Through the first three days of Colts camp, no position has caught more attention than the wide receiver group. Of course, this can be explained easily enough by the return of star receiver Reggie Wayne, as well as the impressive performances of T.Y. Hilton. It's not hard to understand why the Colts receiver position has caught so much attention.
But there are a few other receivers who are receiving (get it?) quite a bit of attention through the first few days of camp, and so I wanted to take some time here and share my extended thoughts on what I've seen from the receivers not named Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton - namely, Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers.
But first, I want to ease some concerns held by many fans (and fantasy football owners) about the way the Colts offense will run this year. I've seen several people suggest that T.Y. Hilton won't have a good year simply because there are too many weapons, and I've seen several others suggest that Hilton will be the third receiver behind Reggie and Hakeem Nicks. I have always said that neither of those statements were true, but we really couldn't tell until we started to see the team work. And I can tell you that just after watching three practices, there's nothing to worry about.
We have to be careful to remember that Reggie Wayne is being limited in terms of snaps because he's coming back from injury, but it's clear beyond any doubt that T.Y. Hilton should see the most playing time of any receiver on the Colts in 2014. This is especially evidenced when the Colts run two tight end sets on offense - something that I'm not really opposed to if both Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are in there. Almost universally, the first team offense has included Reggie Wayne on one side and T.Y. Hilton on the other. So far in camp, there's been none of this "Hakeem Nicks will start over T.Y. Hilton" crap that some made up in the offseason, and while we've still got a long ways to go, with the star-power of Hilton and the incredible timing he has with quarterback Andrew Luck, I don't see that changing. Furthermore, when Nicks has played with the first team, it has usually been in place of Reggie Wayne, or in a three wide receiver set. Meaning that T.Y. Hilton is still in there. Where it gets tricky is with Reggie's limited snaps and then the constant rotation to get guys opportunities in training camp, so it's really hard to tell definitively, but T.Y. Hilton has been in with the first team offense more than any other receiver, and while I haven't kept track of snap counts or reps or anything, I don't think it's close. Reggie Wayne would be second, and I think we'll see that in the season too. I don't think there will be a receiver who plays more than Hilton on this Colts offense, provided that Hilton stays healthy. Ultimately, I don't think you have to worry about T.Y. Hilton's performance this year being crowded out by the depth at the position. Hilton will be in there a lot, and his timing with Luck makes it nearly impossible to justify not doing so. Reggie Wayne will be in there a lot as well (again, it's nearly impossible to justify not doing so again), and I think it's clear that Hakeem Nicks will be the team's third receiver. That doesn't mean he won't play often, as he'll be moved around and given significant playing time. It just means that fans don't have to worry about Hilton not getting enough time, because I can assure you he will.
But that's not even the main focus of this article, nor is it to point out that undrafted guys, namely Eric Thomas and Tony Washington, have really stood out in camp as well. Both guys have impressed me, and the main problem they'll face is the same problem that T.Y. Hilton won't face - the depth at wide receiver. Thomas and Washington are at best the seventh guy on the depth chart at receiver, and they have quite a climb to get into the top six, in which there's a good possibility of making the roster. But both guys are doing what they can right now, and that's making the most of their opportunities. They can't control how the guys ahead of them do, they can only control what they do, and so far I'm excited by what I've seen from both Thomas and Washington.
However, the two guys that I mainly want to focus on in this article are Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers - one of whom I think has had a terrific start to camp and the other who I think has had a pretty dismal start to camp. Let's start with Rogers.
Da'Rick Rogers is the epitome of a "potential" guy - that is, a guy who fans base their hopes in based off of the potential of what he can be or do. I'm a believer in potential - to a degree. If a guy consistently doesn't show it on the field, the question has to become whether he can ever reach that potential. I'll be honest and up front here and say that, while Rogers had several big plays and moments last year to get fans thrilled about him, I never got on that bandwagon. In fact, I was much more excited about Rogers before he got into games last year, even though his two touchdown game was nice, as was his huge catch against the Chiefs in the playoffs. But when he actually saw playing time, what I saw was a guy who showed his talent but who more than that showed that he had a lot of things left to work on - namely, route running. His poor route running led directly to two interceptions last year that I can remember from memory, and all offseason long myself and other analysts have clamored about how he needs to improve in that area. Because of the attention fans have given him and the potential that I do see in him, I've obviously been watching him closely in the first three practices. And what I've seen has left me really disappointed. On the first day, he had two drops. He looked like he didn't even try on plays where the ball wasn't going to him - a little thing, but one that could play a big difference in a game and something that coaches certainly look at. On the second day, I was watching his route running closely, and I saw rounded off routes. Still. He made a nice snag in double coverage... but the double coverage was because he rounded off his route, allowing the safety to catch up and make it tougher. It's something as simple and meticulous as making a sharp cut on an in route versus making a rounded cut on an in route, but it's something that could make all the difference - in fact, one of Luck's picks last year was because Rogers took too much of a rounded route, if I remember correctly. And then there were the other plays where you could tell that Rogers and Luck weren't on the same page, and that was confirmed by the quarterback pulling him aside as he the receiver came back to the huddle and instructing him. The most encouraging thing about Rogers came on the third day of camp, easily his best day so far. Rogers ran his best routes of camp, which featured sharp cuts and crisp routes. He still didn't get a lot of passes thrown his way in 11-on-11 work, but his routes looked better. Hopefully, that's something that will continue.
By contrast, there's Griff Whalen. Whalen isn't the first guy you think of when you talk about "potential," and he probably is closer to the last than the first. His ceiling is lower than that of Reggie, T.Y., Nicks, rookie Donte Moncrief, and Da'Rick Rogers. The others have the athletic gifting that Whalen doesn't - and this isn't to say that Whalen isn't a good athlete, we're just talking in comparison to the other guys. But what Whalen doesn't have in athleticism he makes up for in technique. He doesn't have the straight-line speed to just blow by guys (although he actually did just run straight and get open deep on Friday, which was nice to see), but he creates ways to get open. Whalen uses his route running to exploit the defense and get open. He's a possession, slot receiver who can create ways to get open. And it also helps that Whalen catches everything. I can maybe think of one catch that he should have had, though it would have been a highlight-reel catch - and even then I was thinking, "did Griff really miss that one?!?" Whalen is as sure-handed as they come in training camp. He has been all over the field and getting tons of catches in the first three days of camp. His timing with Luck is good and it's clear that his former Stanford teammate looks his way often on passing patterns. Whalen works incredibly hard and is meticulous on the details, working on getting open based on technique. Whalen has been faced with the fact that he doesn't have the speed to match up with guys like T.Y. Hilton or Da'Rick Rogers, and so he's worked on getting open in other ways - and it has worked.
Here's really the main difference that I've seen from Rogers and Whalen so far, and it really doesn't have to do with talent or "potential" or athleticism or anything like that. What I've really noticed is that Rogers seems content to just let the plays come to him, while Whalen is determined to make the plays. I remember on Friday when Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception to Marcus Burley, Da'Rick Rogers didn't put up much of a fight for it and instead let Burley get it. As a receiver, you're taught to go and get it. Rogers seems to let the play come to him, while Whalen seems to make the play. Whalen runs sharp routes to exploit the defense and get open. Rogers just seems to take the route running easy and hope the ball is thrown where he can get to it with his speed and athleticism.
What I've seen of Whalen makes me wonder just how the Colts could utilize that talent more during the course of the season. And what I think is that if the Colts would commit to using Griff Whalen and trying to put him in positions to succeed, he would do just that. He'd probably be only the fifth receiver, but depending on the situation, he could come in as a slot guy and do well. He can run underneath routes and get open on comebacks. He's a possession guy who knows how to get open, and a guy who Luck looks for often it seems.
I still think that both Rogers and Whalen will make the team, which is the same thing I said before camp started. But I think that Whalen's spot might be more secure than Rogers' (while neither are yet guaranteed a spot by any means), and I also think that if they both make the roster that Whalen could figure more prominently into the offense than Rogers.
Look, the bottom line is that the Colts are stacked at the wide receiver position, with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, and then Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end. But it has been impossible to watch camp so far and not be impressed with Griff Whalen, and it's an interesting contrast to Da'Rick Rogers.
Da'Rick Rogers might have more "potential," but Griff Whalen has been the one showing it on the practice field, which is the most important thing. It's one thing to have potential, it's another to show it. It has only been three days of camp, and we've got a long, long way to go before anything about the roster is decided, including all four preseason games. Let's not overreact. But I couldn't watch camp on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and not come away impressed with Griff Whalen and disappointed in Da'Rick Rogers. I hope that Whalen keeps it up and that Rogers works on the little things that can prove to be so important, which we've already begun to see with improvement on Saturday. I'm rooting for both of them.
[NOTE: There have been just three days of practice at training camp. The Colts have yet to be in full pads. It'll be very, very easy to overreact based on the small sample size. Many of you might think that's exactly what I've done here, and I know I'm contributing to that conversation a bit. But understand that these are just my observations on a position that has generated much discussion so far, and they're based on the first three days of camp and backed up by what we've seen in the past. I know my opinions on these players and this position will change as camp goes on, and I know that training camp is a time to work on issues. I get all of that. We've had three. freaking. days. DON'T OVERREACT. This is based on only three days of training camp, so it's nowhere near a solidified opinion, just observations from camp early on. In our continued efforts to bring you up to date analysis of Colts training camp for those of you who can't make it, I'm writing this to tell you what I've seen the first three days, but wanted to let you know that I realize it has just been three days and plenty of things will change. Know that going in so that you don't overreact in the comments - please!! - Josh]