Working cheap: Patrick Robinson always intended to be Eagles' best bargain

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Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson runs with the football after a interception with teammate free safety Rodney McLeod against the Denver Broncos during the first-quarter on Sunday, November 5, 2017 in Philadelphia.

Patrick Robinson is playing the best football of his career, for the lowest salary he has ever earned, in eight NFL seasons.

Whose fault is this?

It’s Patrick Robinson’s fault, Robinson says.

“It feels great [to be playing so well], because I know what I can do. It’s never about the opponent with me. It’s all about me, what’s going on in my head. I’ve never had a problem with being fast enough, being athletic enough. That’s never been my problem,” Robinson said this week. And then he repeated: “As far as me, it’s all in my head.”

In fairness, it’s been in his body as well as his head. If Robinson plays all 16 games this season, it will be only the third time he has done so. An aggressive tackler at a tightly muscled 5-foot-11, 191 pounds, he has not earned a reputation for being durable.

Robinson, now 30, was the final pick in the first round for the then-Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in 2010 – the year before the rookie salary scale was introduced. He has played well enough to earn more than $18 million over his career. But not quite well enough to become essential to anyone, a pattern that could continue this offseason, given the Eagles’ salary-cap problems and their stable of young talent at cornerback.

Robinson played out his five-year, $9.4 million rookie deal in New Orleans, on a defense that deteriorated after the 2012 Bountygate scandal. San Diego offered him a year at $2 million in free agency, hardly shutdown-corner terms. Robinson took it and did a good job in 2015, as a nickel corner, something the Eagles referenced when they signed him last March. Robinson was good enough in San Diego to get three years and $13.5 million from the Colts in 2016, but when he was only healthy enough to play in seven games, his contract became one more albatross around the neck of soon-to-be-fired general manager Ryan Grigson, a former Eagles personnel exec.

Robinson hit the market again. This time the best he could get was a one-year, $775,000 contract from the Eagles – actually less than the $900,000 veteran minimum for someone with his level of experience, something permissible under a loophole designed to allow vets to remain competitive with younger, potentially cheaper players.

“As far as this being my eighth year, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve done a lot. I’ve been through all the plays – the great plays, the terrible plays,” Robinson said. “For me, it’s a lot easier [now] to see what I have to do to be successful.”

Did he envision being able to do what he has done with the 9-1 Eagles? Pro Football Focus currently rates him as the second-best corner in the league, with a 93.3 grade. Of course, the same entity judged the Eagles’ secondary as the NFL’s worst in the offseason, so PFF isn’t exactly the last word. But with Robinson, it does largely reflect what coaches, teammates and opponents have been saying. Robinson has been lights-out in the slot, doing so well there that he was starting outside, ahead of third-round rookie Rasul Douglas, the last few games before starter Ronald Darby returned Sunday from a dislocated ankle suffered in the opener. With Darby back, Robinson reclaimed the slot role from Douglas, who played only on special teams against Dallas.

“Oh yeah. Like I said, I’ve been through everything. So I was like, ‘OK, this is a year where I can show that I’m a great corner, I think, but I’m going to have to prove it,’ ” Robinson said. “No one’s really seen it that much with me, because I’ve been up and down throughout my career. I’ve definitely had the mindset of coming in here and proving what I can do, no matter what happens.”

“He’s a veteran player who’s played a lot of different positions over the course of his career,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said this week. “He’s done the same thing for us. He’s been consistent. He’s been good in the pass game, and he’s tackled well. Not much more I can say.”

Robinson’s potential impact wasn’t immediately apparent. In the spring and well into training camp, all you heard was that he was a great resource for the young corners, like having another coach on the field. On the field, he didn’t do anything special.  He seemed to be cut from that very familiar Nolan Carroll, Bradley Fletcher, Walter Thurmond-type cloth.

Camera icon BRAD PENNER / AP
Philadelphia Eagles corner back Patrick Robinson (21) in action against the Denver Broncos during an NFL game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, Nov. 05.

Observers figured the Aug. 11 trade for Darby would endanger Robinson’s roster spot. Ron Brooks, who had been the slot corner before suffering a quad tear early in the 2016 season, was back. Ditto 2016 undrafted rookie C.J. Smith, Carson Wentz’s North Dakota State teammate. But Brooks and Smith eventually were released, and when the season began, Robinson quickly claimed a crucial role. He has played 72 percent of the defensive snaps. Robinson, Jalen Mills and Douglas share the team lead with three interceptions apiece.

“I’m more consistent,” Robinson said. “More consistent with my study, with my body – I’m taking care of myself.”

“Pat’s a baller,” Mills said. “He’s an old, savvy vet, [but] he’s still moving like a young guy out there, making plays. Whether he’s blitzing, whether he’s in coverage, tackling — it doesn’t matter. He’s been balling out all year. He doesn’t talk too much [on the field]. … He’s a guy that’s gonna get locked in, and you don’t really have to worry about him — you know he’s going to do his job.”

Schwartz’s defensive style helps Robinson keep the focus that was so elusive during his seven previous seasons, Robinson said.

“Just being aggressive, playing fast. Not having a whole bunch of checks and, you know, you see the formation, you check for this and this and this – we’re just playing fast out there,” he said.

It isn’t clear that Robinson will live happily ever after in Philadelphia, or cash in for a big payday elsewhere. Darby and Douglas are 23. Second-round rookie Sidney Jones was a potential top-10 pick who was only available later because he was rehabbing an Achilles tear. Jones might get into a few games toward the end of this season, and he certainly should be healthy by spring. All of those players hold a more solid spot in the Eagles’ plans than Robinson.

Robinson declined to discuss what he thinks about getting a new deal here.

As good as he has been, Robinson will hit the market as a free agent who turns 31 in September and who showed he could play really well within a specific scheme. Teams will look at more than just 2017.

But wherever he plays next year, Robinson is pretty much guaranteed a raise.