When it comes to making the most of opportunities, perhaps Griff Whalen is an example to think of.
Cut by the Colts several times in recent years, many people found it surprising when Whalen made the team as the fifth wide receiver out of training camp instead of Duron Carter. Whalen opened the season as the return specialist for the Colts, and while he gave them solid play, he wasn't spectacular. Then the fake punt debacle happened where Whalen never should have snapped the ball, and the following week he fumbled several times in the return game. It's entirely possible that the Colts would have looked to replace Whalen on the roster following that game against the Saints, but rookie wide receiver Phillip Dorsett fractured his fibula in the same game, putting him out for 4-6 weeks.
The Colts signed Quan Bray to take Whalen's spot in the return game, but all of the sudden Whalen was taking Dorsett's spot in the offense as the fourth wide receiver. And while his role in the offense still hasn't been massive, it's been a lot bigger than it was during the first seven weeks. In fact, through the first seven games, Whalen played 21 offensive snaps total. In the past two games, Whalen has played 34 snaps. In fact, according to fantasy specialist Mike Clay, Whalen ran three more routes than Andre Johnson on Sunday. Again, that's not a huge number, but it's much larger than it has been, and most importantly, he's been producing.
Against the Carolina Panthers, Whalen caught five passes for 48 yards, while on Sunday against the Broncos he caught five passes for 73 yards. In the past two games, he has caught 10 passes (on 11 targets) for 121 yards, averaging 12.1 yards per reception. On the season, he has caught 13 passes for 167 yards and a score, while eight of his 13 passes have gone for first downs (with four of them coming on either third or fourth down). Against the Broncos on Sunday, three of his receptions came on third down, helping the offense move the chains. Furthermore, according to Colts.com's Kevin Bowen, Whalen has the highest percentage of catches per target of any receiver in the league who has played at least 55 snaps this year.
"He's a grinder," head coach Chuck Pagano said of Whalen on Monday. "He's a gym rat. He loves football. He loves his teammates. He's got a really good skill set. He runs precise routes. He's got excellent hands. His ball skills are there. He understands football. He understands defenses. He knows if he's getting zone or man, when to keep running on a crossing route and when to settle in soft zones and find open windows. Obviously he's got great chemistry with the guy who throws the football."
That chemistry with quarterback Andrew Luck is not something to be overlooked, as the two played together at Stanford and now have been together with the Colts for the past four years. "The truth of the matter in the passing game is that every quarterback has a receiver or tight end that they just feel him," backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said, according to Colts.com's Steve Andress. "They get him. I had that relationship with Bobby Engram. You saw Peyton Manning had it with Brandon Stokley. Tom Brady had it with Deion Branch. There's definitely a rapport between Andrew and Griff that goes back a long, long time ago."
Whalen has been producing recently, but the Colts aren't surprised. "I don't think it's a surprise to anybody in the locker room or anybody at practice," Andrew Luck said after the game on Sunday. "He's where he's supposed to be, and he gets the job done. I realize too it's pretty special to be able to get to play with your roommate from college in big games and in the NFL. He's a heck of a guy."
Griff Whalen hasn't received a ton of opportunities this year, but he has made the most of them. With Andre Johnson supposed to be the possession receiver but struggling to produce, Whalen has stepped into that role a bit and taken advantage of his work ethic and rapport with Luck to produce. Now, he's impressed enough that he should continue to see opportunities over the coming weeks. Perhaps the common refrain from Luck and others should be heeded: don't forget about 'the Griffer.'