Robertson ready for big impact

If you ever want to talk about viewing the same picture through two sets of eyes, and drawing markedly disparate conclusions, consider the 2003 rookie season of New York Jets defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson.

In terms of moving into the starting lineup as a rookie and getting generous snaps, then the best thing that happened for Robertson was the league-mandated suspension to Josh Evans, a 10-game absence for a repeat violation of the substance abuse policy. As for his overall development, though, perhaps the worst thing that happened for the Jets' first-round pick of a year ago might have been, well, Evans' lengthy suspension.

Yeah, sometimes the prism of the NFL offers inexplicably different perspectives.

Robertson won't admit it but, with Evans banished by the league for the third time in his career because of a substance abuse policy offense, the rookie lost a safety net, and the pressure to immediately succeed at the game's highest level increased exponentially. Robertson was forced into the starting lineup because of Evans' suspension, instead of being part of a three-man rotation, and the results were not especially scintillating.

Starting in all 16 games, the first Jets defensive rookie to accomplish that rare feat since linebacker Mo Lewis in 1991, Robertson registered 69 tackles, 1½ sacks and one pass. Not bad numbers, for sure, but not exactly what had been expected from a prospect who before the draft drew favorable comparisons to Warren Sapp.

Twenty-three interior linemen had more tackles than Robertson in 2003, a few of them non-starters, and 34 had more sacks.

From his perspective, Robertson insisted, he didn't play as poorly as critics suggested, and he insisted that the on-the-job training was actually beneficial.

"To be honest," Robertson said, "what are you going to get from standing (on the sideline)? You learn by doing, not watching, you know? You have to crawl before you can walk. So, to me, being pushed right out there was fine."

Not everyone agrees.

The plan had been for Robertson to serve a quasi-apprenticeship of sorts, with Jason Ferguson and Evans as the two starters, and the former University of Kentucky star the No. 3 tackle. Rather than logging 20 snaps per game, though, Robertson was on the field most of the time in first- and second-down situations.

But being exposed to life with the No. 1 unit might also have represented overexposure for Robertson, who many scouts rated as one of the best tackle prospects in years, and who was expected to dominate. The fourth overall choice in the draft, Robertson wasn't necessarily overwhelmed by the experience of starting all 16 games, but some critics felt his performance fell well shy of his potential.

"Would he have been better off being a No. 3 (tackle) and not starting? Yeah, probably," said one AFC pro scouting director. "But with (Evans) out, they didn't have a choice, really. The kid got thrown right into the fire. And you know what happens when that's the case? You're going to suffer at least some first-degree burns."

Such lukewarm assessments have apparently stoked competitive flames in Robertson who, despite the return of Evans, has retained his starting job. Robertson, who won't turn 23 until mid-October, has dropped his weight, raised his level of rhetoric, and contends that he is prepared to be start tossing opposition offense linemen around.

"My goal is to dominate," Robertson told the local media early in camp. "Can't nobody block me. ... People are going to see the real Dewayne Robertson this year. Whatever they're saying about last year, well, they'll be singing a different tune now."

The tune was decidedly off-key in Friday's night's preseason loss at New Orleans, where Robertson was credited with zero solo tackles, zero assists, zero sacks, zero everything. The numbers are a bit deceiving, in that Robertson battled hard against a terrific Saints inside blocking trio, and his penetration disrupted a few plays. But he hardly expected to have a shutout pitched against him and wasn't very happy about it.

Robertson's attitude is certainly music to the ears of New York officials, who made a major investment in draft choice commodities and cold, hard cash to snatch him in the 2003 draft. The Jets dealt a pair of first-round selections and a fourth-rounder as well to the Chicago Bears for the fourth overall pick, so convinced was the New York personnel department that he was the real deal. The Jets signed Robertson to a contract that could max out at $61 million and, as part of that deal, he collected a $10 million option bonus this spring, making him one of the NFL's highest compensated players for 2004.

Truth be told, there were several other teams that would have done the same thing, so far reaching was the admiration for Robertson in league scouting departments. The Bears, in fact, had trade-up offers from several franchises. Robertson was supposed to be, after all, the quintessential new-age tackle, a guy big enough to anchor against the run, but with enough upfield explosiveness to compress the pocket from the inside and to disrupt from the "under" tackle spot.

New York coaches feel he will still be that player, like what they've seen so far in added maturity, but acknowledge Robertson still needs to be prodded on occasion. If someone truly light a fire under him, New York could feature a superb defensive line, deep in both talent and numbers. Ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham are excellent and there are some signs that backup Bryan Thomas could flourish in the new scheme. All of the top three ends are former first-round picks. At tackle, Ferguson and Evans are very good.

But it all begins with Robertson, who clearly has mad skills, and the natural ability to turn a game into his own personal playground.

Said first-year defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, who has added plenty of new and aggressive wrinkles, but still needs Robertson to be the centerpiece from which some concepts flow: "He really is dominant. If he wants to take over (a game) he takes over. It's just convincing him to do it on every play."

Maybe that shouldn't be altogether surprising, since a reluctant Robertson, as a youngster, had to be persuaded to play football in the first place. Curious about the king-sized 12-year-old all the other neighborhoods kids kept on telling him about, Tim Thompson, the coach at Melrose High School in Memphis, Tenn., got into his car and drove around until he finally located the man-child sitting on his front porch.

Robertson was already burgeoning into an urban legend then, simply by dominating the pick-up games in his neighborhood, both with his size and surprising quickness. Getting the sandlot legend into an organized football program, though, took a lot of talking and even more arm-twisting on Thompson's part.

"I don't think," recalled Thompson before the 2003 draft, "that Dewayne understood just how good he could be."

Clearly, that is no longer a problem.

"Everything I learned last year," Robertson said, "I'm putting it to work. It's just like I'm going from kindergarten to graduate school. People better look out."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.