RENTON, WA - Incoming NFL rookies were dealt a terrible hand this offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, unable to participate in OTAs or minicamps during the spring and losing invaluable reps with preseason games canceled in August.
Instead, these rookies learned playbooks and developed relationships with their new teammates through a virtual Zoom offseason program. After less than a month of actual on-field practices in training camp, they were thrown into the fire in Week 1 without any prior NFL game experience.
Given these unique circumstances, the Seahawks haven't relied much on rookies through the first two games of the season. With the exception of Damien Lewis excelling as a starter at right guard and Freddie Swain pitching in with a few catches and a special teams fumble recovery, first-year players have been non-factors during the team's 2-0 start.
But as Seattle prepares to face a high-powered Dallas squad at CenturyLink Field, this needs to change, at least for one specific player. After inexplicably being a healthy scratch each of the past two weeks, injuries and poor production will finally force the team to see what they have in defensive end Alton Robinson.
Selected out of Syracuse in the fifth round of April's draft, Robinson fell in the draft in large part due to a disappointing senior season with diminished production. After breaking out with 10.0 sacks as a junior, he only recorded 4.0 sacks in his final season with the Orange and also saw his tackles for loss decline from 17 to nine.
However, there was never a question about Robinson's physical tools and he put his athleticism on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Weighing in at 264 pounds, he finished third among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash (4.69 seconds), finished second in the vertical jump (35 1/2 inches), and finished fourth in the 3-cone drill (7.32 seconds).
Considering his size and skill set, coach Pete Carroll was surprised the "classic edge" was available midway through day three of the draft and expected him to be long gone by the fifth round. With him still on the board, the Seahawks quickly pounced with the 148th selection to add him to the fold.
“I was really fired up that we were able to get Alton where we got him because he’s got the ability and the production to do things that guys got picked quite a bit higher," Carroll said following the draft.
One of the clear standouts from Seattle's training camp last month, Robinson impressed from the outset and didn't resemble a day three pick on the field. Reporting 10 pounds heavier than his college playing weight at Syracuse, the added muscle proved beneficial in the trenches and didn't diminish any of his athletic traits, allowing him to hold his own against veteran offensive linemen.
The additional weight also helped Robinson receive repetitions at both defensive end spots. Originally, Carroll and general manager John Schneider envisioned him exclusively playing the LEO spot, but he exhibited unexpected versatility by performing well at the base end spot as well.
"He's a real strong player, a natural rusher," Carroll said on Friday. "He's got a natural kind of package of moves he's comfortable with, speed to power and all that stuff."
Still, with only three intrasquad mock scrimmages to use as evaluation with the preseason schedule being axed by the NFL Players Association, Carroll and the Seahawks staff didn't have an opportunity to see how their rookie class would perform against other opponents. This had to play a role in choosing to deactivate players like Robinson and running back DeeJay Dallas, who each excelled on the practice field and drew raving reviews from teammates and coaches.
Now, Carroll and the Seahawks have no choice but to dress Robinson. After losing Bruce Irvin and Rasheem Green to injured reserve this week and registering just one sack from the defensive line through two games, it's well past time to give the talented rookie an extended look he rightfully earned in training camp.
Currently, Seattle has L.J. Collier, Damontre Moore, and Robinson as the only healthy defensive ends on the roster. Starting LEO Benson Mayowa did return to practice in a limited capacity on Friday and has a decent chance to play against the Cowboys, but at well below 100 percent, he's not going to be able to handle the same workload he's had during the first two games.
In Irvin's absence, first-round pick Jordyn Brooks will make his first NFL start and have a few opportunities to rush the passer off the edge. Newcomer D'Andre Walker could also factor in three weeks after being claimed off waivers from Tennessee.
But ultimately, Robinson will be the player with the most to prove and the most to gain this weekend. After wearing street clothes on the sideline the past two weeks, he will have a prime opportunity to play extensive snaps for Seattle at either end spot and provide a much-needed spark for a pass rush desperate for a play maker off the edge who can consistently harass opposing quarterbacks.
"He's worked hard to hold up his end of it. We're not hesitant to play him in any situation in the game," Carroll stated. "He's got the playbook and he's understanding it, so we're going in with confidence he'll do a good job."
With Irvin done for the season, Robinson shouldn't have to worry about being excluded on game day anymore. And if he's able to collapse the pocket and get a few hits on Dak Prescott on Sunday as Carroll and the Seahawks believe he can, he may have a chance to rapidly push his way into the starting lineup.