Colts’ 2021 offseason concerns: Wide receiver

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – It seems everyone wants this to work out.

That starts with the owner.

“We’d love to see T.Y. back,’’ Jim Irsay said. “He is a great veteran leader and still has plenty of gas in the tank.’’

It includes the general manager.

“We value T.Y.,’’ Chris Ballard insisted. “We think he still can play, and he’s been a great Colt.’’

It filters down to the head coach.

“I think we’re all hoping and optimistic that there is a way that T.Y. can end his career as a Colt,’’ said Frank Reich.

That was T.Y. Hilton’s wish as well. Ten months ago, he was heading into his ninth season with the Indianapolis Colts and the final year of his contract. An extension, he noted, would be his last bit of NFL business and allow him to finish his career with the franchise that selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft.

“I want to be a Colt for life,’’ Hilton said. “I want to be here.’’

But will he?

The extension never materialized, and Hilton endured another un-T.Y.-like season. He led the team with 56 receptions, 762 yards and five touchdowns, but his big-play presence continued to wane. Hilton averaged a modest 13.6 yards per catch and had only 11 plays that covered at least 20 yards.

There is a definite line of demarcation for the third-leading receiver in Colts history.

Over the past two years while transitioning to life after Andrew Luck – Jacoby Brissett in 2019, Philip Rivers last season – and dealing with a variety of injuries, Hilton has averaged 50.5 yards per game and 12.5 yards per catch over 25 games. In his first seven seasons and 108 games, the averages were 74.9 and 15.9 respectively.

From 2012-18, Hilton’s speed and elusiveness generated 128 receptions that gained at least 20 yards, including 37 that chewed up at least 40. The last two seasons, he’s been limited to 17 20-yarders and three that topped 40.

The raw stats indicate Hilton, who turns 32 in November, no longer is capable of carrying a passing game. He had 110 yards on eight catches in week 13 against – that’s right – the Houston Texans, which snapped a career-long streak of 23 games, including the playoffs, without a 100-yard outing.

While there’s no question he isn’t the top-end threat he once was, there were several instances last season when he flashed his deep speed or ability to get open underneath. Occasionally, Rivers went elsewhere with the football, just missed Hilton or Hilton was mugged by a corner.

Hilton scoffed at the notion he’s no longer the player he once was.

“I’m still effective. I’m still dominant,’’ he said after his latest exploitation of the Texans. “I can dominate any team, any game no matter where we’re at. If I get my chance, if I get my targets, I’m going to go out there and do my best, and that’s make plays.

“If I’m a free agent, I’m a free agent. I look forward to it. I’m excited. Body-wise, I feel great. I’m still playing at a high level.’’

Ballard addressed the team’s most pressing offseason concern by acquiring quarterback Carson Wentz in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. But he’s still faced with several other areas of need: left tackle, edge pass rusher, tight end, cornerback.

And wideout.

Is re-signing T.Y. Hilton the answer?

The five-year extension that he signed in August 2015 and expires March 15 was worth roughly $13 million per season. Hilton isn’t likely to get that from the Colts or on the open market. Spotrac.com projects a three-year deal worth $10 million per year.

The Colts find themselves in a tough situation. There’s no question they value Hilton on so many levels: as a player, in the locker room, in the community.

Hilton ranks 4th in franchise history with 608 receptions, trailing Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison (1,072) and Raymond Berry (631) and potential Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne (1,070). His 9,360 yards trail only Harrison (14,580) and Wayne (14,345).

If Hilton re-ups and contributes 640 yards, the Colts would become the only franchise in NFL history with three 10,000-yard receivers.

“You think about the great receivers in this franchise’s history, and T.Y. has done some of the most remarkable things that all of the greats have done,’’ Irsay said. “You love to see someone like T.Y. be back.

“But the market usually dictates that. I’m really hoping that it works out that we can find a way there because we are a better football team with T.Y., and we love him as a legacy player and as a present player in how he can help us get to where we want to go.’’

The options at upgrading the position:

INTERNAL SOLUTION

  • Going?: T.Y. Hilton (expiring contract), Zach Pascal (expiring contract).
  • Here: Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Dezmon Patmon, Ashton Dulin, DeMichael Harris, J.J. Nelson, Gary Jennings, Quarney Davis.
  • Comment: We go back and forth with the Hilton issue. There were times last season when he was more than good enough; it was if the football gods were conspiring against him. But how does the obvious commitment Ballard and Reich have in Hilton translate into a contract offer?

Pascal is a restricted free agent, and isn’t going anywhere. Since being claimed off waivers in June 2018, he’s appeared in every game and been the consummate wideout as a blocker and receiver (112 catches, 1,504 yards, 12 TDs). At the very least he’ll get the one-year tender worth roughly $2.3 million, and he might get second-tier money (approximately $3.4 million).

Pittman gave every indication he’s a keeper – 29 catches, 424 yards, one TD over his final nine games after dealing with a serious leg injury – and maybe this is the season Campbell stays on the field. The 2019 second-round draft pick has missed 23 of 32 games and managed just 24 receptions while dealing with a slew of serious injuries. He missed the final 14 games last season after tearing two ligaments in his left knee in a week 2 win against Minnesota.

Further in-house depth comes from Patmon, a sixth-round pick year ago, Dulin and Harris.

VETERAN SOLUTION

  • Free agents-to-be: Allen Robinson, Chicago; Will Fuller, Houston; A.J. Green, Cincinnati; Tyrell Williams, Las Vegas; Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia; Sammy Watkins, Kansas City; Marvin Jones, Detroit; Breshad Perriman, NY Jets; Corey Davis, Tennessee; Curtis Samuel, Carolina.
  • Comment: If Hilton returns, we’d be surprised if Ballard looks to free agency for additional veteran depth. Maybe an inexpensive one-year deal after the heavier deals are done.

If the team decides to move on from Hilton, a free-agent acquisition seems a must. It would be out of character for Ballard to dig into Irsay’s wallet and come up with what it would take to bring someone like Robinson to Indy. The 6-2, 220-pounder is considered the top wideout prospect on the market after piling up 200 receptions, 2,397 yards and 13 TDs the past two seasons in Chicago. Spotrac.com projects his contract to approach the $20 million per-year neighborhood.

Might the untapped potential of Davis be an option? The 6-3, 209-pounder was the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft by the Titans. And it’s easy to connect the dots from Agholor to the Colts. He’s coming off a career year with the Raiders: 48 catches, 896 yards, eight TDs. His previous best season was in 2017 with the Eagles when Reich was his offensive coordinator: 62 catches, 768 yards, eight TDs. The team’s 2015 first-round pick was a major contributor in its Super Bowl victory.

Ballard’s heaviest foray in free agency at the position came in 2019 when he signed Devin Funchess to a one-year, $10 million. A broken collarbone in the opener forced Funchess to miss the rest of the season. Two other free-agent additions were much less expensive: Ryan Grant in 2018 (one year, $5 million) and Kamar Aikens in 2017 (one year, $2.6 million).

DRAFT SOLUTION

  • Top prospects: DeVonta Smith, Alabama; Ja’Marr Chase, LSU; Jaylen Waddle, Alabama; Chris Olave, Ohio State; Kadarius Toney, Florida; Rondale Moore, Purdue; Rashod Bateman, Minnesota; Terrace Marshall, LSU; Dyami Brown, North Carolina; Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC; Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State; Elijah Moore, Mississippi.
  • Ammunition: 21st overall pick in round 1; 22nd pick in round 2, 54th overall.
  • Comment: This is one of the draft’s deepest positions. As many as five wideouts could come off the board in round 1: Chase, Smith, Waddle, Toney, and Marshall.

Ballard already invested valuable draft capital in the position last year with Pittman (round 2, 34th overall) and added Patmon in round 6. Maybe he looks for third-day depth in April. Don’t forget, he sent his third-rounder to the Eagles as part of the Wentz trade.

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You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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