The Indianapolis Colts have tried anything and everything to boost their passing game since Reggie Wayne's torn ACL forced him onto the sidelines.
They've tried to incorporate running backs, tight ends and even fullbacks into the passing game. They've tried to focus on T.Y. Hilton. At one point against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Colts had three tight ends on the field, and all three were split out wide as receivers. FB Stanley Havili has spent his share of time split out as well.
It's safe to say that the Colts are lacking talent at receiver.
With Darrius Heyward-Bey being a massive disappointment, defenses have keyed on T.Y. Hilton. As a result, his production has sharply declined. Hilton has just 135 total yards over the last four games, including a two-catch, seven-yard disappearing act in Cincinnati this past weekend.
Fortunately for Indianapolis, their young receivers stepped up against Cincinnati, prompting some cautious optimism in Indianapolis. The fan favorite Da'Rick Rogers was the biggest surprise, catching six passes on nine targets for 107 yards and two touchdowns. Rogers was a big name prior to the 2012 NFL draft, but off-field issues caused him to go undrafted.
Rogers has been in Indianapolis on the practice squad for much of the season, but was activated for the last two games and has produced magnificently.
It's clearly a small sample size, but in 44 snaps in the passing game, Rogers has been targeted 10 times, resulting in six catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns, along with a 26-yard defensive pass interference penalty. It adds up to a DVOA of 67.7 percent, easily the best of any receiver that Football Outsiders has the data publicly available for. (Again, small sample size, but shows how impressive he has been in his short stint).
From that short stint, what can we learn about Rogers? He's one of the more high-profile undrafted free agents in recent history, and he will get his chance over the next few weeks. What can we expect from the enigmatic rookie?
Big and Strong, Something New in Indianapolis
The Colts have been looking for a big, strong wide receiver for years. Well, fans have been hoping for one anyway.
Despite having some very talented receivers (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, T.Y. Hilton), the Colts haven't had a viable target like Rogers at all in the last 15 years. At 6'3", 215 pounds, Rogers has the height to get up over cornerbacks in the end zone as well as the size and strength to break tackles after the catch.
While Rogers hasn't had any end-zone targets yet, his size and tackle-breaking ability was on display in a big way Sunday.
Rogers' 69-yard touchdown was a perfect example of why the receiver is so dangerous and is reminiscent of Garcon's time in Indianapolis. Garcon was arguably the best after-the-catch receiver of the Manning era, excelling at absorbing contact on short passes and staying on his feet while making big plays.
With the speed to go along with the strength (4.50 40 time), Rogers has the potential to take any reception for a big gain. With the Colts' current inability to create downfield plays, that potential for chunk plays is a huge addition to Indianapolis' offense.
Not Great Hands, But Adequate
The problem with Darrius Heyward-Bey, thus far, is that he simply can't catch the ball. Heyward-Bey has dropped more than a fifth of his catchable passes this season, according to Pro Football Focus, via Nate Dunlevy:
According to ProFootballFocus, DHB has dropped 8 passes on 35 catchable balls this season. That's an insane drop rate of 22.9%.— Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) December 5, 2013
Keep in mind, that was before he dropped another pass on third down against the Bengals (on just three targets).
In his short time on the field, Rogers has been better. He hasn't displayed great hands, but what he's done has been more than adequate. His catch rate of 67 percent on Sunday is on par with players like Jordy Nelson and Wes Welker.
Rogers did have one drop on Sunday, but it wasn't a routine catch that he lost concentration on. It was simply a poor throw that he couldn't reel in.
You'd like to see him make that catch, but it's not a terrible play.
On Rogers' first career catch, we saw him go to the ground and make a nice catch on a low ball from Andrew Luck, so there is a balance to that equation as well.
The one type of catch that you'd like to see Rogers make as the Colts move forward over the next few weeks are the deep balls down the sideline over a cornerback, or red-zone targets where he can use his size.
We've seen them in college and we nearly saw one on Sunday, but CB Adam Jones was able to knock it out.
It was a great play by Jones, and one that not many corners will make. Hopefully the Colts and Luck will give him the chance to make these kinds of plays as the Colts move forward.
Streaks and Crossing Routes, the Pep Hamilton Staple
A large majority of the Colts' route tree under Pep Hamilton involves streaks and five-yard crossing routes, so it's no surprise that over 60 percent of Rogers' charted routes from Sunday's game fell under those two categories.
This was the role Heyward-Bey was supposed to play: Get him in space with crossing routes and other short combinations, and then let him fly deep against press coverage on streaks on the outside. Some may like to see a bit more variety from the receiver, with posts and deeper in routes mixed in, but Hamilton isn't going to fundamentally change his offense at this point in the season.
Rogers isn't a technically great route-runner regardless, as his cuts aren't quite sharp enough to be a standout possession receiver. Using him on precision routes isn't going to utilize his talents all that well, at least not until he becomes a more polished route-runner.
While Rogers isn't the most explosive deep threat, he was able to get past cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Adam Jones on streaks up the left side in the last two weeks, so the potential for big plays is there.
Expect Rogers to rule the area from the line of scrimmage to about six yards deep (crossing routes, screens, slants, five-yard in routes) and then throw in some streaks on the outside. Anything else will just be gravy.
Can Rogers keep up the kind of production that he's had? Unlikely.
But with three weeks to go and their playoff seed all but locked up, the Colts can afford to experiment. Try some different things, let the relationship with Luck develop and figure out the best way to use Rogers.
What can it hurt?