The pre-draft process has been drastically different this year; it’s been unprecedented with no annual NFL Scouting Combine and a slew of COVID-19 precautions to ensure players entering the 2021 NFL Draft and staff are safe. The traditional ways prospects would appeal to league scouts and brass weren’t feasible—at least in the ways we’ve also known. The Senior Bowl happened with limitations; and in place of the scouting combine, House of Athlete (HOA), a gym in Weston, Florida, launched by NFL veteran Brandon Marshall, held its own version of the event, again, with limited attendance for safety purposes.
NFL teams would have to rely heavily on players’ tape and the Pro Days at their respective universities; Pro Days were previously a hit-or-miss with athletes doing some, but not all, drills or skipping the event altogether. This year, however, Pro Days were the marquee event for in-person evaluations. Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers took full advantage.
It didn’t seem like Rodgers could show evaluators anything else. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound receiver was coming off his most impressive, and final, season at Clemson; Rodgers totaled 1,000-plus yards for the first time in his collegiate career and finished with career-highs in receptions (77) and touchdowns (7). During the Senior Bowl, in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, Rodgers thoroughly impressed. The workouts in the first two days of practice highlighted Rodgers’ diverse skill set. He was more than just the yards-after-catch threat, dominating opposing defenders. The traits he showed through four productive seasons at Clemson were on full display in front of NFL scouts.
What’s more, Rodgers impressed with his ability to extend past the often longer defender, securing the ball; it was a concern in this deep wide receiver class that, under the height threshold of a prototypical receiver, defensive backs could have the size advantage. Rodgers proved otherwise. And that’s just it: Rodgers is always proving himself even when it seems like he’s shown it all. In the state-of-the-art HOA facility, Rodgers obliterated his personal record for bench-press reps (24), which would have put him in the 97th percentile for an NFL receiver. This was just months after he began working out there when he would max out at 20.
During Clemson’s Pro Day on Thursday, Rodgers unexpectedly took reps at running back. The position is familiar—he played running back until his junior year of high school—but he hadn’t truly run out of the backfield for four-plus years. There was something left for Rodgers to show. The unnamed NFL scout that asked Rodgers to weave through the pop-up dummies, carrying the rock had sound reasoning. They wanted to see the mismatch. They envisioned the big-bodied receiver in a third-down situation, matched up against a linebacker.
“It made sense,” Rodgers said after the day’s events. “That’s truly my type of place: I use mismatches.”
Rodgers’ career has somehow just made sense with pieces falling into place exactly how they were intended to. In his first collegiate game, on Sept. 2, 2017, he co-led Clemson in catches (three); later that season, he won his first national championship. In his sophomore year, Rodgers became a full-time contributor. The following season he won another national championship, but he first had to recover from a severe injury.
During spring ball, Rodgers tore his ACL. After undergoing surgery, which could take anywhere from 6-12 months of recovery, Rodgers took a live snap five-and-a-half months later, missing only one game. The unrelenting work led him to be quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s go-to target last season. And still, there were things, essential characteristics of top NFL receivers, that Rodgers had left to show. But what specifically was left? Rodgers wanted to display his multifaceted style of play.
“How fast I am in everything, how quick and how explosive I play,” he said. “In my 40[-yard dash], show them my true speed with my 4.44[-second time]; and in my route-running, how I get off and how fast I come out off the ball.”
Everything NFL teams look for—how fast a receiver comes off the ball, how crisp their route-running is, how stealthily they can avoid defenders—Rodgers revealed. If his draft stock wasn’t already soaring, he made sure it was on Thursday. His comfortability in front of scouts certainly helped; he was first exposed to their prodding at the Senior Bowl. His time at Clemson obviously helped. He learned valuable lessons as a young pass-catcher in the ACC and grew under wide receivers coach Tyler Grisham; the two worked in tandem. Rodgers asked to be coached harder, critiqued after every practice, and Grisham worked to incorporate drills Rodgers and fellow receiver Cornell Powell wanted to do in practice. Rodgers has also looked to current and former NFL pass-catchers, emulating his game after Cleveland Browns’ Jarvis Landry and exuding the toughness of former Carolina Panther Steve Smith Sr.
Rodgers has a few more steps before reaching those ranks, though; but once he’s in the NFL, he’s ready to carve out his own role. The Green Bay Packers come to mind. They haven't had a true slot receiver since Randall Cobb in 2018, and Rodgers can envision himself in the same role. He already envisions matchups against Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Rodgers wants to dominate and can’t wait until “two Tennessee boys go at it.”
But Rodgers isn’t getting too far ahead of himself. The draft awaits. Rodgers is projected as a third- or fourth-round selection. He could inch up the board for a receiver-needy team, especially one looking for rushing and special-teams versatility. They would be getting an impossible-to-tackle receiver who could provide the ultimate mismatch. But really, they’re getting a winner.
“I’ve won at the highest level at every point of my career and I don’t plan on stopping that now,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the team I go to and to help myself be successful.”