the way they’re supposed to be done, like giving up a life’s work at quarterback to enter the NFL draft as a wide receiver. So it was fitting that, on the shores of an NFL career, Robinson’s shoelaces were once again untied at the NFL Scouting combine.
But it left one question. Can an NFL wide receiver run his routes with his laces undone? Robinson’s out to prove he can.
“I played football all my life so I’ve got to get used to doing it,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of fun learning a new position and going out there and having fun playing it.”
Fun for Robinson maybe. Not for the scouts and teams debating whether or not to draft him.
The NFL has always been in the projection business, but that job gets infinitely tougher when a team doesn’t have anything on which to base its projections. Robinson, who set an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record with 4,495 rushing yards by a quarterback, caught three passes at Michigan. Three.
When he accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl as a wide receiver, his days as a quarterback were over and his career as a receiver was just beginning.
“The toughest part is the evaluation process,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “If you don’t see a player play that position, it’s all projection. And we’ve seen some guys who are able to do it.
“We saw a guy like (Antwaan) Randle El have tremendous success, but you saw Randle El in college play some receiver. Some of these guys are athletic quarterbacks who you don’t get to see as a receiver so you don’t know about his ball skills, you don’t know about his route running. That can be a concern for me when you get involved in the projection business.”
But Robinson and Randle El aren’t the only players who made the transition from one position to another after college. Buffalo’s Brad Smith was a quarterback at Missouri before becoming a running back. Matt Jones transitioned from quarterback at Arkansas to wide receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One former Cardinal made the switch in the NFL as a way to survive in the league.
Fred Wakefield played defensive end for the first three years of his career until former Cardinals coach Dennis Green asked him to move across the line to offensive tackle.
“When it comes to feeding your family, your mentality changes in a hurry,” Wakefield said in 2005.
While the straits aren’t as dire for Robinson, switching to receiver with a little kick returner sprinkled in meant he’d at least be drafted. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. predicts Robinson to be a second- or third-round pick.
From there, however, it’ll be up to the team to decide how to use him. He’s widely projected to be a slot receiver along with returning kicks and punts, and could see action as a third-down back – exactly the kind of multi-dimensional player Robinson wants to be.
“He’s the kind of player you have to have a plan for,” Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. “If you take him, you have to know what you’re going to do with him because he can do a lot of different things but you’ve got to really specify what his role’s going to be on your football team.
“I think he’s the ultimate sort of hybrid, Swiss-army-knife-type of player.”
The transition from a life of playing quarterback to a future as a wide receiver hasn’t been easy.
Robinson is still suffering from the lingering effects of a nerve injury to his right elbow, which has caused numbness in his right hand. He was at about 60 percent at the combine but was able to shake off a poor receiving performance at the Senior Bowl to bolster his potential.
But the hardest part of becoming a receiver has been learning the routes.
“You’ve got to know how to run routes, get out the breaks fast and attack the ball when the ball gets in the air,” Robinson said. “Those are the things you work on as a receiver.”
As his hand continues to heal, Robinson will continue to put in the work. He’s ready to buy into the idea of becoming an NFL wide receiver.
But are teams?
“A lot of people gamble, don’t you think?” Robinson asked. “I think I’d be a pretty sure bet. If a team takes a risk with me, I think it’s not a bad risk. I go 100 percent and I’m going to do whatever it takes to be the best at it.”