Depth is not a strength of the Indianapolis Colts. On the surface, the Colts have a decent starting roster. Sure there are a few holes, like at running back, offensive line and safety. But there are quality starters at all other positions, albeit few "blue-chip" players.
After those starters, however, there's little talent that would be able to produce at a level anywhere near the starters. In the NFL, quality depth is often the difference between winning and losing during the back half of the season. For the Colts, who have lost more games due to injury than any other team over the last five years, that depth is especially important.
While most of the Colts roster is thin, general manager Ryan Grigson has done a fantastic job of filling out one position in particular: Wide receiver. Along with long-time stalwart Reggie Wayne starts third-year receiver T.Y. Hilton, who came on at the end of last season as a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Grigson also added former New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks in free agency and rookie Donte Moncrief in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft.
All four of those top receivers can, or potentially could, start and play at a high level. Moncrief has no starting experience but has incredibly high potential at 6'2", 220 pounds. Nicks struggled during the last two years at New York but has been a highly productive receiver before—and could be again with an effective quarterback.
Those four alone would make for a strong group of receivers, but then there are two more: Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen. Both former undrafted free agents, each played a significant role in the Colts offense at the end of last year.
But with six quality receivers, the Colts may have a problem. NFL teams usually keep just five wide receivers, the Colts had several years back where they kept just four.
So now what?
Now they have a problem, but it's a good problem to have.
Who do you keep, Rogers or Whalen? The enigmatic talent with a frustratingly low floor or the sure-handed slot receiver who may never develop into more than what he currently is?
In the words of an adorable Hispanic girl from an Old El Paso commercial, "¿Por qué no los dos?"
Why not both?
The two players play in such different roles in this offense, and have such different skills, that it would actually be quite the blow if either were to be lost.
Whalen is one of the few receivers that Luck has a noticeable timing and trust. That was evident in the preseason as Whalen was held to one catch for just five yards in the opener against the New York Jets, when he played largely with Matt Hasselbeck and the second team.
When he played with Luck against the Giants, Whalen caught five passes for 32 yards, including a five-yard touchdown on the Colts' second drive:
This is such a quick pass, with such a tight window, that the timing and the trust have to be there for the quarterback-receiver connection. The safety realizes the play fairly quick, there's really only about a half-second window in which Whalen exits his break before the safety enters the passing lane.
Whalen also is stellar at making subtle adjustments when Luck is in trouble to make himself a viable option. This is both a product of impressive on-field awareness and a familiarity with Luck, dating back to living together for three years in college.
On this play, Whalen is running a short route to the flat. Luck is pressured very quickly by the edge-rusher, who goes right by Gosder Cherilus like he's not even there.
At this point, Whalen has turned his head and sees Luck in trouble. With Luck having nowhere to go but to avoid the lineman and break toward the outside, Whalen makes an adjustment and comes back toward the middle of the field, giving Luck an easier target as well as bringing his man toward the middle if Luck wants to run to the outside.
Luck quickly tosses to Whalen for a nine-yard gain, and the play is saved.
But Whalen has his limitations as well. His lack of size and top speed means that it's more difficult for him to get separation against man defenses. All of his targets in the game against the Giants were on short, quick passes designed to set him up for yards after the catch, but those were minimal at best. Whalen, generally, doesn't make people miss or outrun defensive backs to the edge. He'll catch the ball, but don't expect much more from him.
Then there is Rogers, who still is very raw as a route-runner but has picked up two crucial catches with the second team this preseason and created at least one pass interference penalty for another chunk of yards.
Some in the media were unimpressed by Rogers in camp, but someone in the Colts organization told Mike Wells of ESPN.com, "Just wait until the lights come on. He’ll be fine."
So far, that unnamed person has been right.
Rogers has very deceptive speed for a receiver as big as he is and blows by cornerbacks who attempt to press him at the line. This was apparent in the Colts' win over the Jets, as Rogers beat the cornerback down the sideline on a simple fly route. Rogers gets two steps on the corner, Matt Hasselbeck throws a good ball and the Colts are 45 yards closer to a touchdown, which they eventually get.
Against the Giants, Rogers showcased his ability to use a quick move and strength to evade the press and explode upfield.
Rogers takes a step inside, uses his hands to catch the corner off balance and explodes past him with plenty of room for Hasselbeck to fit the throw in for the touchdown.
That's not something that Whalen can really do, he doesn't have that quick burst that Rogers possesses. Another thing that Whalen can't do that Rogers excels at is high-pointing the ball in jump-ball situations, something that was the catalyst in the Colts' win over the Kansas City Chiefs in last year's playoffs.
The Colts probably don't win that game without Rogers' catch.
But Whalen can fill in for a guy like Reggie Wayne as a possession receiver if he were to be injured, giving Luck somebody he trusts in the short and intermediate zones, someone who can find the holes in zone coverages. Rogers probably couldn't be effective in that role. What Rogers can do is stretch the defense, open things up for others and occasionally pick up extra yards on short screens or digs.
Which one is better? Which one should the Colts keep?
It's near impossible to compare the two, because they are so different. Whalen probably is more likely to go through waivers, but is it worth taking the risk that the Colts won't need somebody like him down the road?
So I plead with the Colts brass: Keep six receivers. You have depth at the position that has been incredibly thin over the last two years, and it's hurt you before. The loss to the New England Patriots in the postseason included many factors, but Luck's inability to find open receivers consistently was high on that list.
Now you have six receivers that can all produce, albeit at varying levels. With the injury history and potential of Wayne, Hilton and Nicks, depth is critical. You have that depth. Don't toss it aside like it's nothing.
Many would say that it's a good problem to have, possessing more capable players than you need and having to decide between two talented depth players.
Me? I say it doesn't have to be a problem at all.
¿Por qué no los dos?
All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.
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