There’s a lot of promise with the Indianapolis Colts wide receiver corps entering the 2021 season. There’s not a lot of production.
The team believes a healthy Parris Campbell will be a perfect fit for the offense and give defenses fits with the ball in his hands after the catch. There’s also widespread optimism Michael Pittman Jr. will make a significant leap in his second season after a scary bout with compartment leg syndrome slowed his rookie development.
But that’s all about potential. Few players have an on-field resume with tangible results.
Zach Pascal continues to exceed expectations and improve each season. He set career highs with 44 catches and 629 yards in 2020 and has proven to be a ferocious blocker. But he’s best suited as a No. 3 or 4 option.
Then there’s T.Y. Hilton. The 31-year-old is the longest-tenured player on the roster, having been selected in the third round of the 2012 draft. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler with 9,360 career yards and 50 touchdowns, and he’s a sure-fire Ring of Honor member once his career ends.
But there are legitimate questions about how much he has left in the tank.
He hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season since 2018, and he’s averaged less than 14 yards per reception in each of the past two years. There’s a hope the addition of quarterback Carson Wentz will bring the deep passing game back to the offense and that in turn will help get Hilton back on track.
There’s also a possibility the youth in the locker room around him will have a refreshing effect.
Hilton has grown into a solid leader in recent years, and as the dean of the roster his voice will grow even stronger. It’s a new role the veteran is ready to embrace.
“I’ve been around a lot of old teams, a lot of teams in between,” Hilton said. “This is probably my first young team, so it’s special. You see all the fresh faces, guys willing to compete, guys that are ready to step in and do their job. It’s fun. I like it.”
Hilton will be critical to the success of the Colts’ wide receivers on and off the field.
He’ll likely continue to draw some extra attention from opposing defenses, and he’ll need to put up good numbers to keep this offense on track. But he’s always been unselfish, and Indianapolis believes the strength of its attack lies in its versatility.
Just as they have in their first three seasons under head coach Frank Reich, the Colts will look to take advantage of matchups each week – rotating personnel and emphasizing different areas of the offense to fit each particular game plan.
For that to fully work, someone among the group of young receivers must step up – with Campbell and Pittman the most likely options.
“There is just a lot of talent,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “There’s a lot of – I see it from watching the film from last year on how they really spread the ball around and get everybody involved. I see that completely being the same way again this year, and that excites me because it’s never just a one-man show out there.
“I’m going to throw the ball where it’s supposed to go on each play and not necessarily just picking guys. Getting everybody involved, that excites me because everybody has a unique skillset and everybody is talented, and we have the ability to spread it around and give everyone some love and be an explosive offense that way.”
Indianapolis certainly will have go-to guys. If a play really needs to be made, there’s a good chance Hilton will be the first read. But Reich repeatedly has emphasized he likes the depth on the roster.
The Colts won’t be afraid to give a young receiver a chance in a big spot. They believe unpredictability makes the offense stronger. And they believe they have the right players in place to make it happen.
There’s been criticism from the outside about a lack of aggressiveness in attempting to improve the pass-catching corps. Veteran J.J. Nelson was the only experienced wide receiver added in the offseason, and he’s not guaranteed a roster spot.
It’s a young group, but Reich suggested that’s by design.
“I just feel really strongly about our team and the players we have,” he said. “I’m glad we had a draft, and I’m glad we signed guys (in free agency) and so on and so forth. But I just feel we do have the right roster, the right kind of players who are getting better.
“I think last year was a good year for us, but I’m anticipating that we’re stronger and better this year.”