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First-year WR Eli Rogers a good bet to become Steelers' slot receiver

One of the few standouts for the Steelers on Thursday night was a forgotten man only last April

The day they drafted Demarcus Ayers, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have had the happiest special teams coordinator in the NFL.

Danny Smith was darned near ebullient about the seventh-round pick, said he was "rated No. 1 on our list as far as returners were concerned," called him "dynamic," called himself "very excited."

Someone -- well, me -- asked Smith about Eli Rogers.

"I'm sorry?" Smith said.

Eli Rogers.

You know, the slot receiver/punt returner who was so intriguing as a rookie last training camp before going on Injured Reserve with a foot injury.

"Eli's in the mix," Smith said. "Eli's in the building and Eli's got a pair of Steelers shorts and he thinks he's a Steeler, but I have yet to see him in a game."

Laughter erupted in the room before Smith continued.

"He’s a suspect at this time," Smith concluded. "So, we’ll see."

Rogers is more than a suspect now. In fact, he's more than a roster lock now. He's probably the team's No. 1 slot receiver and might possibly be the wise guy's betting favorite to finish second behind Antonio Brown on the team's receptions tote board.

And, of course, Rogers is probably the team's No. 1 punt returner, since Mike Tomlin has been looking for someone to capably handle that duty in order to lessen the workload -- and the injury potential -- of the great A.B.

On Thursday night, against the Philadelphia Eagles, Brown returned two punts for 23 yards. One was a slick 17-yarder in which he deftly slipped a couple of tackles while moving the ball near midfield.

What did Coach Smith have to say then?

"He just told me 'good job' and he told me 'good job' on the fake fair catch, too," Rogers said. "He said that was good decision-making. I'm continuing to gain trust in him in that regard on special teams."

Rogers is "gaining trust" in all of his coaches these days. On a team that's woefully lacking at tight end, on a team that hasn't been able to execute its plan of working Markus Wheaton in the slot this summer because of Wheaton's nagging quadriceps injury, Rogers has been given a ton of work at training camp and in two preseason games.

He caught only one pass in the opener, but Thursday he caught four passes for 39 yards, including three on third down (for 25 yards) that converted two first downs. That was just in one half of work.

Rogers seems to get open easily over the middle. He was asked if a favorite route has been responsible.

"Yeah, just an option route," he said. "But, yeah, I have a knack for getting open period. That's the route where I have a lot of choices, a lot of options to choose from, and I believe I'll never be stopped on that play."

There's definitely some A.B. in the young, undrafted receiver from the same hometown, a hometown that has a propensity for turning out talented, confident wide receivers.

Rogers was born in Miami, like Brown, and attended Northwestern High School, where he played on the same team as current pros Teddy Bridgewater, Amari Cooper and the Steelers' Artie Burns.

They went 9-3.

Nine and three?

"We lost to a team twice that had even more future NFL players," Rogers said.

So Rogers has been playing pro football for quite a few years?

"You could say that," he said.

Rogers and Bridgewater went to Louisville, where Rogers averaged 44 catches per season and 11.5 per catch. His punt-return average was 8.6.

At his pro day, Rogers measured 5-10, 180, ran a 4.57 40, 1.57 10, 4.10 short-shuttle, 6.71 3-cone and had a vertical jump of 42 and a broad jump of 9-9.

For comparison's sake, Brown measured 5-10, 186, ran a 4.57 40, 1.58 10, 4.18 s-s, 6.98 3-c and had a vertical jump of 33 1/2 and a broad jump of 8-9 at his Combine.

Of course, Brown averaged 102 catches per season (10.5) and 15.5 per punt return in college, so Rogers still has much more to prove on the field. In fact, Yahoo.com just ran a feature story on him with the headline: Eli Rogers has inside track for 5th WR spot.

But hasn't he moved beyond that low bar?

"Well, in my mind, I'm already on the team," Rogers said Thursday night. "But as far as people, I believe, yeah, they're starting to see my abilities. Outside of that, I'm just trying to be a consistent player, do what I do in practice, take it from practice into the game. That's really my main focus right now."

Rogers also said that he's still working on his craft, still hopes the game slows down a bit more, sees opportunity as the WR situation sits now and can't wait to work with Ben Roethlisberger in the next preseason game.

But the big question: Does Rogers remember when he was the forgotten "suspect" on draft day?

"I actually liked that," he said. "Nobody knew who I was then, and for (Smith) to say that, that was just an extra edge for me to prove to him and my teammates that I'm a player.

"I didn't feel like he was getting at me by saying it. I didn't take anything personally. But I definitely used it, like 'OK, yeah, I'm going to show him.'"

And he's doing just that.

NOTES -- The Steelers signed quarterback Bryn Renner and guard Antoine Everett and released running back Christian Powell and waived/injured center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke. Renner (6-3, 230) is now with his fifth NFL team since he was an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina two years ago. Everett, a 6-3, 325-pound guard out of McNeese State, spent his rookie season on the Tampa Bay practice squad.


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