Fri, 10 Jul 2020

Getting On The Radar

Indianapolis Colts
24 May 2020, 17:39 GMT+10

"He's gonna be fast. Get ready. He's a burner!"

Eric Young is chirping at Richard Shelton, who is standing at two red half cone markers set up on the turf at Glazer Family Field in Tampa, Fla.

At the opposite end of the field on the 20-yard line, Isaiah Rodgers positions himself next to his trainer, Taylor Scott; he squats in a three-point stance, lifts his right arm off the ground and takes a deep breath in.

Over the next couple minutes, months of preparation - and even years of dreams - will hinge on the numbers that appear on the display of the stopwatch in Shelton's right hand.

Now ready for takeoff, Rodgers explodes out of his stance towards Shelton, who turns his focus to the white yard line in front of him.

Rodgers exhales loudly as he crosses the finish line.

Beep!

"Four-three-one," says Shelton.

Rodgers has just ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds. It's a good time - it would've been third-fastest at this year's NFL Scouting Combine - but Rodgers knows he can do better.

Rodgers collects himself, returns to the starting line, gets in position next to the kneeling Scott and takes off again.

Beep!

"Four-two-eight," Shelton says.

Usually at this point there's a buzz among the NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives watching on as they begin double-checking their own stopwatches and comparing them with their colleagues nearby.

After all, Rodgers' 4.28-second 40-yard dash would've been the second-best time at this year's Combine - and just 1/100th of a second away from the 4.27-second 40 time put up by Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III.

But on this sunny day in Western Florida, there are no scouts or general managers on hand. In fact, just a few minutes after Rodgers runs his second 40-yard dash, the entire group - which includes other draft hopefuls from South Carolina, Florida International and Alcorn State - is asked, nicely, to vacate the premises.

This certainly wasn't how Rodgers envisioned his pro day turning out when he began preparing for the NFL Draft earlier in the year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spreading across the globe, and with UMass' pro day scheduled for March 24th officially canceled, Rodgers and his representatives had to think fast.

The resulting "virtual pro day," run by Shelton, a respected former NFL cornerback and scout, was a major hit. It would pay dividends a few weeks later, when the Indianapolis Colts came calling for Rodgers in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Here's how a talented athlete took advantage of a little creativity during a time of major uncertainty.

"I just followed my heart."

That was Rodgers in late-December 2015, when he announced via Twitter that he had committed to play football at the University of Massachusetts.

Rodgers was an all-around terror his senior season at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa. He scored 10 total touchdowns that year, finding the end zone via the run and the pass on offense and by taking interceptions and kick returns to the house on defense and special teams.

Heck, Rodgers even was utilized as a punter, and seven of his kicks landed inside the 20-yard line.

And once Rodgers got to UMass the following year, it didn't take long for him to start showing that his skills translated to the college level.

Ironically, it was an injury suffered by fellow cornerback Jackson Porter - who was signed to the Colts' practice squad last November and remains on the team's 90-man offseason roster - that paved the way for Rodgers' first collegiate start in his third game as a true freshman against Florida International.

Rodgers had four tackles and three pass breakups that day, and wouldn't come off the bench the rest of his career.

As a cornerback, Rodgers was getting better and better with each season. He had a couple interceptions, one forced fumble and fumble recovery apiece and seven pass breakups as a freshman. He followed that up with three interceptions - one of which he returned for a touchdown - to go with an impressive 14 pass breakups (ranking tied for 11th in the FBS) and two forced fumbles and fumble returns each in a sophomore year in which he would be named Second-Team All-Eastern College Athletic Conference, as well as First-Team All-Independent by Phil Steele.

Opposing teams started catching on to Rodgers' playmaking abilities on defense by that point; he was targeted with 68 passes as a sophomore, but saw that number decrease by almost 40 percent his junior season, when he had 56 tackles (3.0 for a loss) with two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and four passes broken up.

Rodgers was tough as nails his senior season. On the surface, he was credited with 42 total tackles (three for a loss) with four interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) to go along with 10 pass breakups and one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. But digging a little deeper, the potential NFL talent was evident: Rodgers was targeted 49 total times on the year, allowing just 24 receptions for an NFL passer rating of just 64.5, according to Pro Football Focus. He was named All-ECAC, Phil Steele All-Independent Second Team and New England Football Writers Association All-New England as a defensive back in 2019.

In four seasons, Rodgers amassed quite the defensive resume, as he graduated as UMass' all-time leader in pick-sixes (three), and finished second all-time in school history in interception return yards (242), tied for second in pass breakups (35), third in passes defensed (46) and sixth in fumble return yards (44).

But what really set Rodgers apart were his electric abilities as a returner.

In his four-year career for the Minutemen, Rodgers would log 99 kickoff returns for 2,338 yards (23.6 avg.) - both school records - as well as 21 punt returns for 156 yards (7.4 avg.) and one touchdown.

Last year, Rodgers logged a UMass single-season record 53 kickoff returns for 1,295 yards, ranking first in the nation among FBS players in those categories; he also added a 42-yard punt return touchdown against Charlotte. Rodgers was named a First-Team All-American by PFF as a kick returner; other accolades as a returner that season for Rodgers included PFF College All-Independent Team, All-ECAC and Second-Team All-Independent By Phil Steele.

Rodgers' game film showed he had the skillset to compete at the next level, and his production on paper was on par with some of the top cornerbacks and return specialists coming out for the 2020 NFL Draft. With a few months of training, some eye-popping workout numbers and the ability to showcase his passion for the game in team interviews, Rodgers was confident he could not only find his way onto an NFL roster, but entice one lucky team to pick him up in the draft.

"Oh s---! What's next?"

That was Rodgers' reaction in mid-March when he had learned via text message that UMass had canceled its pro day.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic due to the sharp rise in confirmed COVID-19-related cases and deaths across the globe. Two days later, the NFL distributed a memo to all 32 teams, prohibiting any sort of in-person pre-draft visits. In short: teams could no longer host prospects at their facilities, and they could no longer send their scouts and coaches on the road to further evaluate prospects at their respective pro days.

For some of the top-ranked NFL hopefuls, this wasn't a huge deal. They had already participated in key postseason all-star events such as the Senior Bowl (Jan. 21-25), as well as the NFL Scouting Combine, which was held Feb. 23-March 2 in Indianapolis; not much from this point on was going to affect their draft stock.

But for guys like Rodgers, who at the time estimated he had varying interest from about nine or 10 NFL teams (including the Colts; more on that later), this development was discouraging, to say the least. Rodgers, who wasn't invited to participate in the Combine, was banking on his pro day numbers catapulting him from an undrafted free agent candidate on most teams' draft boards to possible late-round pick status.

But Rodgers said phone calls from his agent, Bryan Gavin, founder of The Gavin Agency, as well as Eric Young, Gavin's Director of Operations, immediately put his mind at ease that day.

"Dealing with that, Bryan was like, 'Look, just control what you can control. Let us work." And Eric was like, 'Hey, this is what we're going to do,'" Rodgers recalled. "I think that lightened up everyone else's outlook. So at that time it was more of, 'Just control what you can control.'"

Truth be told, at that time, Rodgers' representatives, while confident, were quietly scrambling, working the phones and trying to figure out the best way to overcome this major obstacle.

"Once the COVID-19 had hit and all of the pro days were eventually shut down and closed, now we're going into waters that a lot of agents, even ourselves, aren't familiar with," Young said. "So now you have to rely on relationships. You have to rely on a business savvy, experience as an agency, as an agent, to really know what you're doing and how to maneuver through that."

The idea of executing a "virtual pro day" certainly wasn't an original one, as dozens of other prospects facing the same adversity were already in the process of sending recorded workouts to teams across the league.

But Gavin and Young wanted their players' workouts to stand out. They asked team scouts what exactly they wanted to see and how exactly to go about showing it. But perhaps the key piece to all of this was the decision to bring in Richard Shelton, a former NFL cornerback who had almost two decades of experience as a former college scout with the Tennessee Titans.

Shelton's involvement instantly gave The Gavin Agency's workouts a sense of authenticity.

"We knew that, hey, the scouts and the teams weren't going to take times from us just doing our own pro day with us or a trainer doing the times. There's no validity with those times," Young said. "We had to go in and hire our own personal, former scout."

At that point, there were still some logistics to be worked out. Rodgers' pro day was tentatively scheduled for an upcoming weekend, and while those participating had an indoor facility available to use for a majority of the events (measurements, bench press, vertical jump and broad jump) at D1 Training in Tampa, the group still needed to secure a full-sized football field to conduct the timed running events, such as the shuttles and the 40-yard dash, as well as position drills.

Finding that field was going to prove to be easier said than done, however, as most cities and schools had already started closing down their facilities as a precaution and to adhere to social distancing measures.

On top of everything else, Young said Shelton wanted to move the date of the event up a few days to that Tuesday, catching Rodgers completely off-guard.

"I know I got the message at 6 p.m. (Monday)," Rodgers said. "Eric doesn't text; he sends voice messages. He's like, 'We're going to do a mock pro day tomorrow. So stretch up. Stay hydrated.' I'm like, 'Wait. What? We just squatted yesterday at the facility. Where is this coming from?' So we had to literally lock in for about 12 straight hours as we got back up and ready."

The Gavin Agency guys, meanwhile, were in total "wing-it" mode by then.

"It was just out of the ordinary, man. A lot of the parks were closed, to be honest, and we didn't know - we didn't tell Isaiah or the other guys - we didn't know if we were going to have a field," Young said. "We knew we had a facility to do the bench press, the broad jumps and do all the indoor stuff, the measurements. But we were not 100-percent sure that we were going to have a field to do the 40s and the agility stuff.

"So we didn't know until the last hour, to be honest," Young continued. "We didn't know what to expect right up until the last minute. ... We scouted some parks out and some fields. Everything was closed. But we ended up finding one and having some of the people jump the gates, and some people walked around."

Rodgers dominated his workout that day. Indoors, he had a 40-inch vertical leap, which would've ranked third among cornerbacks at the Combine; outdoors, his 6.90-second time in the three-cone drill also would've ranked third among all Combine corners.

But the crown jewel of all NFL workouts is the 40-yard dash. Rodgers said when he first started his pre-draft training process he was already running in the low-4.3s, but took advantage of his training at the D1 Academy to knock off those extremely valuable few 1/100ths of a second to eventually clock in during his pro day at 4.28 on his second attempt after running a 4.31 on his first try.

"I didn't hear it at first. I heard four-two, I didn't hear the eight. I got back to everyone that had clocks and I'm like, 'What was it?' I got some 4.25s, 4.24s. I'm like, 'Oh!' Then Richard Shelton had the actual numbers we were going by; he had 4.28. I was like, 'I don't want that one - I want what everybody else has!'" Rodgers said with a laugh.

"But I ended up going with a 4.28, which is fine. It was all good."

Shortly thereafter, before the prospects could start running position drills to close out the day, they were asked to leave the field. But for Rodgers, a weight had already been lifted off his shoulders.

"I think once it happened, it basically cleansed everyone's mind like, 'Boom!' All that nervousness is over, figuring out pro days and stuff like that," he said. "I have to say, it really took a load off everyone's minds after that. It just basically made you lock in even more."

Mike Derice was slightly peeved.

Derice, an area scout with the Colts going on eight years now, had his eye on Rodgers for quite some time by the time news of his epic pro day workout video started spreading like wildfire.

Good for Rodgers, Derice thought, but the workout only confirmed what he had already known - and now the rest of the league was in on the secret.

Derice, who focuses on the Northeast region of the country, had met Rodgers a few months earlier during a visit to UMass, and came away extremely impressed, despite the fact that he hadn't really landed on many NFL teams' radars by that point.

"I think people knew of Rodgers; they might not have had tons of love for him. When I had went to the school there wasn't a lot of love for him," Derice said. "I got a chance to really get to know him when I bumped into him at the cafeteria, and we spent some time talking. I got to see how passionate he was about the game of football."

The next step in the process for Derice at that point was to throw on Rodgers' game film.

"Then you start to really start studying him, you realize he does a lot of the little things right, from his footwork, the way he plays the ball and his confidence when he's in man coverage, whether he's playing on the outside or inside," Derice recalled. "And for a guy who's 174 pounds, you just never felt he was 174 pounds - it felt like he was bigger. And he played that way, and he had that type of confidence to display that."

The game film, matched with Rodgers' production and versatility to contribute on defense and special teams, then led to a conversation between Derice and Jon Shaw, the Colts' Assistant Director of Pro Scouting.

The Colts have certain proven physical benchmarks for players at each position, and only rarely will they consider prospects who don't fit into those categories. The most obvious exception to that rule at cornerback in recent years has been Kenny Moore II, who at 5-foot-9 doesn't meet the team's height requirement for the position, but he has a 78-inch wingspan, which is longer than the average NFL cornerback by almost three inches, while his 36.2-inch arm length is almost five inches longer than an average player at his position.

Rodgers, like Moore II, isn't the biggest cornerback at 5-foot-10 and around 170 pounds. But what Derice told Shaw, and had hoped to parlay to Colts general manager Chris Ballard, was that Rodgers' elite speed and playmaking ability both as a cornerback and as a returner would help make up for any size deficiencies.

Shaw turned on the tape and agreed with Derice's assessment of Rodgers, which started a chain of internal communication that eventually landed Rodgers on the Colts' draft board.

"Jon, I thought he did an outstanding job with just identifying, like, 'Hey man, this a great player that you have here. I'm gonna try to push him for Chris, and for Chris Ballard to watch, and to spend more time with him,'" Derice recalled. "And Chris came back and did the same thing. And now there's a communication between the three of us, where we are identifying that this is a guy that we wanna draft. And this communication between Ballard and I, Shaw and I, was finding out where can we take him? Why are most teams lower on him compared to us? And seeing if it's the right guy for us. And we felt like he was the right guy, right makeup, and had the right skillsets to be a Horseshoe guy."

Rodgers, meanwhile, exploded onto the pre-draft scene after his agency sent around his virtual pro day video to anyone and everyone they could reach across the league. Previously in contact with about 10 teams, Rodgers said that number grew to 30 or 31 teams soon after his impressive workout.

Young said Ballard was the very first team representative they heard from after sending out the video.

"It was probably no less than 15 minutes after we blasted it out to everyone, and he replied and said he really liked Isaiah and he was going to be in contact with us," Young said. "And ever since then, Isaiah got a lot of buzz, man. He was getting a lot of Zoom and FaceTime interviews and going over defensive concepts. I'm pretty had there been meetings and top-30 visits, I mean visits right there with teams, I'm pretty sure he would have a ton of visits for sure."

In the days leading up to this year's draft, Ballard had told Colts.com's Matt Taylor that he was impressed with the effort by some prospects and their agents to ensure they put out a quality pro day video - without having an actual pro day.

Ballard confirmed this week he was talking specifically about Rodgers when he made that statement.

To that end, Young said not every team would've sent a representative to Rodgers' original pro day at UMass had it been held as scheduled. So the recorded workout, authenticated by a former longtime NFL scout, likely added to Rodgers' appeal.

"So maybe us sending it out to everyone, now it made them go back and pay more attention to the film. Like, 'Wow. Who's this kid that ran a 4.28? Who covers this area? Why didn't we know about this kid?' Or, 'Let's go back and watch the film,'" Young said. "So that plays dividends as well, too. Because maybe we would've had 10 teams at the pro day, right? So now you're missing another 22 teams, but we were able to send it out to all 32 teams. So no one had an excuse not to get the pro day film, right?"

All of this, of course, was to the chagrin of the Colts and guys like Derice, who were in on Rodgers from the start.

"So I'm not gonna lie: I was upset that he did that video," Derice admitted, smiling. "Because at that point in time, we were already convinced of what type of player he was, and because he didn't have a pro day, he's more liable to slip. But he did the pro day, ran fast, and he was timed by a former NFL scout, so other teams would find it very credible. So there's a little bit of a panic, like, 'OK, how much are other teams going to take stock on this pro day? And is there a chance for someone to take him before we get a chance to get a crack at him?' It was probably a little bit nerve wracking for us once he put that out there and then it was public to the social media world."

April 25: Day 3 of the 2020 NFL Draft.

After making a couple Day 2 trades with the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, the Colts entered Day 3 action with four picks across Rounds 4-6, but Ballard wasn't done quite yet.

Indy starts the day by taking Washington quarterback Jacob Eason in the fourth round, and then picking up Ball State guard Danny Pinter in the fifth round. Then, the Colts send their sixth-round (182nd-overall) pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for two more sixth-rounders, at 212th and 213th overall.

The Colts start their action in the sixth round by taking Penn State defensive tackle Rob Windsor at 193rd overall, but by this point, Derice knows it's only a matter of time before somebody bites on Rodgers - he just hopes it's his team.

"(The) palms were sweaty when you looked at a couple of teams on the board and you're like, 'They could take Isaiah here, this team could take Isaiah there,'" Derice said. "And so we look at how many teams were ahead of us, and we tried to figure out what are the chances or the likelihood of this particular team taking him?"

Rodgers' representatives, meanwhile, were getting all sorts of action behind the scenes by this point. They knew there were a few teams coming up in the sixth round, including the Colts, who could possibly select Rodgers, and they were also already putting out feelers for the possibility of Rodgers becoming a priority undrafted free agent if he didn't end up getting selected by the end of the seventh round.

But Rodgers wasn't going to settle for going undrafted on this day. Not after everything he had gone through.

"Once the sixth round hit, considering the pro day, I knew, 'Alright, this is the round someone's gonna pull it,'" he said. "I had faith in that."

Now approaching the end of the sixth round, Ballard and the Colts were willing to wait no longer to go and get their guy. They already had back-to-back picks at Nos. 212 and 213, but wanted to ensure Rodgers wouldn't get swept out from under them by another team.

The Colts pulled off another trade, sending cornerback Quincy Wilson to the New York Jets in exchange for the 211th-overall pick, setting up back-to-back-to-back selections for Indy.

Now on the clock at No. 211 overall, the Colts dialed up Rodgers' number.

"It took a little time for that random number to pop up. It's like, 'Oh, there it goes!' And it just basically went from there," Rodgers said of being selected by the Colts that day.

"Just dealing with process and speaking with most of the teams in the NFL, you know, the Colts had been there since Day 1," Rodgers added. "(I) talked to pretty much everyone who's part of the organization. You know, I felt very strongly about the Indianapolis Colts, and here I am now."

Derice, meanwhile, was absolutely thrilled to have landed his guy.

"Once they got past our first sixth-round pick we were pretty confident that we were going to be able to get the player that we wanted at that position," he said.

"Our whole department was behind the move, you know?" Derice continued. "Because he doesn't technically fit what the mold was, but you've got Jon Shaw, who stood on the table and (went to) bat for it, so it's just a complete team effort on getting the right guys for the program that we all believe in."

"Isaiah Rodgers - he's got rare speed, he's an explosive returner and he takes away the ball," Ballard told reporters after the conclusion of the draft. "So to be able to get those extra picks and we thought we were going to have a chance to acquire them. It gave us the opportunity to do it."

Time to go to work.

From here, Rodgers is well aware that the real work is just beginning. His cousin, two-time NFL Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, has been with Rodgers every step of the way, whether in training or just dishing out advice about what it takes to make it at the next level.

"His main thing to me was just control what I could control, and once I get in there, just do everything I can to stay in there," Rodgers said of the advice he got from his cousin. "You know, a lot of kids, they'll reach their dreams, they'll stop then. It doesn't stop here. So he just told me to keep working."

Despite being a draft pick, Rodgers does have plenty of competing to do from this point forward if he wants to make the Colts' Week 1 roster. While he can play both outside and inside at cornerback, the team is in need of someone to step up and take over the backup nickel cornerback spot behind Moore II; Rodgers is one of several players who will be battling it out for that position once training camp and the preseason get underway.

It's the same situation at returner. While Nyheim Hines put on quite the show the second half of the season last year as the Colts' punt returner, the kick returner spots are wide open for the taking. Rodgers should be in the mix to compete there with the likes of Hines, Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin and others.

Rodgers should also be in the running to compete for one of the Colts' gunner positions on the punt coverage units.

As for now, however, Rodgers is just having fun "enjoying the moment," soaking it all in during his first few weeks as an NFL rookie. While the COVID-19 pandemic has created the need for a "virtual offseason program" as opposed to a traditional rookie minicamp and in-person offseason program held at the Colts' facility, the team, like Rodgers, has found ways to be creative to make the most of its situation.

Already, the likes of Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers and Hall of Fame sharpshooter Ray Allen have talked to the veterans via video conference call; last week, legendary Colts quarterback Peyton Manning addressed the team's rookies.

And now, this week, for the first time, the entire 90-man roster - veterans and rookies - joined together.

"You're only a rookie once. Right now I'm really just having fun with it," Rodgers said. "It's different seeing that Zoom meeting and we got Peyton Manning in there, and just today we've got Xavier Rhodes - you know, guys you played with on Madden, and now it's like, 'Wow, this is literally my teammate, my brother now.' So I'm just really enjoying the moment right now, having fun with it."

For now, all the pre-draft work has paid off. In a matter of months, Rodgers has gone from lightly-scouted fringe prospect to a sixth-round pick.

All thanks to a little creativity during very uncertain times.

"I learned to just control what I can control and just do what I can do on my end and just continue to pray," Rodgers said. "Now, here I am."

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