Colts need to find a suitable sidekick for T.Y. Hilton

T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts makes a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter of the game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 11, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – With gambling’s shadow growing larger over the NFL landscape – credit the Supreme Court for however big it gets – the Indianapolis Colts’ approach to supplying T.Y. Hilton with a suitable supporting cast at wide receiver seems apropos.

They’re betting on Chester Rogers.

They’re betting on Ryan Grant.

They’re betting on Deon Cain or fellow rookie Reece Fountain.

And they’re betting on one or two wannabes emerging and making a noticeable contribution.

Hilton’s resume is fat. It includes four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and four 1,000-yard seasons in six years. His 431 career receptions and 6,827 yards already rank 4th in team history behind Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Raymond Berry. Of his 36 overall receiving touchdowns, 14 have covered at least 40 yards.

We’ve questioned whether Hilton merits consideration as one of the NFL’s top-10 receivers. There still are too many occasions when physical cornerbacks or double coverage have neutralized him. Last season – yes, the year without Andrew Luck – Hilton had three or fewer catches on 10 occasions and 51 or fewer yards 11 times.

Since the departure of Wayne after 2014 and when Hilton settled in as the unquestioned No. 1 wideout, the Colts are 7-5 when he cracks the 100-yard mark. But they’re 4-17 when he’s been held to fewer than 50 yards.

No one should question Hilton’s influence on the Colts’ offense. His big-play capabilities are rare.

But as the roster now stands, the receivers room consists of T.Y. Hilton and a slew of prospects eager to take that next step in their career (Rogers, Grant), or what amounts to their first one (virtually everyone else).

Of the 13 receivers on the roster, eight have never caught a pass in a regular-season game. Four are rookies.

Coach Frank Reich has been impressed with the top-to-bottom talent level of his receivers. General manager Chris Ballard described some of the younger receivers as “interesting.’’

Some semblance of order should occur over the next month. The Colts opened the Organized Team Activities (OTAs) portion of their offseason work Tuesday, which allows offense versus defense – receivers versus defensive backs – drills, without contact. That’s when players either advance, or lose traction.

In all likelihood, at least one of the draft picks – Cain or Fountain – should make the 53-man roster.

“Cain’s got upside,’’ Ballard said of the sixth-round pick out of Clemson. “Cain’s probably got (round) 2 talent . . . we’ll see if he can get to his ceiling.

“Fountain’s got a lot of upside, too, from a small school (Northern Iowa). But Fountain is big, he’s got strength and he’s got toughness to play on (special) teams as a core player as he develops as a wideout.’’

While the young players find their way, develop and eventually emerge, the responsibility for easing the focus on Hilton largely rests with Rogers and Grant. They’ve played extensively – a combined 89 games and 21 starts – but now must assume a more impactful role.

Grant set career bests with 45 catches, 573 yards and four TDs with Washington last season, and was one of Ballard’s free-agent acquisitions with a one-year, $5 million contract.

“Guys (are) just coming in with a chance to fill in a spot,’’ Hilton said. “We’re all competing for a job. At the end of the day, we’ll put the best two or three receivers out there that can play. And we’ve got a tight end – Pro Bowl Jack (Doyle) – and we’ve got (Eric) Ebron, (Ross) Travis, (Erik) Swoope.

“It’s going to be a great offense to be around.’’

Reich’s scheme will be diverse and up-tempo. It’ll probe for mismatches and attempt to exploit them. That probably means liberal use of Marlon Mack and rookie Nyheim Hines out of the backfield, and certainly will maximize the tight ends.

But the passing game requires three or four receivers capable of working over the middle and stretching the field. It’s difficult to navigate the field with a dink-and-dunk attack. Effective NFL offenses thrive on “chunk plays,’’ which are Hilton’s specialty.

Again, who eases Hilton’s load?

“This is their time to prove it,’’ Hilton said.

Rogers thought last season was his time to do precisely that. After securing a roster spot in 2016 as an undrafted rookie and catching 19 passes for 273 yards, he headed into his second training camp with soaring expectations. They were quickly dashed by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the first five games of the season and greatly impeded his progress.

“Last year was a complete roller coaster emotionally, physically; being in position to be the starter and getting injured and just battling for those eight weeks and then coming back,’’ Rogers said.  “But now I feel like I’m more prepared. I’m healthy.’’

Rogers, like several players, has altered his diet and reduced his body fat.

“I’m down to about 8 percent now,’’ he said. “I’ve been doing Pilates. I’ve been doing just different things because I know what my problem is as far as tissue injuries and just doing stuff to prevent that.’’

The aim: stay on the field and make a difference. Rogers is eager to fully immerse himself in Reich’s offense. He said last year’s offense “handicapped’’ players.

“It’s putting players in positions and doing what they’re good at,’’ he said. “OK, this player is good at this route, so we’re going to put him on that.

“It’s really using everybody to their (potential). I feel like it’s going to be unstoppable.’’

But first, someone must step up and prove capable of being Hilton’s week-to-week sidekick. Rogers agreed, but also indicated a diverse approach will help.

“Of course. Definitely,’’ Rogers said. “I feel that’s what this offense is going to be. It’s for getting (contributions) from everybody. If you’ve got an offense where you can just focus in on (one guy) and everybody knows where you’re going . . . everybody’s going to be like, ‘T.Y. needs help.’

“With this offense, everybody’s going to be open. Everybody’s excited to get in this offense.’’

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