The Ascension of Rashard Robinson

“With the 133rd pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select: Rashard Robinson, defensive back LSU”

The words played over the speakers as J.J. Stokes announced the pick, a childhood dream coming true. Rashard Robinson was officially an NFL player. The journey wasn’t the most ideal, but he made it. The 20-year old corner, born and raised in Pompano Beach, Florida was going to Santa Clara to live out his dream as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. This isn’t the beginning of his story, though, this was only a chapter. Let’s take you back a little ways, back to where Reggie and Carolyn, Rashard’s parents, went to high school, Blanche Ely High.

Blanche Ely, home of the Tigers, was a common ground in the Robinson household. Producing names such as Al Harris and Tyrone Carter. Reggie and Carolyn both played sports there, and Reggie even went on to play in the Arena Football League for four years. “Rashard inherited his knowledge from his mom and his talent from his dad.” Charles Hafley Jr., Rahard’s high school football coach, said when we discussed Robinson’s high school career.

“Rashard was a great player, but even a better leader and teammate.”

It was here where Rashard would make a name for himself. It is here that he would be labeled a four-star recruit. Rashard picked up ten scholarship offers which included teams such as, Florida State, Miami, Florida, Syracuse, Oklahoma, LSU (et al). One team stood out among the rest, and not because of producing great talent at the defensive back position, but because he shared a mutual connection to another former Blanche Ely graduate, Arizona Cardinals cornerback, Patrick Peterson. This was one of the reasons Rashard picked LSU over the rest.

Robinson immediately bursted onto the scene at LSU as a true freshman, playing in seven games and recording one interception.That year, Robinson faced up against then Texas A&M wide receiver, Mike Evans, holding him to four receptions for 51 yards. In this game, he recorded his lone interception and started generating well deserved buzz. Mike Detillier, LSU’s radio host, told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle that coaches we’re telling him that Robinson is the best defensive back on the team, and that he “got the goods”.

In Rashard’s second season at LSU, though, things started to unravel. He was suspended for the 2014 season opener for failing a drug test, after that, he was suspended for failing to meet academic requirements. He only started in six games that year. He tried to re-enroll at LSU, but was arrested June 12th for unauthorized entry of LSU quarterback, Anthony Jennings, and was kicked off the team. It would later be determined that there was insufficient evidence to convict Robinson.

He spent the 2015 season at Broward College, but did not play football.

Could it be that this would be the end for one of the most talented cover cornerbacks that LSU had seen since Patrick Peterson? That wasn’t in Robinson’s nature. He bet on himself. He knew his path to the NFL would not be an easy one, but he would make it count. Robinson declared for the NFL draft, he would partake in interviews, workouts, and ultimately, the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

During weigh-ins, Robinson came in at 6’1”, 171 pounds. A slender build for a defensive back that would be asked to press more physical wide receivers in the NFL. Lance Zierlein of wrote about Robinson saying, “He might look like he skipped leg day for several years…” To make matters worse, his vertical jump came in the 45th percentile amongst corner backs, his broad jump in the 48th percentile, his 40 yard dash in the 51st, and 10 yard split in the 13th. If Rashard was going to make it in the NFL, it would have to come strictly from interviews and from tape. The question had to linger, who would take a chance on him when there were questions surrounding his off the field “issues”?

That team was the San Francisco 49ers at the tail end of the 4th round, with the 133rd pick.

There were 19 cornerbacks taken before Rashard, and now the 20-year old from Pompano Beach finally had his shot to prove that he deserved to be taken higher than he was drafted.

The 49ers' former GM, Trent Baalke, said of Robinson. “We had him rated very, very high on our board as a talent… I think one reason guys slip is because of decisions they make along the way. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn from them”.

As soon as he stepped on the field, Rashard’s presence was known. He brought confidence, “swagger” and craftiness. In fact, during OTAs, he got into a scuffle with a nine-year veteran receiver, Jerome Simpson. Robinson was facing a uphill battle to get playing time in 2016. He battled with Tramaine Brock, Kenneth Acker, Dontae Johnson, Jimmie Ward, and Keith Reaser for play time. However, as time went by, his talent became obvious. As the hype surrounding him grew, you would often hear Rashard tell media “I just got to stay hungry and humble.”

Preseason came and went, and one player stood out amongst the rest, Robinson. Only thirteen passes were thrown his way during the four game stretch, only seven of them were completed netting fifty-eight yards. He didn’t allow a touchdown, came down with one interception and broke up two other passes. Alas, when the week one depth chart came out, Robinson found himself sitting behind Dontae Johnson, Chris Davis, Keith Reaser, Jimmie Ward and Tramaine Brock, in his fight for playing time.

Three weeks went by to start the NFL season, and Rashard did not see the field. Opportunity arose though, when 49ers cornerback, Jimmie Ward, suffered a quadriceps strain. Robinson would then start in his first NFL game, at home versus the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys were rolling out a preseason stud at quarterback who seemed like the future of the franchise, Dak Prescott, who was taken just two picks after Robinson in the 4th round. The 49ers lost the game, however, whenever Prescott targeted Robinson, he had a QB rating of 47.9.

Once Robinson was given this opportunity, he was not going to give it away. Leading up to the bye week, and just before Jimmie Ward was supposed to return from his injury, Rashard was leading the NFL in the fewest yards per coverage snap with 0.33. According to Pro Football Focus, “In 94 snaps, he’s been targeted nine times and allowed a grand total of 31 yards on four receptions. Those numbers are out of this world for a first-year DB. He finally moved into a starting role the past two weeks, and has shown no signs of slowing down.” He did not slow down. During his rookie campaign, he was fourth in the NFL in lowest percentage catches allowed with only 50%, he was the 3rd best NFC West corner in most coverage snaps player per reception allowed with 13.2, trailing only Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, this was also the best among all rookie cornerbacks.

However, this isn’t how it would all end for Robinson. He needed to seal the deal for what he means to the 49ers organization, what he brings to the field week in and week out. That time came the very last week of the 2016 year against the Los Angeles Rams.

Moments left in the game, with the Rams marching down the field, threatening the 49ers. Rashard trusted his instincts and jumped a pass from first overall pick, Jared Goff, to come down with his first interception in the NFL, but also the one that would save the game.

That was it.

Close the curtain.

End scene.

After all, Rashard is a student of the game. Dating back to high school, studying film, always wanting to be the best, always wanting to improve. This is the player Rashard is. A competitor. The twenty-one year old from Pompano Beach, the player who didn’t always make grades, the player that was too skinny.

Entering year two, Rashard comes back to Santa Clara after spending time with his family, and working out at McNair park, as the unquestioned starter for the San Francisco 49ers. A new regime, some new faces, a new scheme, and now, a leader. The 49ers spent a third round pick in the 2017 draft on Ahkello Witherspoon, who will be Rashard’s understudy and potentially become the corner on the opposite side of the field. All the chess pieces are lined up for Rashard to succeed. From defensive linemen in Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Deforest Buckner, to linebackers in NaVorro Bowman and Reuben Foster. Robinson becomes one of the key cogs in this defense, and with him only being 22 when this next season hits, there is only one way for Rashard to go, and that is up. 19 corners went before him, and now, he gets to show why he should have been the first one while still remaining humble, and still remaining hungry.

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