The Pittsburgh Steelers’ All-Universe wide receiver, Antonio Brown, hadn’t played a snap so far this pre-season until the Week 3 game in New Orleans. But the casual fan could be forgiven if, at times in the first two games, they found themselves wondering if he had changed his number to 17 this off-season.
That’s a whole lot of hyperbole to introduce a second-year player who failed to make the team out of training camp as a rookie in 2015. But if the team was looking for moderate improvement out of wide receiver Eli Rogers, they seem to have gotten more than they bargained for. A whole lot more.
It’s not that he struggled in the 2015 pre-season. It’s simply that he had few opportunities to impress, and the the team was pretty well set at wide receiver to begin with. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and then-rookie Sammie Coates pretty much had the position wrapped up; everyone else was playing for a possible spot on special teams, if that.
Fast-forward to 2016, though, and the opportunities have been plentiful. With Bryant suspended for the year, and Brown and Wheaton not dressing for the first two games, that left Heyward-Bey and Coates as the top two on the depth chart so far. That meant ample opportunity for guys like Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers to showcase their wares. Ayers, surprisingly, has seen little action despite being drafted last May. Hamilton has seen opportunities, and has been so-so. A nice catch here, an ugly drop there.
Rogers, though? Oh, my.
The first thing you think when you see him in his uniform and pads is that he bears a striking resemblance, stature-wise, to Brown. That’s no surpirse, as their measurables are nearly identical. The way he stands ready at the line of scrimmage is reminiscent of Brown, too. The way he runs effortless routes is all Brown. The way he catches everything he’s supposed to catch? Yup, that’s very Brown-esque, too.
That’s not to say he’s the second coming of the best receiver in the NFL for the last three years. He shows enough negative traits for you to know after a few minutes of watching that they are, indeed, not the same person.
He doesn’t get separation nearly as well as Brown does. To be fair, Brown has exactly zero close competitors in that skill. But what Brown excels at is using a combination of quick feet and subtle handwork to create a bubble of separation around him at all times. He also can accelerate from cruising speed to full-afterburner in a heartbeat, and does an impeccable job of timing that move exactly right. Rogers has yet to learn that skill.
Rogers also still shows hesitation on some routes. Brown has total command of the route tree and the Steelers’ playbook. Rogers is still learning both. But he’s shown enough of a grasp of each of them to make the coaches and quarterbacks call his number regularly when he’s on the field.
As far as negatives go, that’s just about it. Nothing else really stands out as a detriment in Rogers’ game. While he may have a long way to go to be outstandingly good at any given skill, he’s also a long way from outstandingly bad at anything, too. High praise for a former undrafted free agent, indeed.
And those positives? Oh, the positives. Quick feet, effortless cuts, uses his body well to box out defenders when needed, makes guys miss in the open field, can get small when he has to do so. Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers. Take your pick, it describes them both. I hate to gush so much about a guy who has yet to make a professional roster, but it’s hard not to when you watch the kid on film.
On one play, he managed good yards after the catch on a bubble screen by being patient behind his blockers. On another, he picked up eight yards after the catch while making three defenders completely whiff in their attempts to take him down, squeaking through the tightest of gaps to pick up the final three yards or so.
And it’s not just as a receiver where he excels, either. He has a long way to go to enter the realm of Hines Ward or Brown when it comes to blocking on runs, but he’s willing and capable. One Philadelphia defender found that out the hard way when, as he was lining up running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to stop him at or just behind the line of scrimmage, he got shoved out of the way by a determined Rogers. Surprisingly, Toussaint managed positive yardage on the play. It wasn’t a game-breaking block, but it showed Rogers understands what it takes to play the position for a physical team like the Steelers.
Perhaps no one stands to gain as much from Bryant’s suspension as Rogers. Without it, Rogers would have been hanging all his hopes on being the team’s kick returner. Instead, he has an excellent chance of being the fifth receiver, and could find himself getting ample opportunity despite likely being at the bottom of the depth chart. He simply has too much potential to keep off the field and inactive every game day.
There was a time when we said a lot of the same things about another young, raw receiver.
He’s now the best wide receiver in the world.