Colts’ camp preview: Wide receivers

Colts

NASHVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 15: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball after catching a pass during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on September 15, 2019 in Nashville,Tennessee. The Colts defeated the Titans 19-17. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – This is the next in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

Today: WIDE RECEIVERS

  • Starters: T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr. (R)
  • Top backups: Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal.
  • Depth: Marcus Johnson, Reece Fountain, Ashton Dulin, Dezmon Patmon (R), Scott Artavis, Rodney Adams, De’Michael Harris (R), Malik Henry, Chad Williams.

Healthy rebound(s)

Much was expected last season of T.Y. Hilton, the four-time Pro Bowler, and Parris Campbell, the much-hyped rookie. Neither was able to deliver. Blame injuries.

Hilton missed a career-high six games and essentially was a non-factor after tearing a calf muscle in an Oct. 30 practice. He refused to go on IR. Hilton missed five of the next six games, and in the four he played was limited to 13 catches and 141 yards. He described himself as 100 percent for the season wrap-up at Jacksonville and had three receptions for 72 yards.

“It was tough, man, but I was like, ‘I don’t care. I got all the offseason to rest,’’’ he said. “I just wanted to be out there with my teammates and just give them the spark that they needed.

“Just didn’t work out.’’

His 50 catches, 501 yards and 11.1 yards per catch were career lows.

Hilton is fully recovered and heading into the most significant season of his nine-year career. He turns 31 in November, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and wants one last contract with the franchise that selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft.

He ranks 4th in franchise history in receptions (552) and yards (85,98), and 2nd with five 1,000-yard seasons. Only Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, with eight each, have more.

“I want to be a Colt for life,’’ he said, “but it takes two sides. It is up to Mr. Irsay and Chris (Ballard) to get the job done.

“Whatever I sign for in my next contract, that’ll be when I hang it up.’’

Clearly, Hilton won’t lack motivation. A solid bounce-back season might result in a two- or three-year extension. That’s win-win for Hilton and the Colts.

Hilton will be given every opportunity to prove he’s still a force.

“T.Y. Hilton is who this pass offense runs through,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “Things will be schemed to get him the football. He’s our lead dog. He’s our alpha dog.’’

That brings us to Campbell, one of Ballard’s 2019 second-round draft picks. The expectations that followed him into his rookie season quickly were dashed by injury after injury after injury. He was sidelined during training camp by a hamstring injury, and then required three surgeries during the season for a hernia, a broken right hand and a broken right foot.

Campbell’s rookie season consisted of seven games, 18 catches, 127 yards and one TD.

Now, a chance to start anew, to prove he was worth being taken with the 59th overall pick, to put the frustrations of ’19 behind him.

“I would say it was (frustrating),’’ Campbell admitted. “I feel like that’s human nature for anyone. You get drafted rather high or other wideouts in the draft class and to see everybody have the success that they did . . . obviously I saw it.

“I know everything happens for a reason. I had bumps in my path earlier than some guys. It was just the hand I was dealt.’’

Campbell has been tagged as a slot receiver, but the Colts believe he’s an all-around threat.

First-year receivers coach Mike Groh has been impressed with Campbell from the time Campbell left Ohio State.

“Thought he was dynamic with the ball in his hand,’’ he said. “I thought he had elite speed, so he’s able to stretch the defense and stretch the defense vertically.

“He’s somebody that the defense has to be aware of ‘cause he can get behind you and score in one play.’’

The rook

The NFL is the ultimate meritocracy. To a point. Players must earn a roster spot or place in the starting lineup, and keep it by performing. Potential is nice, production is mandatory.

That being said, no one should be surprised if Michael Pittman Jr. is in the starting lineup Sept. 13 at Jacksonville, or at least quickly shuffled into the huddle along with Hilton and Campbell in a three-receiver set. Ballard and Frank Reich have talked highly of the 6-4, 223-pound Pittman since they made him the Colts’ first pick in the April draft (34th overall).

In draft teeming with intriguing wideout talent, Pittman was the eighth off the board.

“What flavor did you want?’’ Ballard asked of the deep talent pool. “What we saw with Michael was he could win at all three levels. He was big, he’s strong to the ball, he competes, he got better every year in college.’’

Pittman’s best season was his final season at USC: 101 catches, 1,275 yards, 11 TDs.

Reich and Sirianni frequently move receivers around in the formation, but Reich envisions Pittman as the ‘X’ wideout and representing a big, physical complement to Hilton.

Pittman, Reich said, is “the guy that you want to put when you’re in a trips right and he is singled into the boundary and you can throw one-on-one to him. There are a handful of routes that you want to throw to him.

“So yeah, you think about those things when you pick a guy. You think, ‘OK, we can throw these fives things to him.’ We do envision Michael as that ‘X’ receiver that every now and then you can just say, ‘Hey, they are playing a lot of man coverage. Let’s put him into the boundary and throw one-on-one and expect him to win.’’’

Fact worth noting

This year was the 7th time in the Colts’ Indy era the team selected a receiver with its first pick in the draft. The previous six were first-rounders: Phillip Dorsett (2016), Anthony Gonzalez (2007), Reggie Wayne (2001), Marvin Harrison (1996), Sean Dawkins (1993) and Andre Rison (1989).

Harrison, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, posted the best rookie season among that group: 64 catches, 836 yards, eight TDs. The only other to debut with more than 37 receptions was Rison (52 for 820 yards).

Bill Brooks, a fourth-round pick in 1986, set team rookie records with 65 catches, 1,131 yards and eight TDs (tied by Harrison).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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