INDIANAPOLIS – No one should shrug off T.Y. Hilton’s return to the only NFL home he’s known.
The one-year, $8 million contract he signed last month kept alive the possibility of Hilton finishing his career where it started in 2012 as a third-round draft pick out of Florida International. We’ll revisit that situation next offseason.
But retaining Hilton offers significant short-term impact, or so general manager Chris Ballard hopes. A variety of reasons – injuries, change at quarterback, being under-utilized – has resulted in back-to-back lackluster seasons: 10 touchdowns, but just 101 receptions and 1,263 yards (12.5 per catch).
The Colts are banking on Hilton approaching the playmaker he had been. From 2014-18, he averaged 76 catches, 1,206 yards (15.8 per catch) with 33 TDs, many of them highlight material.
He turns 32 in November, which is hardly ancient for a wideout.
“He is a special, special Colt player,’’ owner Jim Irsay said before signing off on Hilton’s latest contract.
Hilton is one of the unquestioned leaders, both in the locker room and in the wideouts’ room. More than that, he’s a proven presence at a position where there’s reason for both optimism and concern.
After not pursuing one of the high-profile players in free agency and had Hilton taken the better offer from the Baltimore Ravens, the Colts would have found themselves scrambling for a top-end wideout along with Anthony Castonzo’s successor and an edge pass rusher.
There’s only so much a team should expect from a draft, especially when you’re the Colts and you have just six picks, the fewest in Ballard’s tenure, and no third-rounder, which was part of the trade with Philly to land Carson Wentz.
An overview of the position:
Six overall picks – round 1 (21st overall), round 2 (54th), round 3 (to Eagles as part of Carson Wentz trade), round 4 (127th), round 5 (165th), round 6 (206th), round 7 (248th).
On the roster
T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal, Parris Campbell, Dezmon Patmon, Ashton Dulin, De’Michael Harris, Quartney Davis, Gary Jennings, J.J. Nelson.
For now, this group should be fine. But there obviously are questions.
Can Hilton regain his playmaking status? We’re not necessarily expecting 80 catches and 1,200 yards, but he must make a difference and be the position catalyst. Part of that rests with coach Frank Reich and coordinator Marcus Brady making better use of his skills.
The overriding question: Can Campbell stay on the field and be a big-play option in the offense? There have been flashes – a 27-yard run-and-catch on a shallow cross and 22-yard end around against the Steelers as a rookie in 2019 – but injuries have impeded the second-round pick’s development. He’s appeared in just nine of 32 games while dealing with – take a deep breath – a hamstring injury, hernia surgery, a fractured right hand, a broken right foot and two damaged ligaments in his left knee. Oh, Campbell also sustained a concussion in an auto accident during training camp last season.
Pittman overcame a serious lower leg injury early last season and gave every indication he’s a keeper: 30 catches for 424 yards and one TD over his final nine games. He had a breakout game at Tennessee in week 10 with seven catches and 101 yards.
Pascal? He might be the glue that holds the group together. He’s appeared in all 51 games, including the postseason, since being claimed off waivers in 2018. He’s a tenacious blocker and reliable receiver (85 catches, 1,236 yards, 10 TDs the last two seasons).
The only issue with the position: Hilton and Pascal will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Looking long-term, Ballard might be in the market for a young playmaker in round 2 or on the third day.
In the draft
Ja’Marr Chase, LSU; DaVonta Smith, Alabama; Jaylen Waddle, Alabama; Rashod Bateman, Minnesota; Kadarius Toney, Florida; Elijah Moore, Mississippi; Tutu Atwell, Louisville; Nico Collins, Michigan; Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU; D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan; Rondale Moore, Purdue; Amari Rodgers, Clemson.
The Athletic’s Dan Brugler has 15 receivers ranked among his top 100 and projects five being selected in round 1. In a collaborative mock draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, six wideouts come off the board in round 1 and another six in round 2.
Chase, Smith, the Heisman Trophy-winner and Waddle are the cream of the crop. But the depth is undeniable. Bide your time and you’ll likely find a quality prospect.
One of the wild cards at the position is one of the smallest. That would be Rondale Moore. He’s 5-7 and 180 pounds, but is the personification of big-play threat. A hamstring injury and temporary decision to opt out of 2020 limited Moore to 20 games in three seasons with the Boilermakers – just seven games the last two years – but he finished with 178 receptions, 1,915 yards and 14 TDs as well as 248 yards and three TDs on 30 rushes.
Moore burst on the national scene in 2018 when he became the Big Ten’s first true freshman to be named consensus All-American and was named recipient of the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. He had 114 receptions for 1,258 yards and 12 TDs and added 213 yards and two TDs on 21 rushes.
No one should question what’s crammed into the small package. At his Pro Day, Moore clicked off a 4.29 40 and 42.5 vertical leap.
“Even though he is undersized, you’ve got a lot of value,’’ said NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “You can do a lot of different things and really win with quickness.’’
Moore said he’s “100% healthy’’ and offers the type of versatility NFL coordinators crave. Along with being viewed as a dangerous slot receiver, “I have the ability to go outside and run routes,’’ he said.
And the size concerns?
“I don’t think size or anything like that really matters,’’ Moore said. “If you have enough tools in the toolbox, you’re crafty enough, your intellect of the game is high enough, you know what’s going on, you can compete for those 50-50s, you can run by guys.
“So, I think if you have all those intangible, it doesn’t matter if you’re 6-foot-5 or 5-foot-10. To me it’s just a mentality.’’
Moore is considered a late-first- or early-second-round prospect.
Back at it
Nico Collins is making up for lost time. After collecting 78 receptions for 1,388 yards and 13 TDs in three seasons at Michigan, he opted out of 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns. He’s confident a solid showing at the Senior Bowl in January and his Michigan Pro Day caught the eye of scouts.
Collins seems to have everything teams prefer in today’s NFL. He’s 6-4 and 215 pounds, ran a 4.45 40 and notched a 37.5 vertical at his Pro Day.
If Collins isn’t selected at the tail end of round in round 2, he could be gone early in round 3.
“He did good things down at the Senior Bowl,’’ Jeremiah said. “For a big guy he’s got good route tempo. He’s got a really good feel. But to me . . . a little bit of stiffness was a little bit of a concern there, so that’s one thing to keep an eye on . . . just wanted to see more of him. I wanted to see more of Nico Collins, just didn’t get a chance to see it this year.’’
Happy anniversary, Reggie Wayne. This is the 20th anniversary of the Colts taking a confident, personable receiver out of the University of Miami with the 30th overall pick in the 2001 draft. It was April 21, and owner Jim Irsay recently mentioned the Colts had their eye on Wisconsin cornerback Jamar Fletcher in round 1. When Miami selected Fletcher with the 26th overall pick, Indy, which had traded back from No. 22 to No. 30, turned its attention to Wayne.
Things worked out rather nicely. Wayne set Colts’ record with most games played in the regular season (211) and postseason (21) and ranks 10th in NFL history in receptions (1,070) and yards (14,345). He’s been among the 15 modern-day finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame the past two years.
Since 2001, the Colts have invested a first- or second-round pick in a wideout just four times: Anthony Gonzalez (round 1, 32nd overall in 2007), Phillip Dorsett (round 1, 29th in ’15), Campbell (round 2, 59th in ’19) and Pittman (round 2, 34th in ’20).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.