PITTSBURGH — On Wednesday, on the eve of training camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed slot receiver and punt returner Eli Rogers to a one-year contract.
It’s a move that will improve the team’s depth at an important position heading into the season. It’s also a move that will deal a big blow to former Pitt standout Quadree Henderson’s chances of making the roster.
Henderson, who left Pitt a year early to sign with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, was hoping to contribute in those two areas, where he excelled at Pitt as a rusher and receiver out of the slot and was an All-American specialist as a kick and punt returner.
It probably means that, unless there’s a string of injuries or departures, Henderson will have to start the season on the practice squad, but the opportunity to hone his craft at a higher level was the reason he wanted to turn pro in the first place.
“It’s a lot different,” Henderson said during the Steelers minicamp last month. “It’s a lot of sights and adjustments now. If two linebackers come out of the secondary, real quick, you get your eyes to the quarterback. You didn’t have that in college, you just had to run your route.”
Henderson said that he’s taken a look at the film from some NFL players that fit in a mold he feels like he can fit into.
“Tyreek Hill, Tavon Austin, small, shifty, slot guys that return and also played receiver,” Henderson said, but he’s not suggesting he’s at that level yet. “That’s not going to happen tomorrow. You’ve got to learn over time.”
He feels that so far this offseason, he’s been able to show off what he can do with the ball in his hands while he works to improve his mastery of the playbook and concepts.
“Flashing back to rookie minicamp, I caught a five-yard in route, and took it across the middle and all the way to the end zone,” Henderson said. “I heard Coach Tomlin say, ‘I liked that. You looked like a returner.’”
Of course, Henderson is plenty good as a return man, but it’s an open question as to how much that position in valued these days in the NFL. As rule changes designed to decrease concussions filter through the levels of football, kick returns have lessened and lessened, leaving less work for specialists.
Henderson is undaunted by the change, and feels like his ability as a return man doesn’t need to define him, but it can give him a foot in the door that a typical undrafted free agent might not have.
“They know what I can do in the return game,” he said. “I feel like I’ll make my money there and slowly progress into the receiver role. Everything’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s going to take time and it’s going to take patience. I just have to progress, keeping working at everything and perfect my craft.