Rashard Robinson already the 'older guy' among 49ers CBs

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Strange as it might sound, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson is already referring to himself as "the older guy" in the cornerback room.

It's strange because Robinson is entering only his second NFL season after arriving as a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. What's even stranger: It's a reasonably accurate description.

After an offseason in which the Niners released veteran cornerback Tramaine Brock following his arrest on suspicion of felony domestic violence and made the decision to move Jimmie Ward from cornerback to free safety, there are two openings for starting outside corners in San Francisco's defense.

There's a developing competition among the likes of Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson and Ahkello Witherspoon on the left side, but Robinson appears to be settling in on the right. It's quite a leap for a player who only a year ago hadn't played football since 2014 because of off-the-field issues at LSU.

Robinson is clearly already in the good graces of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and defensive-backs coach Jeff Hafley.

“He’s a dog," Saleh said. "I like him. He’s made of the right stuff. His attitude, his mindset is unique for a corner.”

In football parlance, Robinson's type of dog is exactly the type of player Saleh covets in his modified 4-3 defensive scheme, especially at cornerback. At 6-foot-1 with long arms, Robinson has the physical makeup to play the style of press coverage Saleh wants from his corners, but size isn't the only thing that makes a corner effective within that scheme.

That's where Robinson's feisty approach to the game comes in. Even as a rookie, Robinson impressed coaches with his competitiveness and willingness to take on a challenge. During Wednesday's OTAs, Robinson was his usual, enthusiastic self, never more so than when he broke up a pass intended for wideout Pierre Garcon.

As the pass fell incomplete, Robinson let everyone in shouting distance know that he made the play.

“He does not want to get beat," Saleh said. "Every rep is so important to him. He doesn’t care who he’s going against. It’s a tremendous mindset when you get a guy like Rashard who is so focused on what he’s capable of and about him and how he’s going to win, and the man in front of him has no bearing on what he’s about to do.”

For the Niners' defense to take a step forward this season, they'll need Robinson to carry a lot of the freight. As part of his offseason goals, Robinson said he has added weight and is now closer to 190 pounds after playing last season at a listed weight of 177.

Robinson also made it a point to refine the fundamentals Hafley taught him as a rookie.

"Everything we worked on last year, you can tell he worked on it in the offseason," Hafley said. "It’s all gotten better, whether it’s staying square at the line of scrimmage, foot quickness, transition, burst. He understands more how I teach things and the way I like to play press and man. So I think he’s taken a step. He’s still a ways to go."

Beyond that, Robinson said the game has slowed down for him and details such as the way receivers are lining up and even the quarterback's cadence are offering pre-snap clues on possible route combinations.

During his rookie season, Robinson entered in nickel packages, with Ward moving into the slot. He started six games when Ward was out due to injury and finished with 28 tackles and an interception. His 523 snaps played rank second among all Niners cornerbacks for a career. Only Johnson, who is battling for the left-cornerback spot opposite Robinson, has more.

That is why Robinson already views himself as one of the veterans in a room that isn't long on experience. It's also why he is taking it upon himself to help younger corners who are now in the spot he occupied just a year ago.

"That’s just one thing about me, just being the older guy in the room," Robinson said. "We’ve got all these rookies coming in. You just want to keep giving them stuff, keep feeding them along so they can elevate their game even more.

"Because T-Brock is not there anymore, it’s an unfortunate thing, so now you have got other people who have to fill in those shoes," Robinson said. "So me coming in from Year 1 now to Year 2, I’ve got some shoes to fill, but I just keep going out there being humble and hungry and just producing."

At one point during Wednesday's practice, Robinson sidled up next to third-round pick Witherspoon and offered pointers. It's something that Robinson indicated will be a familiar sight with him and some of the team's young corners.

"If I see a dude lacking with something, just pull him to the side and just let him know what it is and what it’s going to be like," Robinson said. "You have to handle your business. That’s one thing. We are out there grinding constantly, so if I see one dude mess up on something, like he’s got to kick a little longer or he punches with the wrong hand, I’m going to pull him to the side and just tell him so it’ll just be better for him because you never really know when someone might go down and they have to fill in that spot."