Replacing a legend is never easy. Many is the player who has cracked under the pressure of replacing a potential Hall of Famer. That is the daunting task Josh Robinson is facing this season.
If all goes as planned, Robinson is going to be the Vikings nickel cornerback, lining up in the slot to take away the short slant pass that can often lead to big gains if completed on time. That has been a position that was the primary domain of Antoine Winfield for the better part of the last decade.
Robinson knows it won't be easy, but he's prepared to take on the challenge and start writing his own chapters in the defensive history of the Vikings. The good news as he sees it is that the secondary on the Vikings, which has long been a sore spot on the roster, is coming into its own with a group of young corners led by himself, Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford, Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook.
"I think we're making a lot of improvements," Robinson said. "Coming in here last year, there were some questions about the secondary and whether we could hold up our end. We had some struggles, but everything seems to be kicked up a notch this year. There's a lot of energy and things are looking a lot better for all of us."
One of the Vikings' biggest problems last year was creating turnovers via the interception. The team had just 10 interceptions, which ranked near the bottom of the NFL and three of those came from Winfield, who is no longer with the team. Robinson was the only other cornerback with a pick (he had two) and the focus in training camp is for the cornerbacks and safeties to finish plays – pull in interceptions when they get their hands on the ball.
"Last year we didn't make a lot of big plays and that has to improve," Robinson said. "It wasn't like there weren't opportunities, but we just didn't make enough plays when we had to. We have a young group of guys and we're focused on creating more turnovers, and when we get the chance to get our hands on the ball to make good things happen."
With the drafting of Rhodes, the Vikings have two big, physical corners that can play the outside against the likes of Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. Last year, due to injuries, most of Robinson's playing time came because Winfield had to move to the outside by necessity, even though his natural position at this stage of his career is over the slot receiver as the nickel back. With Winfield gone, the perception is that Robinson will be the team's nickel corner, although he's willing to play anyplace there is an opening and/or a need.
"I see my position as wherever they put me," Robinson said. "I feel comfortable in the slot, but I feel like there's a lot of things I can do. I just want to execute and perform at the best of my ability. If that means playing in the slot, I'll do that to the best of my ability."
Robinson valued his apprenticeship under Winfield during his rookie season. He learned a lot by talking with the veteran corner and learned even more by simply watching how he approached his craft. While Winfield will be missed by his teammates, especially the young players in the defensive backfield, his wisdom and work ethic won't be forgotten.
"Antoine was a great role model and set a great example for a player like me," Robinson said. "It was great to just watch how he went about his business. When it was time to make plays, whether in the pass game or the run game, he always seemed to be in the right position to do it. He did his job well and was willing to give me and some of the other young guys pointers on how to improve our game. I'll always appreciate him for that."
With the Winfield era officially over in Minnesota, Robinson is looking to carve out his own place with the franchise and make a name for himself on his own merits. While he isn't making any lofty projections concerning interceptions or tackle numbers – what typified Winfield's greatness – he does have goals in mind. Most of them deal with team success, not individual numbers.
"I have my goals for me personally, but they're more about doing things that can help me minimize my mistakes and help our team win," Robinson said. "I just want to be out on the field and making plays. Other than that, my goals are based on how we do as a team. Any time you get an opportunity to showcase your abilities, you need to take advantage of it. Whether it's at corner or in the nickel, you have to try to be the best you can and step up to the plate. I'm looking at this year as my chance to step up to the plate and show that I can contribute to the team."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Robinson wants to ‘step up' with larger role
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