INDIANAPOLIS — Every year, some players in the NFL Draft have early-round game but other circumstances shuffle them down the line into the later rounds.
Former UMass cornerback Isaiah Rodgers certainly fits the bill as one of those players.
Over four years, Rodgers did everything to make plays, both on defense and special teams. However, he's considered a little undersized for a cornerback at 5-10 and 170 pounds, and playing outside a Power-Five conference as an FBS Independent lessens the luster a little bit, as well.
However, on the surface, getting Rodgers late in the draft looks like it could have the makings of a true steal for the Indianapolis Colts. who dealt cornerback Quincy Wilson to the New York Jets to add another sixth-round pick at No. 211 overall and select Rodgers.
So, what makes Rodgers so appealing? If you're asking Colts general manager Chris Ballard:
"He's got rare speed, he's an explosive returner and he takes away the ball."
Rodgers became a starter for the Minutemen as a true freshman in 2016, starting eight games before becoming an every-game starter as a sophomore.
In total, he started 42-of-45 games, racking up 188 tackles (9.5 for loss), four forced fumbles, four fumbles recovered, 11 interceptions, 46 pass breakups and three defensive touchdowns. He had at least two interceptions in each season.
Rodgers was also a highly accomplished return man, returning 99 kickoffs for 2,338 yards (23.6 avg.) as well as 21 punt returns for 156 yards (7.4 avg.) and one touchdown.
UMass' school records for career kick returns, kick return yards and interceptions returned for a touchdown all belong to Rodgers. He also ranks third in school history in pass breakups overall and has the most in the FBS era.
He had a big senior year, allowing just 24 catches on 49 targets (49 percent) for 414 total yards (17.3 avg.), 83 yards after the catch (3.5 avg.) and three touchdowns for an allowed passer rating of 64.5; as a return man, he led the nation in kickoff returns yards with 1,295.
For his efforts in 2019, Rodgers was named All-ECAC as both a defensive back and return specialist, and he also made Phil Steele All-Independent Second-Team at both positions. Pro Football Focus recognized Rodgers with a First-Team All-American nod as well as the All-Independent Team as a kickoff returner.
With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling most prospects' pro days and pre-draft workouts, Rodgers still was able to stay on the radar of NFL teams by sending them his own recorded workout; his timed 4.28-second 40-yard dash would've been the top performance among cornerbacks at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, and the second-best time among all players.
"Yeah, it definitely sparked that day when we released the video," Rodgers said. "Teams were calling in and out, trying to get to the video or just see if it's actually true. We had an ex-NFL scout also run it so they knew it was validated to be facts. I would say it blew up after that."
Rodgers' speed is obvious on tape, both in long speed and closing burst. He also has quick feet that leads to overall good mobility and quickness.
His quick feet and hips allow him to stick with receivers in the passing game, and he has the leaping ability and aggression at defending the ball to counter some of his size issues in contested-catch situations.
Although he makes it work much of the time defensively, Rodgers being undersized can lead to him being beaten on 50-50 balls by bigger pass-catchers, as well as some occasional issue with tackling bigger ball-carriers/pass-catchers, and getting freed off of blocks.
But he shows good focus and concentration when the ball's in the air, and if he's in the area then the ball often finds its way to him.
"Just speaking with the Colts over the past few weeks and months, I think my best trait, regardless of the size, is my athleticism," Rodgers said about the strengths of his game. "Just being able to get the ball, whether it's an interception or just making sure the receiver doesn't catch it. I would say the size and the weight – I have great length. I have great arm length and great eye contact for the ball."
Rodgers is capable of playing both inside and outside from his collegiate experience, though he may play primarily inside in the NFL.
"I was more so on the outside, but I practiced a lot on the inside playing nickel to get ready for the NFL," Rodgers said of his experience in college. "We were more so Cover-6 and Cover-3, so some plays I'd go on the inside and play nickel to get used to it and a lot of plays I would be on the outside."
Rodgers is also a great prospect as a return man at the next level due to his explosiveness and vision in the open field.
"Just being able to use my speed and to showcase my talent doing that," Rodgers said of what makes him a good return man. "My athleticism – being able to move lateral and get to the end zone and do what's best for my team. I think what makes me a great returner is just you've got to have good eyes and make a small hole a big hole."
Overall, Rodgers has rare playmaking ability, whether it's returning kicks, attacking the ball in the air, or what he does with it after he's taken the ball from the offense. Given those plays made, his speed and explosiveness, it makes you wonder if he was an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier if he wouldn't have been a Day 2 draft pick.
Another thing that helps Rodgers is the example that his cousin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, set for him. "DRC" has played 12 seasons in the NFL, earning two trips to the Pro Bowl and one Second-Team All-Pro selection.
"I think he made me the person that I am today," Rodgers said of his cousin. "I was actually sitting right next to him before I got the call (that he was drafted). He was just telling me, 'Keep your head up. Regardless, your dream is coming true today.' I told him, 'I'm just ready to go right now. Someone has to pull the trigger. I know I can be able to play at the next level.' Just him being in my ear and being in my corner from day one, he's just a blessing.
"We're very competitive," Rodgers continued, talking about what it's like to work out with his older NFL cousin. "There are things that he can do that I can't, and there are a lot of things that I can do that he can't. So we just compete and just try to be the best that we can. It's just a family love. We have our arguments and debates about who is better at this and that. But at the end of the day, we're all spending time together and having fun."
Get your first look at cornerback Isaiah Rodgers after he was selected 211th overall by the Indianapolis Colts.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Rodgers has to battle to make the Colts' roster first and foremost, but it's clear to see why the team wanted him and where he can help them.
"They're going to use me more so on nickel packages, go inside corner," Rodgers said about what the Colts told him how they'd like to use him. "Definitely, in every aspect of the game with special teams from kickoff return, punt return and even gunner."
In the nickel, expect Rodgers to be a fierce competitor for guys like T.J. Carrie in training camp, who can play outside and inside. The Colts are looking for a backup slot defender behind Kenny Moore II, so Rodgers and Carrie will be a nice battle to watch for that spot.
According to Rodgers, he's also expected to compete at kick returner. That may be his most competitive battle yet, as Nyheim Hines, Parris Campbell and Ashton Dulin are also very explosive players.
Like most late-round draft picks, Rodgers has a chip on his shoulder coming into the NFL. Undersized, smaller school, no Combine, no pro day; he is going to work to prove doubters wrong.
"Definitely, I've had it my whole life," Rodgers said of the chip on his shoulder. "It just became my lifestyle. I embrace it, it made me who I am today and I'm ready."