ROCKFORD — From his living room in Rockford, James Robinson sat through the entire NFL draft from Thursday through Saturday without hearing his name called, despite being considered a possible third-round pick by some experts.
But not getting drafted — at least not getting drafted late — could end up being a blessing in disguise for Robinson, who on Saturday night got to choose which NFL team he would attempt to play for, signing a priority free-agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Sometimes they say it’s better to not get drafted," Robinson’s former head coach at Illinois State, Brock Spack, said on Monday. Spack was a former linebacker at Rockford East and then Purdue. "If you’re going to go after the fifth, sixth round, it’s better, because you can really pick your situation. It’s more like recruiting in high school.
"And then it drives the price up, when you’re a coveted free agent. And James’ price, I’m sure, was pretty high."
Robinson, who agreed to the terms of the three-year contract with the Jaguars on Sunday, did not return phone calls on Monday. But last week he said: "It’s huge if you get to go to the right team," and not getting drafted may have allowed that to happen for the former Lutheran and ISU star, and the IHSA’s all-time leading rusher. On Sunday, Robinson said "they seemed like a great fit."
"They just didn’t have as much of a chance to see him," Spack said of NFL scouts. "But I think James got a good deal."
The coronavirus pandemic, and subsequent lockdown and stay-at-home orders, forced prospects to hit the draft without the advantage of having a pro day to show off their skills one last time to the NFL scouts. That hurt Robinson, and could have been one of the reasons he wasn’t selected by a team during the seven-round, 255-player draft.
"His 40-yard dash was average, and that’s been the knock on him," Spack said of Robinson’s 4.64 time in Indianapolis at the combine. He has run several times before and since in the 4.5s. "I think he’s faster than that... He was going to rerun that test at our pro day and then our pro day got canceled."
Robinson was a first-team AP All-American his senior year, finishing his career at ISU with 4,444 yards and 44 TDs after setting the IHSA’s all-time rushing record at Lutheran. He did get to use the spotlight of the FCS playoffs, the East-West Shrine Bowl and the rest of the NFL combine activities to raise his stock, but he just couldn’t finish the job when the pro days were all canceled due to the spread of COVID-19.
He had a school-record 297 yards against Southeast Missouri in the first round of this year’s playoffs; he then set a Shrine Bowl record with a 63-yard touchdown run; and he stepped up in areas like the bench press (24 reps at 225 pounds was third best among all running backs) and vertical leap (4 inches, second best among all running backs) at the NFL combine.
Why it’s a good deal
And while all his hard work did not get him drafted, Robinson ended up right where he wanted to be — on a team that coveted him, and that needs running back help.
The Jaguars, who did not draft a running back this year, have been publicly trying to trade starting running back Leonard Fournette most of this offseason. And Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, was the only running back on the Jags’ roster with more than 110 rushing yards last season.
Jacksonville’s No. 2 rusher last year was quarterback Gardner Minshew.
The Jaguars had been in contact with Robinson several times throughout the process, and called him one more time on Saturday to bring him on board.
And while most teams will hold virtual rookie camps over the next couple of weeks, Robinson will look to start to build his niche right away.
There’s at least one coach out there that believes he can grow into a great NFL player.
"He’s so sudden and so explosive, I think he’s going to make it," Spack said. "I think he’ll be a role player for awhile, but then I think he can make himself into a star."
Jay Taft: @email@example.com; @JayTaft