The horn blared, scattering players across the two practice fields outside Winter Park early in Tuesday’s organized team activity. Brian Robison raced to the corner of the field where the defensive linemen typically run through their position drills.
The veteran Vikings end reclaimed his spot at the front of the line, high-stepping his way over a row of purple pads laid on the turf. Clearly pumped to spend another morning on a football field, Robison then freelanced by high-fiving one of the uprights. Once he landed, he zipped back to encourage his fellow linemen as they finished the drill.
Several minutes later, after the earsplitting horn signaled the start of team drills, Robison was forced to stand still as he watched the starters from the sideline.
The sight of the defensive stalwart practicing with second-stringers was strange at first when spring practices ramped up a few weeks ago. But it has become more and more familiar as Danielle Hunter, a 22-year-old with a comic-book-hero build, uses his Mister Fantastic arms to put the clamps on Robison’s old starting spot.
So how has Robison handled becoming a backup for the first time since 2010?
“Probably as good as anyone I’ve ever been around,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Robison, who has started 95 of the team’s past 96 games, shrugged after Tuesday’s OTA when asked if his mind-set will change at all if he shifts back into a reserve role.
“The bottom line is that I’m here to win football games. That’s all that matters to me. I want to bring a championship to the state of Minnesota,” said Robison, a Texas native. “So whatever happens is up to the coaches. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about being the best football player I can be for my team.”
Robison could read the writing on the wall before the end of last season.
Hunter, in his second NFL season, came off the bench to rack up a dozen sacks, in the process becoming the youngest player in Vikings history to lead the team in sacks.
When the season ended in January, Robison, who was no slouch with 7 ½ sacks and three forced fumbles in his 16 starts, made it clear that he had no plans of giving up his left defensive end spot without a scuffle. But the 2007 fourth-round draft pick also acknowledged that Hunter had “probably done enough to earn a starting position.”
Then March rolled around, and the Vikings asked Robison to take a $1.4 million pay cut. He maybe could have found a starting job elsewhere but agreed to slash his salary.
“This is the place I wanted to be,” Robison said of that decision. “I have faith in this team. I have faith in this organization. For me, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
Robison, now the longest-tenured Vikings player after Chad Greenway retired in March and Adrian Peterson was let go in free agency, said he took “a little bit” more time off after last season to allow his body to recover from the hundreds of collisions on Sundays. Then he started his usual offseason routine, which he does not tinker with much.
Robison said that even in the fourth quarter of his career, he still strives to learn new techniques and develop new moves. It’s not just about keeping his skills from eroding.
“The thing about the NFL is you always need to be evolving because if you keep working on the same old thing, you’re eventually going to get passed,” he said.
Hunter, who Robison believes has “God-gifted” abilities and physical tools, may have passed Robison on the depth chart. But just because Robison won’t be listed as a starter doesn’t mean he won’t have an important role in 2017. The versatile veteran still could end up playing between 50 and 60 percent of the defensive snaps.
Zimmer likes to keep his defensive linemen fresh, which is why Robison, Hunter and Pro Bowl right end Everson Griffen all played at least 600 snaps last season. Plus, Zimmer figures to continue to utilize Robison as an interior pocket-pusher on passing downs, pulling big nose tackle Linval Joseph off the field so he can line up Robison next to Hunter.
“When my number is called upon, I’ll make sure I’m there to make plays,” Robison said.