INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chester Rogers’ projected position in the Indianapolis Colts’ receivers’ room could easily be described as Pedigree vs. Performance.
T.Y. Hilton is the undeniable leader, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who led the NFL in receiving yards a year ago. He’s a 2012 third-round pick supported by Donte Moncrief, a 2014 third-rounder, and 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett.
Rogers and free-agent acquisition Kamar Aiken are outliers. They entered the league as undrafted talent – Rogers with the Colts in 2016 and Aiken with the Buffalo Bills in 2011.
But whatever you believe about the NFL, at its a core, it’s a meritocracy. Yes, there are exceptions. Top draft picks generally are given longer leashes to prove they belong, or confirm the personnel staff whiffed. We remind you of Bjoern Werner and Jerry Hughes, a pair of former first-round picks who lasted three seasons before the Colts decided neither was the talent they envisioned.
In the vast majority of instances, players earn their spot on the depth chart. Or work their way off it entirely.
So when the Colts reconvene July 29 for the start of training camp, Rogers will find himself on a level playing field as receivers jostle for their role behind Hilton.
“It’s competition,’’ Rogers said. “I love it, man.’’
No one should be surprised that Moncrief is the front-runner to be Hilton’s sidekick in the starting lineup. Even though he missed seven games last season with a fractured scapula and hamstring injury, he’s proven to be a legitimate talent and a top-tier threat in the red zone with his 6-2, 222-pound frame. Of his 16 career touchdowns, 11 have come on snaps inside the 12-yard line.
Training camp competition will determine who gets what after Hilton and Moncrief get theirs.
And no position battle – or roster decision – figures to be more interesting than Rogers vs. Dorsett. The undrafted prospect vs. the first-round pick who has yet to fulfill expectations.
Dorsett’s rare speed convinced the Colts to invest the 29th overall pick in the ’15 draft in another Miami wideout. All they’ve really gotten in return are infrequent flashes – a 64-yard touchdown against Jacksonville last year in London when the Jaguars botched deep coverage and a 50-yard TD at Minnesota – but nothing resembling consistency. In 26 games, he’s managed 51 receptions, 753 yards and three TDs.
Dorsett is heading into year 3, and it’s no stretch to consider it make-or-break territory. He’s been more productive than Werner and Hughes in their first two seasons, but they set a low bar.
That brings us to Rogers. He was one of those handful of wannabes last offseason, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State. Rogers was inactive for the season opener, then was targeted just three times with zero catches in weeks 2-3 against Denver and San Diego.
Gradually, opportunities and production increased.
The most telling stretch of last season in terms of the Rogers vs. Dorsett argument came with Moncrief missing seven games with his scapula/hamstring issues.
It was an opportunity for Dorsett to emerge, but it was Rogers who proved to be more effective. In a nutshell:
- Rogers was targeted 30 times in those seven games and responded with 18 receptions, 252 yards and no touchdowns.
- Dorsett was targeted 20 times (he missed one game with an injury) and finished with 13 receptions, 235 yards and two TDs.
The point isn’t to disparage Dorsett.
It’s to illustrate the possibilities that accompany Rogers heading into his second NFL season.
General manager Chris Ballard shared his observations after the Colts concluded their offseason work earlier this month.
“I thought Chester Rogers was outstanding,’’ he told Colts.com.
Quarterback Andrew Luck chimed in, emphasizing that Rogers was one of the young players who “got some good action last year as a rookie and now need to take that next step to become really solid, contributing members of the team.’’
As a rookie, Rogers finished with 19 receptions and 273 yards while being targeted 34 times.
Luck noticed Rogers’ “raw talent and enthusiasm for the game. Some special things.
“When the ball was in his hands, he was doing some special, special things. I think he’s done a great job this offseason in understanding that he can’t just be that to be an NFL player. He’s got to be concise, sharp and crisp with his routes. He’s got to understand the bigger picture and he’s certainly working at it every day.
“It’s been fun to see him make this progression.’’
As was the case with virtually every rookie, Rogers dealt with the college-to-pros transition. There was the increased speed of the game, incredible level of talent of cornerbacks he faced and complexities of the offense.
“Last year I was running around, thinking a lot, trying not to make mistakes instead of just going out and making plays,’’ he said. “This year, I know all three receiver positions. I’m going out there, playing fast, (making) less mistakes.
“I’m just having fun.’’
Rogers realizes his 2017 workload solely depends on his ability to earn it. It’s worth reminding everyone that Ballard, in his first season as GM, has no ties to any of the returning receivers. He didn’t select Dorsett in the first round of the 2015 draft.
The best players will play.
“That’s what the coaches preach. ‘Just go out there and compete,’’’ Rogers said. “That’s what the GM has installed since he got here. Go out and compete. You can’t ask for anything better than an opportunity and that’s what he’s going to do, give everybody an opportunity.
“I’m here to play. I’m not looking at ‘Wait your turn.’ I’m here to play. I love the competition. It’s only going to make me better. You know it’s a business. At the end of the day, we’ve got one goal: win a championship.’’