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A'Shawn Robinson brings size, and earned wisdom up front

A'Shawn Robinson

CHARLOTTE — Bringing A'Shawn Robinson in early in free agency was one of several steps to help shore up a defense that experienced a lot of turnover last season and specifically to help a run defense that already featured one of the game's best players.

But bringing in A'Shawn Robinson can serve other purposes for the Panthers, as the 29-year-old defensive lineman can now offer the kind of steadying influence others had on him in his career.

"I feel like that's the job of any vet that comes in, to help teach and better the team and better any player," Robinson said upon signing here. "You're going to help because if you want to win and excel, no matter how good you are, you won't excel if no one else is up there with you. So you only can be as good as the other ones, as your weakest link. So you've got to be willing to be able to put the time in, spend the time getting to know your players and understanding what it really takes, and ingrain that.

"You know, some players, rookies, they come out of college, they don't understand the way of the NFL right away. But if you can help them guide them and not mislead them, I feel like it could be a great opportunity for everyone to excel."

That sounds normal coming out of Robinson, in part because he came here as part of the raft of players with familiarity with defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. But also because he lived it.

Shy Tuttle, A'Shawn Robinson

Between his size (he is, in a word, mammoth) and his ability, he's been under the spotlight for a long time, from his recruitment to Alabama to being drafted in the second round by the Lions. When he got there, his coach at the time was Jim Caldwell, now a senior assistant with the Panthers.

So Caldwell immediately insulated the rookie with some of his trusted elders, from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to linebacker Stephen Tulloch, during Robinson's first offseason to make sure he was walking into a good situation.

"I think oftentimes you find that most of us in this business, we try to make certain that our younger players have a role model," Caldwell said. "We point them out and say, hey, watch this guy and do what he does. He's been in this league for X number of years, and there's a reason why because he does things the right way. He takes care of his body the right way, you know, he's maximized the opportunity. So he'd be a good role model for you.

"And so we crafted different guys around him, just to make certain that he had the focus that he needed, right?"

But a lot of that wise counsel came from Caldwell himself, and Robinson said that as much as the familiarity with defensive coaches, the presence of the former Lions head coach was one of the things that attracted him here. And that was more than a football consideration; that was about life.

"Man, he taught me so much in my career early on, putting the vets around me and instilling what I am today," Robinson said. "I appreciate him, and I tell people so much about him. Seeing him again and being around him again makes me so excited."

Jim Caldwell, A'Shawn Robinson

It's obvious in talking to Robinson for just a moment that Caldwell means more to him than just someone who showed him how to practice football, how to lift weights, or study film. After playing for Nick Saban at Alabama, he was already doing football at a high level, but Caldwell was more than a coach.

"Being in Alabama, playing for coach Saban, he teaches you things, but you know, you're still a kid at that time," Robinson said. "So you don't truly grasp it all. And then you get to the league and me coming in as I was so young, 21 years old, and it was kind of hard for me. Being a Black man, not coming from having a father, he (Caldwell) taught me how to create a father's home, understanding how to be that for my children and understand that role. So seeing him helped me a lot through my path, talking to him, sitting down, talking to real life and not just football.

"That's huge to have somebody like that early on. Jim's such a good guy in general, but I mean, he's always been willing to share that kind of stuff with you along the way."

That's a lot of perspective from a player who just walked in the door and is still learning the lay of the land here, but there's a real sense of gravity about Robinson.

A'Shawn Robinson

He stands out in crowds of even large men, but that's only partly because of his size (again, he's gargantuan). That's been the case his whole life, because part of his origin story is the way his mother had to carry his birth certificate to youth football games because he was bigger than everyone his age. But he also carries himself as an older soul.

"Time flies, but some things stick in your mind," Caldwell said. "And the big thing about him was he was extremely serious about his business, and that was one of the things that I think was quite evident. Because he was probably a little bit more mature beyond his years. He came in with it, he was inquisitive, and you could tell he was determined to make the best of this opportunity.

"Right at the onset, just kind of without anybody saying anything, it probably had a lot to do with how he was raised and, you know, obviously his experiences growing up. But that maturity, that jumped out at you."

That's evidenced by the way other players respond to him, and that's something Caldwell saw early on. When you see Robinson among teammates at voluntary workouts, you can see him working with others, and that's part of his job description.

Having been mentored by Caldwell from an early age, having played for Evero in Los Angeles, having been teammates with stars such as Suh and Aaron Donald, he clearly has something to share. And he's looking forward to sharing it. He expressed excitement at going from playing alongside a parade of Pro Bowlers, from Donald to Dexter Lawrence with the Giants last year to Derrick Brown now, and said, "That's exciting, man."

A'Shawn Robinson

They're also excited about having him since he can add to an area they lacked last year. The conversion to a 3-4 defense last year was effective, but clearly not a finished product in 2023. They put up solid defensive stats, but there wasn't enough time to rebuild all the personnel in one offseason.

So, while the overall numbers were good (fourth in total defense), they were less stable in run defense.

Part of that was a function of never having the lead in a fourth quarter, so opponents were able to run more often (their 508 attempts allowed were the fifth-most in the league). Despite the volume problem, the Panthers ranked a respectable 12th in yards per attempt (4.1) while being 23rd in yards per game (122.4).

Robinson was brought here to help address that because now teams can't run away from Brown and Shy Tuttle and toward an understaffed or undersized side of the line. Robinson can play, he's massive, and he knows what he's doing. Along with guys such as Josey Jewell (who played for Evero in Denver), Jordan Fuller, Troy Hill, and Nick Scott (Rams), and incumbents such as Shaq Thompson, Jaycee Horn, Xavier Woods and others, Robinson believes this can be a good group.

"Coach E, he likes killers, you know, he likes people to know what they're doing," Robinson said. "Being knowledgeable and being able to help their teammates, bringing everybody along and everybody communicating out there and really truly bringing that to life. Because in his defense, if you truly communicate and accept what your brother is doing and be able to know what his flaws and his weaknesses are, he'll make the whole team better. And that can take us anywhere.

"I feel like having the craftsmanship to be able to take those things and apply them out there is honestly amazing when you have guys that can do that. And I feel like the defense was already good here. I'm just here to help as much as I can."

Part of that is to help stop the run, and part of that is to pass along what he learned, and to share those lessons with a new generation.

A'Shawn Robinson

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