Monday, Nov. 1. Week 8 of the NFL season on national television against the Kansas City Chiefs. After missing roughly five months of work due to injury and with only a handful of practices under his belt, that is how rookie cornerback Aaron Robinson made his NFL debut for the New York Giants.
Robinson, the Giants’ third-round pick, got his feet wet by playing nine defensive snaps. He made one tackle. He ended up with a respectable 67.2 Pro Football Focus grade. There were a couple of plays, though, where it looked like Robinson was out of place or uncertain. Which, to be honest, is no real surprise.
“That first game you could see it, it was fast for him,” defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said this week.
Robinson admitted Thursday that the circumstances and the opponent had his head spinning a bit.
“Tough environment for sure against a great team. I went out there and kinda had to keep telling myself to calm down, just rely on myself and my keys and what was going on. It was pretty tough but I learned from it,” Robinson said. “Definitely was unusual. Definitely was fast, first game back against a team like that, but learned from it.”
Three weeks later, Robinson has one more game and a lot more practice under his belt. He gets another chance to face a great quarterback in the national spotlight when the Giants face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Does he feel fully back at this point, fully able to show the skill set that lead the Giants to trade up from No. 76 to No. 71 in the third round to get him?
“Pretty hard to say right now,” Robinson said. “Since returning for that first game I’ve just been working, trying to get on the same page with everyone, trying to be as comfortable and as calm as I can being out there with the guys so everything plays itself out.
“Still coming along, but it’s definitely getting better week by week.”
Henderson said simply “not right now” when asked if he thought Robinson was ready to fully showcase all of the reasons the Giants selected the 6-foot-1, 193-pound cornerback out of UCF.
“As he played every game since (Kansas City), every practice since he’s just starting to settle in more, feel a little more confident each week, but that’s still going to be a process moving forward, especially at the position he plays inside there,” Henderson said.
“When you’re that close to the ball and involved in so many things at what we call the STAR position. There’s a lot of moving parts in there. He’s learning and he’s growing. The thing you love about the kid is whatever he’s going to do he’s going to be tough, he’s going to do it fast and aggressive.”
In his pre-draft prospect profile of Robinson, Chris Pflum called him “a physical, aggressive, versatile, and athletic corner prospect with the ability to play multiple roles at the NFL level.”
In the 16 defensive snaps Robinson has played thus far, 12 have come in the slot, three have been lined up as an outside cornerback and he played a single snap in the box.
“You obviously love his skill set and his competitiveness. You put him in there and you just want to see that, nothing else. Even if you’re wrong, be wrong and aggressive and fast and explosive. That’s what he’s done,” Henderson said.
“He’s settling in and obviously played better since the Kansas City game. Again, we’re just excited to keep growing.”
It is, of course, unfortunate that the Giants did not get to work with Robinson on the field for such an extended amount of time.
Robinson told Big Blue View that he “kinda had a nagging issue” before his Pro Day. That, of course, was weeks prior to the draft.
“Didn’t think too much of it,” Robinson said. “As I came along it definitely bothered me.”
The Giants shut Robinson down after rookie mini-camp and he had what was diagnosed as a core muscle injury surgically repaired. He was on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and did not begin practicing until mid-October.
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is glad to have Robinson in the rotation.
“He’s been good. Mentally, (assistant defensive backs coach) Mike (Treier) and Jerome did a great job of working with him when he was injured,” Graham said. “You can see the growth, whether it’s the walkthroughs or just him with the extra meetings, but you can see the skillset on the field easily. I mean, the guy can run, he can tackle, he’s fast – run, fast, same thing – he’s got quickness and he’s smart, so you’re starting to see that.
“Again, he had to get comfortable. It’s hard, your first game you’re going against the best offense in the league the last four years of NFL seasons. So it’s hard, but I think he’s getting more and more comfortable. Again, that whole idea of getting comfortable with each other, once you insert another piece in there then everybody’s got to figure that out, too. He’s fitting in pretty good.”
Veteran defensive captain Logan Ryan has been impressed by Robinson.
“He’s done a great job. I think he’s improved week to week. We didn’t ease him back in, we threw him on there at Kansas City, got thrown in Monday night. You always remember your first game and he did some good things, did some bad things. He’s improving, getting much better,” Ryan said. “It’s different going out there, doing it with the group and kind of getting our chemistry. We have an experienced secondary that has a lot of nuance to why we do things, so just getting him caught up to speed. It’s going to take reps and time, but he’s good enough to be out there, that’s why he’s out there.”
The Giants have experience with this sort of slow build for a rookie defensive back, having gone through it last season when then-rookie Xavier McKinney missed more than half the season after fracturing his foot during training camp. By season’s end, McKinney had become a full-time player.
McKinney’s advice to Robinson?
“It’s really just letting it go and getting back out there, not even thinking about it, playing the game,” Robinson said.
Henderson said the Giants would like to see Robinson follow the McKinney template.
“We hope he would have that same progression,” Henderson said. “The kid’s a really serious kid, he’s a worker, he’s competitive, he’s tough and all those things. You just want to continue making him comfortable playing and understanding and giving him exposure to new things so that he can go be him.”
Monday night, Brady and the Bucs are sure to try and find out just how much progress Robinson has actually made.