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Giants’ Wan’Dale Robinson shows why Joe Schoen surprisingly picked him

Robinson had a breakout game against the Packers

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants
Wan’Dale Robinson
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Frustrated New York Giants fans have loved to rag on Joe Schoen’s draft picks. Kayvon Thibodeaux was a constant magnet for criticism and still hasn’t convinced some fans by posting 11.5 sacks through 13 games. Evan Neal has the heat on after a disastrous rookie season and a follow-up marred by equally poor performance and injury. This season, Deonte Banks has had his moments but also drew fans’ ire compared to Joey Porter Jr., who was on the board when the Giants took Banks.

Still, perhaps no draftee has taken more barbs from Giants fans than Wan’Dale Robinson. The No. 43 overall pick in 2022 was a shock when the Giants made it, as Robinson was projected to go in the third or fourth round by most pundits. His torn ACL midway through the season gave fans more ammunition. The anger reached a fever pitch when George Pickens, selected after Robinson by the Steelers, posted 52 catches for 801 yards and four touchdowns last season.

This year, Robinson continues to endure negative buzz from Giants fans. After returning from his injury in Week 3, he has largely been a disappointment, posting 36 catches for 265 yards in 10 games from Weeks 3-13.

Against the Packers, though, Robinson reminded Giants fans of his final game in 2022 against Detroit. That’s why Schoen picked him. This is why Schoen picked him. Robinson has endured some of the struggles that tend to dog players after a torn ACL, coupled with the Giants’ lackluster passing game. Still, he showed what he could be against Green Bay.

It’s not just a one-time blip, either — even if it ends up looking that way on the stat sheet in the coming weeks.

Underutilized slot receiver

Even after his 13.2 yards per reception in Week 13, Robinson still averages 8.2 yards per reception for the season. That ranks last out of 65 qualified receivers (min. 50 targets). Still, he’s played the second-highest slot rate in the NFL, and he has the lowest average depth of target (ADOT, 4.7) of any of those receivers. Tyler Boyd of the Bengals seems to be a good comparison; he averages 9.2 yards per reception on a 6.9 ADOT. Robinson’s 45.2% first down rate is also higher than Boyd’s (38.6%).

In other words, the Giants utilize Robinson as a short-area slot receiver more than virtually any other team in the NFL uses its most frequent slot receiver. Accordingly, Robinson’s per-catch numbers are going to be on the shorter end.

Furthermore, the Giants simply do not target Robinson very often. He ranks 45th with a 19.3% target rate. Robinson hasn’t had much of an opportunity to gain the volume that most slot receivers will. The Giants’ only other qualified receiver, Darius Slayton, has a 12.9% target rate, the lowest among qualifiers. Isaiah Hodgins and Jalin Hyatt, both not qualified, are at 12.4% and 11%, respectively. In other words, the Giants just don’t target any of their receivers that often.

ESPN Analytics charts Robinson as the 23rd-best receiver at getting open out of 94 receivers (min. 30 targets). Although their tracking can produce some wonky results, this backs up the idea that Robinson’s lack of targets is not because he can’t get open.

Good hands this season

Given his short depth of target, Robinson unsurprisingly has the second-highest catch rate among receivers at 82.4%. Still, it’s impressive that he has only one drop on the season at a 2.3% rate, tied for seventh-best among receivers. That’s something he has struggled with in the past, as he had an 8% drop rate in 2022 and a rate of 6.8% and 6.9% in 2019 and 2021, worse than the 5.5% NFL average for qualified receivers.

Robinson is also excellent at catching contested balls, dating back to his college days. He’s caught four of five contested targets this season (80%) after catching four of eight (50%) in 2022. He also caught 18 of 27 (66.7%) of those targets in his three college seasons. Robinson doesn’t see many contested targets each season, but he’s proven that he can catch them at an above-average rate.

Plus receiver overall

ESPN Analytics ranks Robinson the 20th-best receiver out of 94 qualifiers (min. 30 targets) with a 63 overall score. While Pro Football Focus is less sanguine, ranking him 61st out of those same 94 receivers with a 65.8 overall grade, that likely shows the difference between process and results. PFF tends to ignore plays on which a receiver is not targeted, whereas ESPN includes them.

Additionally, Robinson’s 101.3 targeted passer rating ranks 23rd out of 65 receivers with at least 50 targets despite scoring only one touchdown. No receiver ahead of him has fewer than three touchdowns, and 15 of them have at least six. Touchdowns usually have a disproportionate effect on passer rating (as do interceptions in the negative sense). Robinson is making the most out of his receptions due to his high catch rate.

It’s fair to conclude from this data that Robinson could be a more productive receiver if targeted more often. For example, Adam Thielen, playing with the struggling Bryce Young, has 85 receptions for 827 yards (9.7 yards per reception) while playing 71% of his snaps in the slot. He’s simply run double the routes (515 vs. 264), been targeted at a higher rate (21.7%, ranking 28th vs. Robinson’s 45th), and had nearly double the ADOT (8.0 vs. Robinson’s 4.7).

In fact, Thielen and Robinson have a very similar ESPN open score (63 vs. 65) and both have a below-average YAC score (34 vs. 41). Thielen’s 86 hands score is far better than Robinson’s 65, but they have similar catch rates (82.4% vs. 75.9%) and the same drop rate (2.3%). PFF has Thielen graded far better at 74.9, but statistically, that seems to be purely a function of results (many targets) vs. process (getting open and catching the ball when targeted).

Would Giants fans complain if Robinson was fed the ball like Thielen and put up similar production? There would likely be some who call him a compiler, but it would be a minority.

How the Packers game showed this

Statistically, Robinson’s game against Green Bay was by far his best of the year. He posted six catches on seven targets for 79 yards, including a critical 32-yard reception to set the Giants up for Randy Bullock’s game-winning field goal. Robinson added two carries for 36 yards for his first 100-yard game of the season.

The biggest difference between this game and the others was that Robinson was finally targeted somewhat more downfield. Although his ADOT was still on the shorter side (10.0), it was more than double his season average.

Moreover, heading into Week 14, Robinson had just one target all season that was more than 10 yards downfield (an 11-yard incompletion against San Francisco in his first game back). Against the Packers, four of Robinson’s seven targets were more than 10 yards downfield, including one of 25 air yards.

Robinson can do only as much as he’s given to work with. If the Giants run him on screens and five-yard outs all the time, that’s what his production will look like, too. The Packers game proved that Robinson can be more than that. It came against a good pass defense, too; Green Bay gives up the eighth-fewest passing yards per game in the NFL. Still, Robinson is a more than capable slot receiver who can find different ways to get open. His pedestrian Relative Athletic Score (7.36/10.00) notwithstanding, he has the short-area speed and quickness to win on his routes.

Robinson’s YAC ability will likely improve as more time passes post-ACL tear. He averaged 5.5 YAC per reception in 2022, which would have ranked in the 83rd percentile among receivers if he had qualified. In 2023, though, his 4.0 YAC per reception is down to the 45th percentile, which limits his ceiling with such a low ADOT. He averaged 6.5 YAC per reception in college and was never below 5.1 in his three seasons, so it is reasonable to expect that skill to return.

Film review

Watching Robinson’s route distribution against the Packers was interesting. Despite some deeper targets, most of his routes remained within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. When he’s lined up outside, he’s often just standing there for a receiver screen or a checkdown, sometimes as a decoy. This is typical of his usage all season.

Still, he showcased his route-running skills in this game.

This was the one target Robinson didn’t catch, but it was through no fault of his own. He ran a great route, first stemming heavily inside, then cutting upfield before breaking sharply outside. Tommy DeVito stared down Robinson the whole way, allowing the flat defender to get depth and making the throw more difficult; had he glanced toward the flat before making an anticipatory throw, this could have gained nearly 20 yards. Instead, DeVito threw it late and out of bounds, giving Robinson no shot.

The play that won the Giants the game was similar to the previous one. Lined up in the slot, Robinson faces a man defender with heavy outside leverage, but he’s running an out-breaking route. Therefore, he stems the defender inside, including a quick cut in that direction. The defender bites, but Robinson still doesn’t cut outside too quickly to allow the defender to recover. Rather, he takes another step upfield and then breaks outside, creating clear separation en route to a 32-yard catch and run.

Robinson also made two excellent catches in the game, one where he kept his eye on the ball and attacked it over the defender and the other while tiptoeing the sideline. (He got away with an illegal motion on the latter play, but if it wasn’t called, it didn’t happen.)

There were other plays where Robinson created separation but was not targeted. The film shows exactly why he has an above-average ESPN open score. Robinson can easily be that slot receiver with heavy volume who gains the first downs when needed.

Furthermore, given the type of routes Robinson runs, he does not have extensive opportunities for YAC. If he’s running a screen, he’s often at the mercy of the blocking in front of him, which is usually not very good. Five-yard out routes and three-yard sit routes are not exactly conducive to YAC. The Giants seem reluctant to send him on deeper routes except if he’s clearing out for a different route. Still, he demonstrated in the two plays above that he is capable of winning in the intermediate area of the field.

Robinson can be the Giants’ starting slot receiver

This is not just hype after one game. I’ve always liked Robinson. I remember what he did in that Detroit game last year. He’s quick and shifty, he knows what he’s doing as a route runner, and he can surprise you with his ability to make tough catches. He reminds me of some of the Patriots’ receivers during the Tom Brady era, especially Julian Edelman (5-foot-10, 198) and Wes Welker (5-foot-9, 185).

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, especially given that Robinson’s overall numbers on the season are pedestrian. However, he headlines the list of Giants offensive players whose production has been depressed by a lackluster passing offense. They should utilize him more aggressively down the stretch. If DeVito targets Robinson when he’s open, he’ll be able to stack several more games like this one and make his case for Giants fans.