As the Steelers were going through OTAs, minicamp and the early part of training camp in 2015, Ben Roethlisberger took notice of Eli Rogers. He referred to the undrafted rookie as a 'sleeper,' someone who Roethlisberger thought was 'going to be good for us.'
Before Rogers had the chance to prove Roethlisberger right, he injured his foot and was done for the season. The 'sleeper' would just go quietly into the season without ever seeing the field.
But those words from Roethlisberger, that little bit of encouragement stayed with him. It fueled Rogers, pushed him to work harder, and gave him the drive that he needed.
"It helped me a lot," said Rogers. "That is why I came in and worked so hard, to earn his trust, to earn the coaches trust in me. Once he said that, it confirmed that my hard work was noticed, and I was going to keep doing it."
Rogers spent last season learning as much as he could. He wasn't able to do the physical side of things, but there was no limit to his learning.
"I studied every aspect," said Rogers. "I studied defenses. I studied other players. I broke down players and defenses for each opponent."
Once he was healthy, he focused on being in shape and ready to go for 2016. And it paid off. Rogers developed into a slot receiver that Roethlisberger could depend on. He had his ups and downs, including dealing with another injury, but it was light years better than the previous year.
"I battled my first year," said Rogers. "I was on injured reserve. I just watched everything. To come back this year, produce how I did, contribute to the team. It's a great feeling. It's a blessing.
"When you are contributing you feel your worth, your value, why you are here. When you are on injured reserve, you feel different, like I am injured, I have to go through this. You think coaches might think a certain way about you. You aren't playing, you aren't getting that experience. You are always going to learn. You have to. But not getting those repetitions. Not being out there with the team, that was tough. But this past season, it all made up for it."
Rogers said from the time the 2016 season began, until it came to a disappointing end in the AFC Championship game, there was growth on his part. He grew as a player. He matured. He developed. And the thing he wanted most, Roethlisberger's trust and belief, it also grew.
"Going into the season, we continued to grow and I feel like the chemistry started to build and it kept building," said Rogers. "I used to say, 'Ben I am going to do this or that,' or I would tell the coaches, 'I am going to do this or that.' You can say whatever you want. It's different than going out there and doing it, messing up, learning from the mistakes, getting fussed at. And Ben gaining the trust in that form, instead of just staying you can do it, but not being able to show it, that was huge."
While progress has been made, more is also needed. Rogers finished the season with 48 receptions for 594 yards and three touchdowns, not bad numbers considering the weapons the Steelers have on offense. But the expectations will grow for 2017, and he needs to be ready.
"I need to get stronger. That will help me with the control of my body," said Rogers. "I need to work on my transition after the catch. And running.
"I want to keep on learning. Ben made a comment that I ask a lot of questions. I kind of nag him with the questions. He helped me every day when I had questions, just getting a better understanding of the offense. Getting a better understanding of him. We talk all of the time. He is like a second coach out there. I want to soak in as much information as I can, from him, from Antonio (Brown), from Maurkice Pouncey. I want to soak it all in.
"With Ben, I can take so much from him. Just being around him and learning from him. I can take that on the field and play ball. He taught me not to be a robot out there. Be about your business. Antonio teaches me how to take care of my body, coming out and working hard every single day with an edge, like you have never done anything in the league. That and keeping a positive mind. Just the way he goes out and works every day, you have to have an amazing work ethic. And Pouncey, he is such a great leader for the offense, for the team. There is so much you can learn from him from that leadership ability he has."