Incredibly, for Da’Rick Rogers, the hard part might be just beginning.
The undrafted rookie traveled a long road — with many obstacles of his own creation — to last week’s breakout game at Cincinnati. After catching six passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals, the stakes have been raised.
An Indianapolis Colts offense that has sputtered through fits and starts in six games without veteran Reggie Wayne desperately needs a big-play wide receiver. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Rogers, meanwhile, is desperate to prove he can stick in the NFL.
As difficult as Rogers’ journey was to get to this point, it could be even harder to stay there.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” he said by his locker earlier this week at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “Once you get here, it’s an honor. It’s definitely an opportunity, not a job or a career. You’ve got to come fight for your job every day.”
It’s a battle Rogers has fought well thus far.
His days begin early and end late with extra work alongside receivers coach Charlie Williams outside of practice. It’s a routine Rogers has followed diligently since being released by the Buffalo Bills at the end of the preseason Aug. 26 and signed by the Colts seven days later.
Indianapolis threw a lifeline to Rogers’ fledgling pro career, and he’s being asked in turn to help rescue the Colts. In truth, he makes for an unlikely hero.
Immaturity, not a lack of talent, slowed Rogers’ climb. He was a high school star in Georgia and had a breakout sophomore season at the University of Tennessee before coming untracked.
His fall reportedly included three failed drug tests with the Vols. The school never provided an official reason for suspending him for his junior season, but the receiver himself owned up to the test results at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
Sterling numbers after a transfer to Tennessee Tech did little to assuage fears, and Rogers slipped through all seven rounds of April’s draft. When he caught just two passes for 12 yards — ironically including a 6-yard touchdown at Lucas Oil Stadium — in four preseason games with the Bills, the receiver was beginning to look like a waste of potential.
That changed in Indianapolis, where his work ethic never waned despite spending most of his time simulating opposing offenses on the practice squad.
Before last week, the highlight of Rogers’ NFL career was drawing a 26-yard pass interference penalty against Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner during a win on Dec. 1.
With added snaps in place of struggling Darrius Heyward-Bey last Sunday, he took the second reception of his career 69 yards for a touchdown on a slant pattern over the middle of the Bengals’ defense.
“It feels like it did in my dreams,” Rogers said. “Great, amazing, everything I could imagine. But it felt good to finally see the hard work that you put in, overcoming ... It’s something to build on.”
The challenge now is to replicate that success.
Since Wayne’s injury Oct. 20 against Denver, defenses have been sending extra coverage over the top to T.Y. Hilton’s side of the field in an attempt to contain the Colts’ lone remaining big-play threat.
Rogers — and second-year receiver LaVon Brazill, who caught three passes for 53 yards and two scores during the 42-28 loss at Cincinnati — could help alleviate that problem if they can sustain last week’s performances.
Of course, Rogers and Brazill now will have to deal with defensive changes of their own.
“Teams will try to game plan for you, do things to try to take you away,” said Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, a six-time Pro Bowler who will line up against the Colts today. “A lot of times, you just have to learn and adjust on the fly. It’s definitely tough week in and week out and try to put up those big numbers. I’d just tell them to stay focused on what they’re doing and keep working hard at their craft.”
With all the twists and turns Rogers’ football life has taken, it’s easy to forget he’s still just 22 years old. He has an opportunity to “make himself necessary,” as head coach Chuck Pagano likes to say, in Indianapolis.
He has a chance to fulfill the potential that once made him a rising star in the nation’s most demanding college football conference.
He has a chance, finally, to find an NFL home.
“He got a second chance, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity that this organization has given him,” Pagano said. “Now it’s a matter of handling success. And that’s something that we’ll continue to talk to him daily about.”
Incredibly, for Da’Rick Rogers, the hard part might be just beginning.
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