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Armani Rogers hit a ceiling as a college QB — but not yet as a Commanders TE

Armani Rogers hit a ceiling as a college QB — but not yet as a Commanders TE

Armani Rogers had roughly two weeks to let go of a career as a quarterback, start anew as a tight end and appear just decent enough at the new position to win over NFL scouts and executives.

The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder spent his entire career tossing the ball, be it in baseball as a highly touted first baseman or in football as a dual-threat quarterback at UNLV and then Ohio.

But when the 2021 college season ended and the NFL draft neared, Rogers was encouraged to make an abrupt switch, leaving him little time to learn the basics of a new position before the pre-draft whirlwind began.

“I knew I had a lot to gain and not much to really lose in the situation,” he said. “These people I’m playing against are great college athletes that have been playing the position all their life. If I can go out there and just show a little potential, I know some teams will be willing to take a chance.”

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Just 10 months into his NFL career, Rogers has shown more than just “a little potential.” The 24-year-old has emerged as a valuable contributor for the Washington Commanders on offense and special teams. His coaches view his transition to tight end as nothing short of exceptional, but it’s his potential that has them more intrigued.

“To predict that he would end up being a tight end, I can’t tell you that I would’ve seen that because really you have to give that to Armani,” said Eric Stokes, Washington’s senior director of player personnel. “What he did is, quite frankly, remarkable.”

The Commanders have made a habit of transforming talented players into multiskilled weapons. Take Antonio Gibson, Washington’s leading running back who was a wide receiver at the University of Memphis. Or Logan Thomas, a former quarterback who, like Rogers, switched to tight end. Or J.D. McKissic, another back who converted from receiver at the pro level.

Rogers’s blocking skills remain raw, but his speed and strength could be a boon in the passing game — especially considering new quarterback Carson Wentz’s fondness for his tight ends. Since 2017, when he helped the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl, Wentz has targeted tight ends the second most among qualified quarterbacks, behind only the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.

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In Washington’s Week 1 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Wentz targeted Rogers only once, but the catch offered a glimpse of what could be.

On a screen play, Rogers slid into the flat, caught a short pass, then spun off a defender to see nothing but open field. He picked up 23 yards before being pushed out of bounds.

Four plays later, the Commanders were in the end zone.

“You watch Armani and his athleticism, and I think it is a skill set that’s going to go ahead and continue to develop well for us in terms of his ability to run and catch the ball,” Coach Ron Rivera said.

Washington’s staff took notice of Rogers well before he arrived in Washington. He appeared on the radar of executive vice president Marty Hurney when he was general manager of the Carolina Panthers.

At UNLV, Rogers set multiple school records, including the school’s career mark for net rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,549. He is the only quarterback in program history to rush for at least 100 net yards in six games and, in 2017, he was one of just five players nationwide to average at least 140 passing yards and 75 rushing yards.

““Marty and I actually saw him initially at UNLV when he was a quarterback,” Stokes said. “He wore number one, and he had this kind of Cam Newton look to him in terms of his stature and his eyes. But you could see that he necessarily wasn’t going to be a quarterback.”

At Ohio, Rogers set the FBS record for the longest run by a quarterback at 99 yards. But he didn’t start a single game, and his hoped-for future as an NFL quarterback faded. So his agents, Frank Bauer and Kenny Chapman, urged a position switch.

“I knew I wanted to be in the NFL, and not playing quarterback my last year and not having any film the last two years or whatever the case may be, I just know this is an opportunity for me to get to the next level,” Rogers said. “I have to do what I have to do to be on an NFL team.”

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Rogers’s father, Sam, was a linebacker for 10 years in the league, with three different teams. Sam was hesitant for his son to switch positions. But eventually he supported the move.

“He had a rough two years at Ohio University,” Sam Rogers said. “And when you got a kid like Armani who loves to compete, loves to be on the field, not saying anything bad about other kids, but he just knew he was better than the kid they were putting in front of him. Sometimes it does take the air out of you.”

A move to tight end offered Rogers a clean slate. Once he decided, he called his longtime trainer, Travelle Gaines, and asked for his help.

“I thought he was crazy,” Gaines recalled. “But he worked so hard, it just all made sense that he is where he is now.”

For two weeks in January, Rogers ran through three-a-days, with early-morning workouts that focused on strength followed by recovery sessions, midday workouts that focused on speed and agility, and then afternoon sessions to work on the nuances of tight end — the blocking, pass-catching and route-running. The last one seemed to come almost naturally, perhaps because of Rogers’s years watching and working with wideouts as a quarterback.

“The first time he actually ran routes was at the East-West Shrine game,” Gaines said. “But he just wanted to get better and perfect his craft.”

Rogers also worked with Steve Calhoun, a private quarterbacks coach in California who was one of the Commanders’ 2022 Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching fellows, and he had the help of his father, who made a living covering tight ends and shared all the things that made his job difficult.

“It was hard. At first I took him out on the field just to see if he could catch,” Sam Rogers said. “I knew he could catch basically in the shotgun, but not knowing he could catch over his shoulder, behind his back and all this stuff, twist his body around. So I took him out on the field and said: ‘Oh wow. You really have decent hands.’ ”

Though Rogers was one of the lesser-known invites to the East-West Shrine Bowl, Eric Galko, the director of football operations and player personnel for the game, had followed him for years. Rogers had no game tape to share of himself as a tight end, but Galko received clips of his training and remained intrigued.

“He’s a good case study for how to properly have perspective when scouting, because just the fact that he was able to be an adequate route runner and knew what he was doing was impressive,” Galko said. “The really impressive thing that he showed was the subtle stuff — using his hands against linebackers in one-on-ones to get that late-breaking separation that’s so important for a tight end, the slight shoulder adjustments against nickel corners when he’s doing a corner route.

“In isolation, none of those things are like, ‘Oh, I’m an NFL guy.’ But I think probably everybody he played against was either drafted or made a roster at linebacker or cornerback in practice. And the fact that he won consistently … and knowing that he has just learned this position weeks ago, all raised the question: What’s he going to be like in three months or, for the Commanders, in three years?

“Is he the next Logan Thomas?”

Before the East-West game, Galko said, no NFL teams recommended Rogers. They weren’t against him playing, but they also didn’t advocate to see him there.

“But post-event, yes, he was quite the talk of a lot of NFL personnel,” Galko said.

Especially for Washington. Hurney and a contingent of team scouts attended the full week of practice and the game in Las Vegas. Their interest in Rogers increased after his pro day at UCLA, where he recorded a 4.58-second 40-yard dash and jumped 34 inches on his vertical. Rogers wasn’t drafted, and he chose to sign with Washington knowing, in part, how much the Commanders had invested in him.

It helped that Rogers’s agents also represented Hurney, Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew. They also represented former Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas, a basketball player at Portland State who played one season of football before going pro.

“Same type of model for Armani. We thought he’d get recognized for his athleticism, and sure enough,” Chapman said. “We call him Julius Thomas 2.0.”

If Rogers needs an example of what’s possible, he need look no further than the guy starting in front of him. Washington in recent years has come to favor converted tight ends. Thomas, a former standout at Virginia Tech, entered the league as a quarterback when the Cardinals drafted him in 2014. By the time he arrived in Washington in 2020, he had three seasons of learning the position on his résumé, though none as a full-time starter. Once he got the extra reps that season, he said he finally felt comfortable at the position.

“Probably Week 3, Week 4,” Thomas said. “I really knew what I could do. I was understanding our offense and how I fit in our offense.”

Rogers said it all clicked for him during organized team activities. He had been a tight end for all of five months. Injuries to the Commanders’ tight ends in the offseason helped expedite his growth, and he’s so far garnered a reputation for his mind-set and work ethic, evidenced by his quick acclimation.

“I feel like a totally different person,” he said. “I feel like I play tight end now.”

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