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Colts training camp preview: Wide receivers

T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after the Houston Texans defense was drawn offsides in the fourth quarter at NRG Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

They go hand in hand.

After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park July 24 for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time the following day.

Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.

Today: Wide receivers

  • Starters: T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess
  • Slot receivers: Chester Rogers, Parris Campbell
  • In the discussion: Zach Pascal, Marcus Johnson, Deon Cain, Reece Fountain, Krishawn Hogan, Penny Hart, Jordan Veasy, Steve Ishmael, Ashton Dulin.

Leader of the pack: Don’t look now, but T.Y. Hilton easily is the grizzled veteran in the receivers’ room. He’s entering his eighth season and – gasp! – turns 30 in November. When free agent Devin Funchess arrived, he respectfully referred to Hilton as the O.G. (Original Gangster).

“He called me after he signed and we talked a little bit,” Hilton said. “He told me those exact words. I’m the O.G. I’m here to help him and whatever he needs.

“I told him, ‘I’m just here to help you and the other guys.’”

The receivers’ room requires 13 chairs, and the vast majority is occupied by players who have yet to make a dent at the NFL level. There are three rookies– including hyped second-round pick Parris Campbell–and eight players who have yet to catch a pass at this level.

Everyone would do well to follow Hilton’s lead and peruse the resume of the 2012 third-round pick. He ranks fourth in team history with 507 receptions and 8,036 yards. Two of the players ahead of him are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Marvin Harrison and Raymond Berry). The third (Reggie Wayne) is eligible for Canton for the first time this year.

Frank Reich was aware of Hilton’s reputation prior to last season, but his appreciation grew exponentially as the season unfolded.

“I realized he was good, but I just didn’t realize how good he was,” Reich said. “I always thought, ‘Oh, he’s just one of these fast guys that they just throw the ball deep to.’

“I never realized he was such a complete receiver.”

Hilton solidified his already-lofty status in the locker room by playing through a pair of severe sprains to his right ankle during the Colts’ late playoff push. He practiced sparingly over the final six weeks, but remained the lethal focal point of the passing game. Over the final six games, Hilton produced 32 receptions, 628 yards and one TD on 55 targets.

“Exactly the kind of guy you want in your locker room,” Reich said.

Hilton conceded the first seven years of his career have flown by. When the team’s offseason program began in April, he addressed the receivers’ room.

“I was just telling the guys . . . ‘This is my eighth year and I don’t know where the rest of the seven went at,’” he said. “Once you’re here, you’ve just got to enjoy the moment and seize every opportunity you have.”

New faces: Hilton has never been the issue when it comes to the Colts’ passing game. His supporting cast? That’s been the issue. Here’s where we remind you the list of veteran free agents who’ve failed to measure up: Donnie Avery (the best of the bunch), Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks, Andre Johnson, Kamar Aiken, Ryan Grant. Phillip Dorsett, the 2015 first-round draft pick is heading into his third season with New England. Donte Moncrief, a ’14 third-rounder, is in Pittsburgh, his third team in as many seasons.

Maybe the Colts finally have gotten it right.

Free agency delivered Funchess from Carolina. The April draft produced Campbell.

Funchess had occasional drop issues with the Panthers, but brings rare size (6’4″, 225 pounds) and deep speed to the offense. Reich was on board when Chris Ballard targeted Funchess in free agency and landed him with a one-year contract worth a maximum of $13 million.

“We knew right away,” Reich said of Funchess’ ability to fit in. “(He was) not going to have a problem grasping the system. Then it’s just a question of getting used to the way we do things, the way we teach things and then our schemes.

“I just thought he showed a very high aptitude for that. Then really as a route runner, for a big guy for his size . . . he’s good feet and he’s got good body control.”

If Funchess is seen as a viable vertical-threat complement to Hilton, Campbell should offer immediate contributions in other areas. His role likely will expand as he gains experience, but look for Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni initially to maximize Campbell’s speed and route running out of the slot. He’ll also be considered on punt returns.

“He has got a ways to go,” Reich said, “but I just think he can play every position on the field and make big plays from all over the field. But that is going to be a process. It is going to take time.

“I am sure with his athleticism and how smart he is, he is going to show flashes. But we just have to . . . make sure that we just bring him along at the right pace. Let him shine, let him learn and grow and then just gradually work him in.”

Cain comeback: A wild card in the mix is Deon Cain. Last year’s sixth-round pick missed his rookie season after tearing his ACL in the preseason opener at Seattle. He worked extensively with the rehab staff during the offseason and is optimistic he’ll be ready for the start of camp.

“Probably around training camp I should be back around and full-go,” he said.

Cain was one of the offensive stars of camp last summer before suffering the knee injury.

Worth noting: Berry, Harrison and Wayne represent the standard for prolonged excellence at the position. Hilton isn’t far behind. Harrison and Wayne share the team record with eight 1,000-yard seasons. Hilton is third with four. Harrison was selected to seven Pro Bowls, most by a Colts receiver. Berry and Wayne were named six times. Hilton is next with four.

Also, Hilton has generated 12 games with at least 150 yards. That’s the most in team history. Here’s where we remind you Hilton has appeared in 108 games. Wayne played in a team-record 211 games, Harrison 190 and Berry 154.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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