After bursting onto the scene as a true freshman in 2018, Arizona State ILB Merlin Robertson’s scouting report immediately drew attention on the NFL Draft circuit. After playing only four games in 2020, Robertson decided to come back for his senior season. What will Robertson’s stock look like, and what does he need to do in 2021 to improve?
Merlin Robertson NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Linebacker
- School: Arizona State
- Current Year: Senior
- Height: 6’3″
- Weight: 240 pounds
Merlin Robertson Scouting Report
At the very least, versatility is a coveted feature in prospects on the NFL stage. Players who can fulfill a multitude of roles will find that they can provide value in a multitude of situations. And since NFL roster management is all about preparing for as many situations as possible, the root of efficiency is individual versatility.
Robertson has this versatility. Although not at the level of defensive chess pieces in years past, Robertson lines up just about everywhere a linebacker can. Over his time with the Sun Devils, Robertson has taken snaps at MIKE, OLB, and on the edge. The Arizona State ILB clearly has some flexibility within his positional designation. But beyond that, how does he shape up as an NFL Draft prospect?
Merlin Robertson’s athletic profile
At 6’3″, 240 pounds, Robertson has good length and a sturdy build. He’s shown to use the entirety of his frame to blanket ball carriers. Additionally, he has the length and play strength to set the edge in run defense. Above all else, Robertson’s size gives him the versatility to line up on the edge. From that position, he’s fairly aggressive when it comes to disrupting the backfield.
Beyond his size, Robertson has a few admirable athletic traits to take note of. The Arizona State ILB has solid closing burst in run defense. He disengages from blocks with his length, then shoots forward and makes contact with ball carriers. Furthermore, Robertson has reliable lateral mobility. With his size and lateral movement skills, he can close off openings at the line and match bigger receivers at their route stems.
Robertson is undoubtedly a decent athlete. The question comes in regards to his ceiling. While he flashes good explosiveness and pursuit speed at times, he could show it more often. He displays some limitations on film in addition to his strengths, but we’ll get to those a bit later.
Execution beyond the physical traits
In both pass and run defense, Robertson has a feel for positioning. He naturally flows to and seeks out ball carriers, and he consistently engages with his frame. Robertson has a physical disposition toward blocks. He brings excellent effort, dishes out solid hits in tight spaces, and flashes hand usage as a pass rusher.
While Robertson is more appealing in the box, he does have respectable coverage ability for his size. The Arizona State ILB shows glimpses of good pre-snap recognition ability. He identifies routes and positions himself to effectively slow separation. Robertson has shown he can key in on the quarterback’s eyes and cover targeted receivers in the middle of the field. He also uses his physicality to slow up routes at their stems. Moreover, Robertson can be proactive with his length in coverage and knows how to attain inside leverage.
It’s worth noting one more time that Robertson’s effort underpins his game. While he doesn’t bring torrid play pace, he has exceptional competitive toughness, and he’s generally active and near the football. His awareness to pick out fumbles in the congestion and all-around utility may also translate on special teams.
Areas for improvement
While Robertson’s versatility raises his floor, there are several different factors working to reduce his upside. Most notably, his athletic ambiguity.
Robertson plays upright, and he doesn’t carry a ton of momentum as a result. He can be stiff on direction changes and doesn’t sink his hips very well. Furthermore, Robertson lacks great explosiveness out of those direction changes. That explosiveness is lacking off the line as well.
Robertson often employs stiff, short strides that don’t cover a lot of ground. The Arizona State ILB doesn’t have great pursuit speed or range, and he’s not very twitchy, either. He can’t always bring ball carriers down in pursuit, and it looks like he’s playing at two-thirds speed at times in space. Robertson could be more proactive and instinctive when patrolling the second level, as he often arrives at plays late for low-value tackles. Again, his hustle isn’t the issue here — it’s his hip fluidity and range.
Operationally, Robertson has room for improvement. The Arizona State product doesn’t always wrap up when tackling, sometimes throwing his mass at opponents. His hands aren’t especially fast or violent in block-shedding situations, and he can struggle to disengage at the second level. When rushing the passer, he doesn’t have great hip sink or bend around the edge.
Among other things, Robertson’s physicality against routes may draw more penalties at the next level, especially if he has to use that physicality to make up for athletic deficits. He can be a bit grabby, and that’ll need to be toned down in the NFL.
Merlin Robertson’s NFL Draft scouting report overview
Robertson is an interesting player. He’s been productive for three years at Arizona State but hasn’t progressed a great deal since his stellar freshman campaign. Robertson was penciled in as a rising NFL Draft prospect after that season. But if anything, he’s taken a couple of steps backward since.
Robertson has a baseline level of versatility, but he’s best suited for a role closer to the line. He has some coverage utility but appears much more comfortable and consistent in the box. There, his limitations in space aren’t as apparent, and he has the size, short-range urgency, and positioning awareness to be a steady player.
While he often played ILB at Arizona State in addition to his duties outside, Robertson is best suited for a SAM linebacker role in the NFL — or he could add 10-15 pounds and become a defensive end. Even there, however, his lack of elite athleticism likely relegates him to the Day 3 range.
Merlin Robertson’s Player Profile
Seeing his early production at the collegiate level, it comes as no surprise that Robertson was a highly-rated recruit out of high school. He was a four-star recruit on ESPN’s 2018 recruiting board and the 179th-ranked player in the nation.
A standout at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California, Robertson boasted solid size, as well as decent athleticism with a 4.76 40-yard dash and a vertical jump over 31 inches. He fielded offers from Oklahoma, LSU, Miami, Oregon, and USC. However, he was drawn to Arizona State instead, due in part to the team’s hiring of respected coach Herm Edwards.
Robertson’s career at Arizona State
Few inaugural college football seasons in recent memory have been as productive as Robertson’s. The Arizona State ILB played 749 snaps on defense and logged 77 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, an interception, 2 pass deflections, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Robertson’s early success didn’t go unnoticed. He was named Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12 conference and quickly earned notoriety as a rising star. Unfortunately for Robertson, however, that would be the peak of his college career through 2020.
Robertson still produced in 2019, amassing 74 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, an interception, 2 pass deflections, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in 13 games. However, he failed to receive all-conference recognition. In 2020, it was a similar story. In four games, Robertson earned 20 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, an interception, and a pass deflection. He again failed to earn even a vote as an honorable mention.
Merlin Robertson’s NFL Draft ascension
It’s rare to see a prospect emerge so triumphantly onto the college football stage, only to fall back under the veil of obscurity in the subsequent seasons. It’s not so much that Robertson hasn’t been productive for Arizona State. More accurately, he simply hasn’t progressed. He’s been a steady presence but steadily unspectacular at times.
Robertson still has valuable versatility in the box. He can be an off-ball linebacker or crash the edge with his size. Yet, his lack of elite athleticism puts a cap on his upside and might prevent him from earning early chances at a starting role in the NFL.
Even so, there’s a chance that Robertson ends his career at a similar level to his 2018 play. If he can do that, then perhaps his stock can improve.