Thirteen months ago, the Los Angeles Rams signed Allen Robinson to a three-year, $46.5 million deal. The move was near-universally praised, with Los Angeles adding one of the most underappreciated receivers in the NFL. A true difference maker and a contested catch specialist to contrast with the speed already on their receiving corps, the idea of linking Robinson with a quarterback who wasn’t Justin Fields, Mitchell Trubisky or Blake Bortles was tantalizing, to say the least.
On Wednesday, the Rams traded Robinson to the Pittsburgh Steelers, eating $21.5 million in dead money in the process. That brings them up to $74.2 million in dead cap, just barely second behind the Buccaneers. It’s a good thing Lombardi Trophies are ever-so-shiny, as all the money shunted into the future is piling up for two of our previous three world champions.
To say the Steelers got Robinson for a song is an understatement. They give up pick 234 and get pick 251 in return alongside Robinson, and Los Angeles is picking up $10.25 million of Robinson’s salary. Essentially, the Steelers saw the Rams about to toss Robinson in the dumpster, and asked if they could get first dibs on trying to upcycle the once-coveted receiver. The Rams get to jump up 17 slots and save $5 million in dead money; not a terrible return for a player they were about to let go for free.
Make no mistake, last year destroyed a lot of the myth surrounding Robinson. For years, Robinson was generally grouped with the top receivers in the game, despite not having the on-field production to match that reputation. Robinson hasn’t put up a receiving DVOA above 1.4% since 2015, his second year in the league. That was also his only season in the top 20 in DYAR; from an advanced stats perception, Robinson is a one-year wonder. But film guys disagreed with that, and strongly – up through 2020, Robinson routinely put up PFF grades in the upper 70s and 80s. The quarterbacks who have thrown Robinson the most passes are Blake Bortles, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. Give him an actual NFL-caliber starting quarterback, the argument went, and you’d see Robinson blossom once more.
Instead, Robinson was a disastrous fit. He struggled to gain any separation, with his 2.1 yards of space being fourth-fewest in the league last season. That doesn’t mean he never got open – per ESPN, Robinson actually got open more than any other Rams receiver last season. But even then, he simply wasn’t in the same page as Matthew Stafford, only averaging 3.3 targets per game. A possible result of Sean McVay’s insitance on not playing starters in preseason, preventing new starters from developing chemistry in game situations? A result of the Rams’ offensive line instantly imploding, throwing all offensive ideas out of whack? There are explanations to be had, for sure, though it feels like that’s giving Robinson too much benefit of the doubt after two poor seasons in two different cities. It’s very telling that the Rams were willing to give him away for essentially no return, with Van Jefferson or Tutu Atwell being penciled in as his replacement.
Which brings us back to the Steelers. They’re not taking any sort of serious risk by bringing Robinson in. He’s penciled in as the starting slot receiver between Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, but his contract isn’t so onerous that they can’t cut bait if someone else emerges. This is a no-risk move, with the potential reward of finding that receiver who once terrorized cornerbacks and had film junkies salivating over what he could do if he was only unleashed. Is Kenny Pickett the one to do that? I would bet rather heavily against it. But there’s very little risk in at least kicking the tires, even as Robinson turns 30.
I went back through history to find cases similar to Robinson – players who had a 1,000-yard season in their 20s, then had multiple consecutive sub-1,000 yard seasons before bouncing back with another 1,000 yard campaign in their 30s. There are 33 such cases in NFL history, with six occurring in the past 10 years – Anquan Boldin in 2013; Larry Fitzgerald in 2015; Mike Wallace, Pierre Garcon and Julian Edelman in 2016, and then Edelman again in 2019. It’s certainly not unheard of, at any rate.
But not all these cases are made equal. Boldin, for instance, was coming off of 800- and 900-yard seasons before moving to San Francisco and a new offense. That’s a far cry from Robinson’s 749 combined yards in 2020 and 2021! Instead, let’s look at the five receivers with the fewest receiving yards in the two years leading up to their 1,000+ campaigns in their 30s and see if we can find any realistic model for a Robinson rebound.
Conway was injured 1997, struggled through some a bad quarterback season in 1998, and was injured and struggled through a bad quarterback season in 1999. The Chicago Bears have never changed, folks. The Bears felt Conway had become expendable thanks to the emergence of Marcus Robinson and Bobby Engram, and let him leave in free agency and go to San Diego. Conway immediately saw better numbers, despite downgrading at quarterback to Ryan Leaf in 2000. With Leaf kicked out in favor of Doug Flutie in 2001, Conway found his way back to 1,000 yards as San Diego’s lead receiver. He never hit that mark again, but managed two seasons with a receiving DVOA over 10% before age caught up with him.
That was the idea behind Robinson – get him away from a terrible quarterback situation in Chicago, give him a quarterback with the arm and accuracy to let him get stretched out and make plays, and watch the magic happen. If that didn’t happen with Stafford, it’s hard to see that happening with Pickett.
After starring for Seattle in the ‘90s, Galloway got into a contract dispute and was shipped off to Dallas. Dave Campo and the Cowboys gave him a deal making him the second-highest paid receiver in the league…and they got very, very little out of him. A torn ACL in 2000 set the tone, but even when healthy, Galloway was underwhelming for some very poor Dallas teams, never putting up a positive DVOA and catching fewer than half the balls thrown his way, poor numbers even for a deep ball specialist.
In 2004, Galloway was shipped out again as part of Bill Parcells’ housecleaning, leaving in a one-for-one trade to Tampa Bay for Keyshawn Johnson. He… immediately got hurt again, suffering a groin injury in his first game as a Buccaneer. But even in the half season he managed, he managed to put up the highest receiving DVOA of his career, form which led into three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. It turns out, Jon Gruden can design a better offense than Jack Reilly or Bruce Coslett; film at 11. It’s hard to argue the same for Robinson – leaving Sean McVay typically is not something that typically helps an offensive player’s chances. Still, it’s another example of a fresh start revitalizing a player who was a square peg in a round hole. A very, very injured square peg, but still.
Now we’re getting closer to Robinson’s yardage total, but the passing environment in the 1990s was far different than the passing environment in the 2020s. Lofton led the league in receiving DVOA with the Bills in 1990 at 31.2%, a key player and top deep threat in the up-tempo K-Gun offense that would lead to Buffalo dominating the AFC for the first half of the decade…and he ended up with just 35 catches for 712 yards. Teams threw for almost 25 yards fewer per game back then, and that adds up over the course of a season. Perhaps Robinson can arrange a trade to the 1990s; he’d probably clean up. As for Lofton, he ended up finishing first in VOA in back-to-back seasons, setting several records for oldest receiver to pass 1,000 yards and oldest receiver to have 200+ yards in a game.
It is another example of a change in venue helping out, with Lofton coming off of a couple poor seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders before getting to benefit from the K-Gun. In this case, though, it’s more a case of a receiver with still tangible, if aging, skills being sent to one of the most innovative offenses in the game more than anything else. It is difficult to see a Matt Canada offense climbing to those particular heights.
Probably shouldn’t count. Edelman missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL suffered in the preseason, and then missed four games in 2018 from a PED suspension. And in just 12 games, Edelman had more receiving yards than Robinson had in all of 2020 and 2021 combined. Yes, the late-era Brady Patriots were a wee bit better than the Bears and Rams offensives of the last two years, why do you ask?
That leaves just one player in NFL history who had less production than Robinson had over the last two years, and still bounced back to have a great season. And he did it in Pittsburgh, too!
Stallworth deserves an asterisk as well, because this includes the 1982 strike season. Stallworth made the Pro Bowl that year, albeit mostly on name recognition, with his 441 receiving yards finishing 32nd in the league. Stallworth then had an injury-riddled 1983, ending with just eight catches for 100 more yards. So it took a laundry list of injuries and a major strike, not to mention the lower passing volume of the 1980s, to find a receiver coming off of lower gross yardage than Robinson and still managing a 1,000 yard season in his 30s. And even at his peak, Robinson was no John Stallworth.
I think it’s fair to say that Robinson returning to anything approaching his prime form would be a massive surprise. And, to be fair, that’s not what Pittsburgh is banking on. If he bounces back to something approaching the 55-754-4 line he had in his first year in Chicago, the Steelers will take that for just $5 million. And it’s true that changes in scenery can sometimes have great impacts on a player’s situation; maybe Robinson won’t bounce back as much as Conway or Galloway did, but it’s worth seeing if he can work out in a new situation.
But it’s a far fall for a player who was considered a major piece in a championship puzzle just 13 months ago.