By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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Seemingly every year, the Steelers boast one of the leagues best wide receiver groups. The surprising thing about them is that none of the players are ever elite draft picks. Let’s take a look at the Steelers receiving depth, both on the 53-man roster and on the practice squad:
- Antonio Brown, 2010 6th-round pick
- Markus Wheaton, 2013 3rd-round pick
- Sammie Coates, 2015 3rd-round pick
- Darrius Heyward-Bey, 2009 1st-round pick (for the Oakland Raiders)
- Martavis Bryant, 2o14 4th-round pick
- Eli Rogers, 2015 undrafted player
- Demarcus Ayers, 2016 7th-round pick
- Cobi Hamilton, 2013 6th-round pick (for the Cincinnati Bengals)
With the exception of Darrius Heyward-Bey, a 1st-round pick that never fully lived up to his lofty billing but is a quality depth player, none of the Steelers receivers were considered to be among the best in their draft class. For example, Antonio Brown is widely considered to be the best receiver in the NFL. However, when he was coming out of college, he was ranked as the 37th-best receiver in the 2010 draft class, meaning the odds of him sticking as even a depth player were slim to none. The Steelers would go on to basically steal Markus Wheaton in the 3rd-round of the draft when many experts believed that he would be an early-to-mid 2nd-round selection. In 2014, the Steelers pulled the trigger on an extremely raw but athletic receiver by the name of Martavis Bryant. Many analysts considered the Sammie Coates selection to be a solid pick, but were not sold on his long-term potential. Long-story short, the Steelers have a knack at uncovering diamonds in the rough that other teams in the NFL felt like passing over.
Throughout the preseason, many people were waiting to see which receiver would cushion the blow of the year-long suspension of Martavis Bryant in 2016. While many people early on believed that the obvious answer would be Markus Wheaton or Sammie Coates due to their ability to play on the outside, the Steelers have looked elsewhere for playmaking ability on offense.
After a stellar preseason, the shifty slot receiver had the chance to show his worth Monday night in his first legitimate and relevant action of his NFL career. While he was far from perfect against the Redskins, he showed the promise that the Steelers love in a young receiver. Don’t be mistaken, though. Rogers game was far from perfect on Monday. While his stat line was solid (6 receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown), the first quarter was stressful for the young receiver. A miscommunication between Ben Roethlisberger and Rogers led to an interception that could have been costly early on in the game. What was impressive about Rogers, though, was his ability to move on from the mistake.
That is the sign of a great football player.
During the game against the Redskins, Rogers had quite a few plays where he helped the Steelers get out of a bind, namely the 4th-down conversion Rogers had that was one of the turning points of the game. His touchdown is also another example of the type of player he can become. The play was one of the flukiest plays you will likely ever see but demonstrated Rogers’ ability to stay in the moment during a football game by being alert enough to bring in a pass that could’ve fallen incomplete or could’ve even been intercepted. Rogers graded out well for the game and will continue to grow as the season progresses now that he has his first real game under his belt. Rogers currently is 2nd on the team in receiving yards after Week 1 behind only Antonio Brown and is also tied for 2nd in receptions with DeAngelo Williams behind Brown. This shows that Roethlisberger is targeting the young receiver often and will continue to do so as teams try to figure out a way to stop Brown.
What many people do not realize about Rogers is his impeccable work ethic off the field. As an undrafted free agent in 2015 out of Louisville, nothing has been handed to Rogers. During the training camp of his rookie season, Rogers suffered a foot injury that would ultimately end his season. As a no-name player, Rogers was waived but since he had not had any live action yet, the Steelers were hoping that he would clear waivers, which he did. They then stashed him away on injured-reserve for the season. Instead of just giving up, Rogers looked within himself to work back to what he knew he was capable of. At the start of each week last season, the Steelers held film review at their practice facility at 6 a.m. Rogers took the responsibility of filing scouting reports on the Steelers upcoming opponent for that week. The coaches, specifically offensive coordinator Todd Haley, asked him to identify the best and worst cover man on the other team’s defense and explain why. Rogers would pick them out as asked, but he would go a step further by also breaking down coverage tendencies of the entire defense, specific techniques defensive backs utilized, and plays he thought the Steelers receivers could use to beat them. This weekly process was a testament to his work ethic and mind for the game that stood out to the coaches.
Eli Rogers is going to make waves this season. Just wait. After being a bubble player throughout the offseason, Rogers has done nothing but impress since training camp and the preseason. While Rogers is not a huge target, he possesses open-field playmaking ability. It was exciting to see Rogers and Brown on the field together for the first time in the regular season and it appears that this will continue for a while.
Rogers’s playing time will likely be spent mostly in the slot throughout the season. The real question among the receivers is how everything else will work. Wheaton missed the season opener due to injury but will be expected to return soon. I see it unlikely that Wheaton sits on the bench upon his return, meaning that someone will have to go. That someone won’t be Rogers. I would expect the Steelers to use Wheaton and Coates interchangeably depending on the play or situation until Coates is able to continue developing his consistency as an every-down receiver.
From the start of his rookie season, although cut short by injury, Rogers had gained the respect of his teammates (especially those on defense) faster than most other players do. While the Steelers boast one of the deepest receiving groups in the NFL, Rogers quickly made his presence known this season by wowing everyone on his way to becoming the Steelers #1 slot receiver. He might not be the biggest or the flashiest, but Rogers is quickly becoming a household name that will be here to stay.