MANKATO — When defensive back Antoine Winfield was released by the Minnesota Vikings in March, and later signed with the Seattle Seahawks, cornerback Josh Robinson was one of many Vikings jarred by the decision.
“He’s special, definitely,” Robinson said. “Very talented, in not just his tackling ability, but just playing smart. So, yeah, it was sad to see Antoine go.”
The Vikings often use the mantra: “Next man up.” And Robinson is the man the team hopes can fill Winfield’s big void in the vital nickel back slot.
“I don’t really control any of that,” Robinson said of his new role. “When I was told, I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ I’m going to give it my best. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
The second-year cornerback from Central Florida is coming off an impressive rookie season. Robinson lined up for 667 snaps in 16 games, started six games and caught two interceptions.
This season, Robinson is set to replace Winfield, a popular teammate and one of the league’s steadiest defensive backs for more than a decade. Though they only played one season together, Robinson says he was influenced by the lead-by-example cornerback.
“Antoine doesn’t say much,” Robinson, 22, said, “but he when he does say something, you key-in and listen. And I made sure to listen.”
Robinson is certainly not lacking in speed. He was drafted in the third round in 2012 after running the fastest 40-yard dash at the rookie combine — 4.33 seconds. But he has played on the outside virtually his entire football career, and grasping the subtleties of the inside nickel-corner position poses complex challenges, even for a veteran.
“The nickel spot is a different animal,” Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “It requires a big skill set. We know there’s a learning curve, but he has handled it well. He’s going to make mistakes — everybody does when you’re new to a position — but I feel good about how he’s picking things up.”
Once used mainly as a situational position for obvious passing formations, nickel backs have increased in importance in recent years, with more NFL teams employing four-receiver sets.
“Any way I can help the team,” Robinson said, “I want to do that. I worked really hard (this offseason), and I’m going to try to key-in on mistakes I made last year, and make sure I don’t make them again this season.”
“I think he’s really growing into the position,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said earlier in training camp. “We were talking about that; we’re much more confident with him today than we were, say, three or four days ago when we opened camp. So we just have to keep on putting him in situations, because this is all new for him, and let him gain experience.”
Robinson’s first test arrives tonight, when the Vikings begin their preseason schedule at home against the Houston Texans.
“The practices, along with the preseason games, are going to be big for him,” Frazier said. “We need that position to play well for us, because you’re on the field as much as our starters are, and he’s making progress.”
Repetition in game-speed time, especially for a relative newcomer like Robinson, is crucial to success at the position, Williams says.
“He just needs the reps,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how tough that position is. That is a position that you have to fit like a safety or a linebacker in the box, and you have to cover like a corner when you’re on a wide receiver. That’s a position unlike other ones, when you can just maybe get by being talented...From what I have seen, we are very, very encouraged at him playing in that spot.”