Josh Robinson probably felt like he wore a prank “Kick me” sign on his back in the past year.

He’s been labeled one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. His new coach referred to him as “the other guy” when discussing injuries. Media ripped him, fans mocked him, Pro Football Focus shredded him.

Even his wife critiques his performances with a critical eye. Robinson’s wife tells him before every game that she’ll love him just the same no matter what happens.

Robinson’s 2013 season required some tough love at home.

“She would say, ‘You were horrible,’ ” Robinson said with a smile. “She was screaming. She was covering her eyes. She would tell me. But in the end, I know that she loves me and wants the best for me.”

Robinson has felt nothing but love through the first quarter of the Vikings season. He is, without question, the team’s most improved player under first-year coach Mike Zimmer.

No longer forced to play out of position in the slot-nickel role, Robinson looks far more reliable as an outside cornerback in Zimmer’s scheme.

Zimmer, a stickler when it comes to his secondary, sounds like a fan. Now he wants to see more from his pupil.

“I just want Josh to be a little bit more confident in his abilities,” Zimmer said. “He’s got a chance to be a very good corner if he continues working on the techniques, refining the techniques, understanding the concepts more. But he’s got a chance to be a very good player.”

Robinson already has three pass breakups and two interceptions, including a game-changing pick in the season opener against the St. Louis Rams. Granted, four games isn’t a definitive sample size, but Robinson hasn’t looked like a liability in coverage.

He has faced future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Drew Brees and stud receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones and held up well. His next test comes against Aaron Rodgers on Thursday night.

“Definitely the best quarterback,” Robinson said. “This is the one I’m always going to look forward to.”

Opposing quarterbacks no doubt felt the same way about the Vikings secondary last season. Robinson looked lost at times, but to blame him solely is to miss the real target.

The Vikings front office and previous coaching staff did Robinson a disservice by shoehorning him into a position he never had played after they released veteran Antoine Winfield that offseason.

The slot-corner position has evolved into such a hybrid, specialty role that the Vikings acted either overly confident or reckless in assuming that Robinson could slide seamlessly into that spot without any experience.

The move backfired spectacularly. Robinson, in his second NFL season, became a marked man on the field. He admitted being “all over the place” mentally as he tried to process the different responsibilities in that role.

“I had a lot of growing pains, a lot of things I had to deal with,” he said.

He refuses to blame the organization for putting him in that difficult spot, not that griping about it now would accomplish anything productive.

“I looked at it as, ‘OK, this is what they want me to do,’ ” he said. “I’m going to work at it and try and improve and hopefully come out of it a better player.”

If nothing else, he came out with thicker skin. Pro Football Focus — a website that publishes in-depth player analysis — ranked Robinson among the league’s worst corners, 99th to be exact. Media and fans attached a bull’s-eye to him as the team’s pass defense crumbled like a Hollywood marriage.

Robinson wasn’t oblivious to the outside noise.

“Of course you hear it,” Robinson said. “You’re not immune to it. It’s not like you don’t hear the negative talk. But in the end, I know I’m going to be all right.”

He looks comfortable and happy now that he’s back in his usual spot in a different scheme. Robinson smirked when informed that he’s rated No. 4 in PFF’s current cornerback rankings.

“I don’t really care about what they think,” he said.

His wife is a different story.

“My wife tells me, ‘I loved you before this game, I’m going to love you after this game,’ ” he said. “That’s something I value more than all the opinions and comments. That’s something that’s really kept me positive and confident.”

Can he continue to play this way? That will be determined as the season unfolds. But so far, Robinson looks like a different guy. That shouldn’t go unnoticed, either.

 

chip.scoggins@startribune.com