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With LaVon Brazill suspended for the season, the competition for the fifth spot on the Colts’ wide receiver depth chart will likely come down to Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen, unless an undrafted rookie breaks out or they decide to keep six.
(Quick aside: I always liked Brazill’s potential, but this is more disappointing than devastating. He was facing an uphill battle to make the roster. I wish him the best in getting his house in order and putting together a career.)
I examined Whalen earlier this offseason. Like I said then, he’s a capable if limited receiver who can make tough catches over the middle, return punts and contribute in run blocking. He’s exactly the type of guy you love to have at the bottom of your receiver depth chart.
This week, I broke down Rogers’ 253 snaps. The flashes are there, but I came away a bit underwhelmed. As we all know, Rogers has plenty of talent, and comparing his ceiling to Whalen’s is like comparing the Sistine Chapel ceiling to my basement ceiling. On the other hand, comparing Whalen’s floor to Rogers’ is like comparing my living room floor to a pile of cat feces.
To put it less abstractly, Rogers can be as good as he wants to be, but based on his snap-by-snap work last year, I’m not sure he’s committed to being particularly good, and when he’s bad, he hurts the team. Whalen will always be held back by his physical limitations, but he squeezes every ounce of potential out of his body and gives you the same level of effort on every play. Which of them would you rather have suiting up?
Pro Football Focus gave Rogers a -2.6 overall grade (subscription required), including a poor -3.8 in the passing game. On the bright side, quarterbacks compiled a 102.8 rating when targeting him, the best mark on the team and 44th in the NFL, per PFF. PFF also shows that he ranked 81st in the league with 1.47 yards per route run, well behind T.Y. Hilton’s 2.03 and Reggie Wayne’s 1.97, but better than Whalen’s 1.39.
Here’s how Rogers fared by alignment:
(“Wide” means Rogers was the receiver closest to the sideline, while “slot” means at least one receiver lined up outside of him. “Open” means a defensive back would not have been in position to make a play on the ball had it arrived immediately after he made his break and looked back for the throw.)
Rogers had only 28 targets, so examining his numbers is an exercise in small sample size theater. But a few trends emerge. As you can see, the Colts primarily used him out wide and on the line of scrimmage, and he was more productive in those spots than he was in the slot or backed off the line. I mentioned in my Whalen review that smaller receivers like Whalen and Hilton often do better when backed off the line of scrimmage, since they have more space to get moving and get around a jam. Rogers is comparatively huge (6’3″, 205 lbs.), so it’s not surprising that he fares much better than those two in beating jams. He actually had a harder time getting open when off the line.
Watch him blow past Alfonzo Dennard’s jam here:
Sadly, Luck doesn’t see him and ultimately takes a sack.
Rogers’ slot numbers are heavily skewed by his 69-yard touchdown against the Bengals – a memorable play, though he didn’t do much other than run through a couple bad tackles and be fast – but he also did a much better job of picking up yards after the catch when coming out of the slot. Despite his explosive athletic ability (more on that in a moment), he didn’t do much after the catch when he caught the ball near the sidelines.
Rogers’ left/right splits were relatively even. He was a bit more productive on the left than on the right, the opposite of Whalen and somewhat unusual for the Colts’ offense, which tended to be more productive when going right, but again, it’s a small sample.
Since I tracked all of Rogers’ 253 snaps, while I only looked at Whalen’s 54 targets in my earlier piece, it might seem that Rogers’ overall 45.4% openness percentage pales in comparison to Whalen’s 59.3% on targeted plays. But Rogers came open on 64.3% of his 28 targets. Of course, that could be a result of Luck’s greater trust of Whalen and willingness to throw the ball to him even when he was covered. I’d have to take a closer look at all 386 of Whalen’s snaps to get a better idea, but I suspect the trust factor played a significant role.
Here’s a look at Rogers’ work against different schemes:
As explained here, Rogers is a monster physically and compares favorably to third-round pick and noted workout warrior Donte Moncrief. It would seem, then, that Rogers would be a prime target for screens. Yet while Whalen averaged 7 yards per catch and 8 yards-after-catch on three screens, Rogers averaged only 5.8 yards per catch and 6 YAC on four screens. The difference is in their decisiveness. While Whalen catches the ball and immediately sprints upfield, Rogers tends to stutter step. His hesitation moves might help him beat the first man, but they leave him vulnerable to trailing defenders.
This screen against the Bengals shows how Rogers is the anti-Whalen in every way:
He takes too long to get moving and ends up getting stuck behind blockers and defenders, but his size and power allow him to muscle out a few extra yards.
For all his physical gifts, Rogers had a hard time getting open against man coverage. His problem, as Kyle pointed out back in December, is route running. He frequently rounded his cuts, and he often ran the same route several plays in a row (which could be an issue of play-calling and his lack of familiarity with the playbook). The better defenders he faced, such as Dennard, could read his routes early and get to his spots before he even came out of his breaks. And just about everyone figured out that he usually ran clear-out routes straight up the field; by my count, 67 of his 152 routes run (44%) were ‘go’ routes, and corners didn’t have much trouble containing him toward the sideline:
Rogers did find some holes in zones, but he only drew four targets on those plays, so it’s hard to extrapolate much from his performance. It’s a shame he wasn’t targeted more, given how open he sometimes was:
Finally, here’s a breakdown of Rogers’ performance by depth of target:
He did good work on mid-range targets, though again, his numbers are skewed by his 69-yard touchdown catch. His 81.8% openness percentage on targets of between 3 and 9 yards was far better than Whalen’s 70.4%, though his 63.6% catch percentage was worse than Whalen’s 74.1%.
Two of Rogers’ most promising moments came on these two mid-range passes late in the week 17 Jaguars game:
In both cases, notice how he uses his imposing frame to wall off the defender and make a clean catch. If he could do that with consistency, he’d be a valuable weapon; I only wish he’d shown more of it.
Rogers and Luck never quite connected on deep passes, aside from their epic 46-yard bomb in the Chiefs playoff game. Otherwise, Rogers caught one pass that traveled 10 yards through the air and two that went 11, and went 0-for-9 on his other attempted deep balls. Both parties shared some culpability for the problems; Luck often seemed to misjudge Rogers’ speed and forced him to slow down. Rogers, meanwhile, sometimes pulled up on his own rather than following a route through, or wasn’t able to beat a corner to the ball. On this route, for example, the throw is a little short and Rogers seems to time his jump poorly:
If Rogers wants to earn Luck’s trust on deep balls, he’ll have to stop doing things like this:
He’s clearly not the primary target, but watch when Luck releases the ball. Rogers slows to a jog long before it leaves his hand. Maybe someone like Randy Moss or Josh Gordon can get away with that, but for a guy trying to establish his place in the league, it’s certainly discouraging.
When engaged, Rogers is a terrific blocker, particularly when matched up against cornerbacks. By my count, he succeeded on eight of his nine attempted screen blocks (89%) and 25 of his 39 attempted run blocks (64%). Those are pretty solid numbers for a receiver, and he had a few exceptional blocks, such as this admirable effort against the Bengals’ George Iloka:
Yet given his size and talent, he should have been better in run blocking. He was prone to bouts of lackadaisical work, especially late in the week 17 Jacksonville game:
Rogers was successful on only one of four downfield blocks, which suggests a lack of focus. Again, considering he was fresh off the practice squad and auditioning for his NFL career, I would have liked to see more consistent effort.
That statement holds true for most aspects of Rogers’ game. And unfortunately, he’s not likely to get more motivated than he was last year, with no guarantee of a roster spot from week to week. Maybe playing with Wayne will keep him on task, and no one could fault the Colts for rolling the dice on his huge potential for another season. But if I were in charge, I’d much prefer Whalen’s steady production to Rogers’ sporadic moments of brilliance.