Colts to maximize Nyheim Hines’ versatility

Sports

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – DECEMBER 22: Nyheim Hines #21 of the Indianapolis Colts returns a punt for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – The issue isn’t unique to the Indianapolis Colts offense, but is an issue nonetheless.

With what appears to be a better and more diverse supporting cast than the Colts had last season, how will Philip Rivers be able to keep everyone involved and satisfied?

More to the point, will he be able to maximize Nyheim Hines and his versatile skillset?

Again, we wouldn’t classify that as a problem. But it’s an aspect of the play calling in 2020 that figures to tax the creativity of coach Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni, and from week to week might test the patience of the wideouts, tight ends and running backs.

Four-time Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton is all about team, but everyone realizes the offense is at its best when he’s heavily involved. Michael Pittman Jr. was taken with the 34th overall pick in the April draft because the Colts were convinced he’s a missing piece to what was a lackluster passing game. Jonathan Taylor was added to an already-robust ground game with the 41st overall pick, giving 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack a tag-team partner for the Run the Damn Ball approach.

And then there’s Parris Campbell, a 2019 second-round pick whose rookie season was marred by injuries; two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle; free-agent tight end Trey Burton; and Zach Pascal, who’s coming off a career-high 41 catches, 607 yards and five TDs.

Hines has been the multi-dimensional threat out of the backfield since being taken in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. He’s never been the No. 2 running back – that was Jordan Wilkins in ’18 and Jonathan Williams in ’19 when Mack missed two games with a fractured hand – but he’s been the busiest out of the backfield and most dangerous in the open field with 107 receptions.

“That’s the art of it and I feel good about that,’’ Reich said. “I feel like we’re going to do that really well, really well. There’s only one ball to go around, but one of the things that makes it easier is our players are very unselfish.”

That’s been a prerequisite for Hines. He’s been a situational back, and often those situations have surfaced on third down or in passing situations. His 63 receptions in ’18 were the third-most by a rookie in franchise history, trailing Bill Brooks (65) and Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison (64).

Hines emerged late last season as a Pro Bowl-level punt returner – remember 195 yards and two TDs, both franchise records, against Carolina in week 16? – and that role won’t change. But the challenge is to further tap into what he’s able to bring to the offense.

Reich insisted those opportunities will come, although perhaps not on a weekly basis.

“We know how it goes, that Nyheim could go a couple of games with a relatively small amount of touches and then all of a sudden he has 10 catches in one game,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprised me if there is a game this year that Nyheim Hines has 10 catches.”

Hines has caught at least one pass in each of his 32 regular-season games, and twice had nine as a rookie – against Houston and at Jacksonville.

With Rivers now directing the offense, there’s every reason to anticipate more from Hines.

In 2019, Rivers was supported by a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. But he also made full use of running back Austin Ekeler, who had 92 receptions for 993 yards. In the Chargers’ 30-24 overtime win over the Colts, Ekeler caught six passes for 96 yards and two TDs, including a 55-yarder.

When Allen was limited to eight games by a lacerated kidney in 2015, Rivers leaned heavily on running back Danny Woodhead, who had a team-high 80 passes.

Sirianni was with Rivers for five years with the Chargers, and marveled at his ability to “find the running back out of the backfield, whether we’re scheming for that guy or whether it just happens within a protection, where he goes through his progression and finds that back. Nyheim is going to benefit big time from playing with Philip Rivers. There is no question about that.’”

Even so, the Colts might be seeking more out of Hines in a slightly diminished capacity.

He was on the field for 339 offensive snaps last season (31.5 percent) and had 110 opportunities (52 rushes, 58 targets). That was down from his rookie season: 499 snaps (43.9 percent) and 166 opportunities (85 rushes, 81 targets). The heavier workload in ’18 was a byproduct of Mack missing four games.

“Yeah, he’s not going to play as many snaps,” Reich conceded. “I wouldn’t anticipate he is going to play as many snaps as Marlon and Jonathan. But there are still enough snaps for him to be very, very productive this year . . . very productive.”

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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