Off-Season 2008: WR Depth

Drafting Gonzo last season was vital for both the present and future of Indy's WR corps. But, depth is still a big concern.
In 2007, no area of the Colts football team (save the defensive line) was hit harder by injuries than the wide receiving corps. The only WR to start and play in all seventeen games was Reggie Wayne, who just so happened to have a career year. Wayne caught 104 balls for 1,510 yards and 10 TDs. The last time a Colts player caught more than 100 passes was Marvin Harrison in 2002. That year, Harrison caught a staggering 143 balls for 1,722 yards. It is important to point out that 2002 was Dungy's first season as head coach, and one of the problems the Colts offense had to endure that season was (you guessed it) injuries to the WR corps. Players like Qadry Ismail (now a pretty good analyst for ESPN) and then-second-year-player Reggie Wayne missed several games, forcing Dungy to play such immortals as Troy Walters and Drew Haddad. This forced Harrison to pick up the slack, which is why a 5'11'', 187 pound guy managed to catch 143 balls and not miss a single start. In 2007, the situation was repeated, only this time it was Harrison's injury that forced Wayne to pick up the slack. Added to this were the numerous injuries to players like Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, Ben Utecht, Bryan Fletcher, and even Joseph Addai. The injury frustration came to a head during the Week 10 match-up with San Diego, when Peyton Manning was forced to throw balls to guys like Craphonso Thorpe and Aaron Moorehead. In the previous week, against the Patriots, the Colts could only field one WR (Reggie Wayne) in the fourth quarter because all the others were hurt.

Needless to say, I never want to see this ever, ever happen again. Addressing speed at the WR position this off-season is paramount for Bill Polian and this organization.

There is nothing more frustrating (other than watching Billy Volek ending your season) than seeing Peyton Manning throw a perfect pass only to see it dropped by some yutz WR. We saw this from Moorehead all year, who dropped two sure TDs in two huge games. Yet, despite all the injuries to both the WR corps and the o-line, Peyton managed to throw for over 4,000 yards and 31 TDs. It's funny how that is considered an off year for him, but when your QB is a football god the standard is indeed set high. Adding fast, playmaking talent at the WR spot is essential for the Colts to return to championship glory. Simply hoping Harrison returns 100% and Gonzalez develops into a good WR (as all signs suggest he will) is not enough for this team. Here are some options:

  • Free agency: It's like a dirty word for the Colts, more associated with colossal failures (Corey Simon) than with major successes (Adam Vinatieri). But when it comes to speedy WRs with playmaking ability, the 2008 crop of free agents offer some intriguing options that should come at a reasonable price. Forget "sexy" option like Randy Moss or youth projects like Devery Henderson. Players like Bernard Berrian or Drew Carter offer more intriguing options that fit what the Colts should be looking for. Berrian will likely look for Javon Walker-type money in free agency, but I don't think anyone is THAT stupid to give it too him, not even Daniel Snyder. Still, even at a reduced free agency price, Berrian might be too much. Drew Carter offers an interesting option given his abilities and his likely asking price. He's fast and played well behind Steve Smith, outperforming Keary Colbert and rookie Dwayne Jarrett. The key to signing any free agent WR is the player's willingness to play special teams. Likely, any WR signed will need to have abilities as a returner or a gunner. Otherwise, the signing does not maximize the roster, and is a waste.
  • Free agent WR Drew Carter might be an option. Maybe.
  • The Draft: The Colts used their 32nd pick last season to land Anthony Gonzalez, who just so happened to be the best rookie WR in football last year. Gonzo caught 37 balls for 578 yards and 3 TDs, averaging an astounding 15.6 yards a catch. His 56 yard, sideline-tiptoeing TD in the fourth quarter of the SD playoff game proved he is a big money player in the clutch. Gonzo really didn't start to catch on to the Colts offense, and the NFL way, until about mid-season. This is rare. Most rookie WRs are garbage their first year. Reggie Wayne did next to nothing his rookie year, and even the highly touted Robert Meachum of Tennessee didn't see the field at all this past season in New Orleans. So, if the draft is where Polian wants to get his WR depth, it's likely the payoff will not be immediate. If he does look into the draft, a player like Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett or LSU's Early Doucet fit what the Colts are looking for. Bennett is known as a "high character" player who runs great routes and has excellent hands. He isn't known for his speed though, but we'll see if that changes come Combine time. Doucet offers speed, great route running, and special abilities as a kick returner. Doucet has some trouble catching with his body more so than his hands. Polian tends to frown on guys like that. Still, both he and Bennett offer intriguing options in Rounds 3 or 4, if available. However, I don't know if it is likely that either will have immediate impact.
  • LSU's Early Doucet
  • Trade: In his lengthy NFL career, Bill Polian makes a trade about as often as Bill Belichick cracks a smile or Bill Parcells orders the low fat salad over the meatball hero. However, when Polian does make a trade, it usually brings in a big impact player. Interestingly, the last two seasons Polian has made such trades. In 2006, he sent a 2nd round pick to TB for Anthony McFarland, and in 2007 he sent a 1st rounder in 2008 to SF for their second pick (using it to get Tony Ugoh). It's rare that trades happen, but when they do the results are often immediate. Contrary to popular belief, New England trading for Randy Moss was not the biggest trade of the 2007 off-season. Their trade for WR Wes Welker was. Without Welker killing teams from his slot receiver position (ala Brandon Stokley), Moss and Brady do not have his career years, and New England is likely not in the Super Bowl. Not only does Welker help them as a great 3rd down WR, but he returns punts and kicks as well. They only such player that could help the Colts in a similar way (that I can see) is Washington's Antwaan Randel-El. Randel-El's an Indiana product, and beloved of Hoosiers everywhere. Unlike Gonzo, who is more suited and comfortable playing on the outside than in the slot, a guy like Randel-El would excel as a 3rd down WR in Indy's system. In addition, his punt and kick returning skills are excellent. He did have some hamstring issues in 2007, but it remains to be seen if such issues are lingering. It's unlikely that Polian would send a draft pick to an owner like Snyder, but a player swap is not out of the question. Unlikely, but not out of the question.
So, in summary, it looks like the best option is in free agency, especially if the Colts are looking for an immediate upgrade to WR depth. When it comes to starters, there is no better trio than Harrison, Wayne, and Gonzo. Not even NE's WR corps is better than that. The key though is Harrison's health, and it should not be assumed he is coming back 100%. If he does, I'm doing backflips. However, I'm not naive. Marvin is 36 years old, and sooner or later the body can't do what you want it to do anymore. His eventual replacement is on the team (Gonzo), but after that, it gets very thin. The Colts need to address that, because such WR injuries and a lack of quality depth severely damaged the 2007 season.
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