2010 Colts Positional Review: Wide Receiver

I'm sure it seems like ages since we've run a positional review article (the last one I wrote was published on Valentine's Day), and I apologize to any of our readers who have been wondering where those went.  The 2011 NFL Scouting Combine obviously broke up our coverage a bit as Matt and I dedicated an entire week and some spillover to covering and summarizing that event, and quite honestly I've spent seemingly most of this week on United Airlines, so I'm just now at a point where I can sit down and put some thought into this.

If you recall, we've already looked at the tight endinterior line and tackle positions on the offensive side of the ball.  We now move on to the wide receiver position, which was certainly one of great change and fluctuation during the course of the 2010 NFL regular season.

At some points, the Colts had arguably the most dynamic group of receivers in the league.  At others, players like Chris Brooks and Brandon James were dressed and expected to contribute.  The wide receiver corps eventually settled into a consistent, if not preferable, group of guys suiting up each Sunday, but for most of the 2010 season, fans could never be sure who would be catching passes from Peyton Manning on any given Sunday.  At least from my perspective, the situation was maddening, so predictably awful in misfortune at times that there was nothing else to do but shake your head and offer a defeated laugh.

After the jump, we'll look at each wide receiver who contributed to Indy's 2010 roster.

1.  Reggie Wayne

It's funny, but even considering all the receivers who contributed to this roster this year, all the young players with up-and-down or injury-plagued years, I have the most difficulty describing Wayne's season.  Statistically, at least on the surface, it was very good.  He broke 100 receptions (111) for over 1,000 yards (1,355.)  He made the Pro Bowl roster.  It's hard to argue, from a statistic angle, that he had a poor year.  But taking a closer look at his numbers, Wayne also suffered the lowest yards-per-reception average of his career (12.2), scored just six touchdowns despite being the undisputed top wideout and the only wideout to play all 16 games and only tallied a long catch of 50 yards, his lowest since 2002.  

Summarizing those numbers?  Wayne wasn't very explosive in 2010.  I want to apply a "Charlie Johnson caveat" to any criticisms of Wayne, though: I believe he played hurt last year.  I think he had a bum knee from the beginning and played through the pain, and for any criticism I have of his season, I also acknowledge the fact that the injury affected his ability to contribute and it speaks volumes about his talent level to nonchalatantly put up 100+ for 1,000+ and make a Pro Bowl on a bad knee.

That said, I just rarely saw anything spectacular about Wayne last year.  He had two games in particular that stood out -- at Jacksonville (15 receptions for 196 yards) and vs Dallas (14 catches for 200 yards and one touchdown) -- but few others that stood out over any other upper-echelon NFL wide receiver.  There wasn't much explosion to his game.  He rarely beat defensive backs down the sideline.  He had very few emphatic, exclamation point moments.  And generally, as the team's number one wideout, he just didn't seem as dangerous as years past.  

This was never more clear than in the postseason loss to the Jets, where Darrelle Revis completely shut down Wayne, limiting him to one reception for one yard.  No one was surprised by this.  I was surprised, though, by the amount of people coming out afterward, Wayne included, insisting that this was mostly due to Manning not looking Wayne's way.  Could Manning have targeted Wayne more?  Yes, I think he could have.  Would Wayne have made a difference if targeted more?  Probably not.  I think Revis strongly limits a healthy Wayne, so you can just imagine how easy it was for him to shut down an injured Wayne.  Despite the numbers, or maybe consistent with some of them, Wayne did little during the 2010 season to convince me that he could ever beat Revis in coverage in that game.  

By his own standards, I didn't feel Wayne had a particularly impressive 2010 season, but again, I think there are caveats to consider there and I am judging him by his own remarkably high standards.  I'm a bit concerned about Wayne's ability to be a number one wideout going forward because he never was a burner to begin with and I don't see his ability to stretch defenses getting much stronger as the sun begins to set on his illustrious career.  He'll be a strong possession receiver for a while, but Wayne is probably going to need a speedster opposite him to operate well in the future.  Is that future with the Colts?  Hard to say, but you can't think the Marvin Harrison contract debacle bodes well for Wayne's tenure in Indianapolis. 

Still, I expect a healthy Wayne to put up another 100 receptions for 1,000+ yards in 2011 and hopefully, with a stronger, healthy receiving corps and (if prayers are answered) a better pass-blocking line, tally more touchdowns and average more yards per reception.

2.  Pierre Garcon

Of all the Colts' receivers, Garcon is easily the most frustrating.  Arguably one of the more enjoyable personalities in the locker room, Garcon is, or should be, a fan magnet.  He's likeable, interacts with fans and rarely seen without a smile.  He's also explosive, the rare kind of hold-your-breath talent the Colts haven't really had in the Manning era.  Every time the ball is in his hands, you know Garcon has the potential to break tackles and burn defenses down the field.  

You also know that there's a huge question of whether or not Garcon can bring the ball into his hands, hence why he inspires so much frustration.  He'll make an impossible one-handed stab at Washington and then drop a handful of gimme passes at Philadelphia.  He'll break a plethora of tackles for the game-sealing reception at Tennessee and look like a fifth-string wideout vs Cincinnati.  There is, quite simply, no consistency to Garcon's game whatsoever.  

2010 confirmed what most of us thought in 2009: Garcon is a complete enigma, but too talented to keep on the bench (not that the Colts had the luxury of ever really doing so.)  He has good, not great, speed, at least enough to keep defenses honest, and can simply take over games from the receiver position when he's on.  The issue, of course, is flipping that switch to 'on' and that's not a problem that looks to be going away anytime soon.  Consistency is one of those things I find impossible to project until someone begins to display it.  It's the reason we all laugh at experts who crown the Texans AFC South champions every season (sorry visiting Texans fans, just being honest.)  You can't assume consistency until it's been shown, and consequentially, I can't assume Garcon will catch the ball until he displays a propensity for doing so.

I like Garcon and believe he has a long-term future with this team.  But 2010 was more of the same from him, and on a team with so many questions at the receiver position, that just wasn't good enough.  To his credit, Garcon appears to be -- from limited sample size -- one of those players that amps up his game for the postseason, and the Colts are desperately in need of those types of players.  He was a huge part of the Colts' 2009-10 postseason run and the only reason the Colts' offense could hang in the game vs the Jets in their wildcard loss this January.

Looking to 2011, I don't really know where to project Garcon or his numbers.  He remains an enigma.  Until he learns to consistently catch the ball, if in fact he can learn that, he'll probably hover around that 60 catch, 700 yard mark.

3.  Austin Collie

It's depressing just to see that name in the context of the 2010 season, isn't it?  Collie was brilliant when he played.  He was brilliant in the slot and brilliant out wide.  In his lone game at wideout, in place of an injured Garcon, Collie torched the Broncos for 12 catches, 171 yards and two touchdowns.  Whatever concerns lingered over his ability to separate from defenders were quickly addressed by his impeccable route-running skills and change-of-direction ability.  Collie has had many impressive games in the slot, but no more impressive game in his career, in my eyes at least, than the one spent out wide.

Unfortunately for Collie, and consequentially the Colts, he was also a concussion magnet.  Three concussions (or two if anyone is really naive enough to believe that "concussion-like symptoms" nonsense) in one season is bad news for anyone.  It's especially bad news for a young player who makes a living by running across the middle of the field.  If you polled most Colts fans asking them what the turning point in the season was, I think most would agree that Collie's first concussion at Philadelphia was essentially the beginning of the end.  Most would also acknowledge that his departure from the New England game began a huge momentum shift for the rival Patriots in that game and his final departure from the 2010 season against Jacksonville was one of the darker moments in Colts history.

When healthy, Collie is the kind of weapon this offense needs.  He is perfect for Manning and the Colts' offensive system.  A healthy Collie makes Indy's passing attack nearly unstoppable.  But there are huge concerns about Collie's ability to remain healthy going forward, and anyone who thinks otherwise probably doesn't know much about head/brain injuries.  Each concussion might be a separate incident, but is undeniably compounded by volume.  And as long as Collie plays in the slot, he's going to be prone to concussions.  I don't see any way around that.  Even if Collie does recover and decide to continue his career, we're going hold our breaths every time he goes over the middle of the field, because every hit could be the hit.

If Collie is going to contribute in 2011, he needs to do a few things first.  We'll assume for the sake of this article that he does return.  If he does, he needs to get a new, concussion-conscience helmet.  It's no longer a vanity issue, it's a lifespan issue.  Collie needs to commit to a Gazoo helmet like DeSean Jackson did and accept it as part of his wardrobe for the rest of his career.  Period.  Wearing anything else is reckless and foolish not only on Collie's end, but on the Colts' medical end as well.  Second, Collie needs to decide what routes he's comfortable running and communicate those to Manning.  He and Manning need to effectively diagram Collie's role in 2011 and beyond.  Maybe it's unchanged, I don't know.  If he's going to play the slot position, yeah, he's going to have to run routes over the middle.  But there are still some routes that are more susceptible to big hits than others, to being sandwiched between a linebacker and a safety, and Collie is going to have to figure out, along with doctors, what routes may not be in his best long-term life interests and communicate those concerns to Manning.

I get the feeling that Collie will play in 2011, and that's great news for the Colts and their fans.  My concern for Collie, quite honestly though, is more a quality of life issue than anything else.  As much as I love to see Manning targeting #17, I also would like to see Collie be able to be there for his wife and kids when he's done with football.  I mean that with all sincerity.  Football is, at the end of the day, just a game.  These health concerns are permanent.  I trust Collie and team doctors to make all the correct decisions that enable Collie to do what he loves while also monitoring his return to action and ensuring his long-term health.  I think he will have to make a few adjustments for the rest of his career, but I don't think they are adjustments that will drastically affect his game or role, just changes that slightly alter some of the things he wears and does.

4.  Blair White

Let's just get this out of the way: for an undrafted free agent rookie, White played remarkably well.  We have to consider things from that perspective, and from that perspective, he was a valuable contributor.  He played much better than most thought he would and made some key contributions during the 2010 season.

That said, he still wasn't as good as most made him out to be.  I feel like there is a consensus amongst Colts fans that White is another "weapon" or will be a dangerous part of the attack next year, and I don't believe either to be true.  White was really just a guy who stepped in, played beyond his expected level and served as a decent emergency fill-in for a hampered receiving corps.  But if everyone is healthy next year, including Collie and Dallas Clark, White goes back to the bench.  He does not get on the field in four receiver looks nor does he alternate snaps with anyone.  He just goes back to the bench.  And if the Colts draft another receiver with expectations that he'll have a long-term role on the team, the Colts very well could cut White if they only hold on to five wide receivers.  Not saying they will, and that certainly opens up a White vs. Anthony Gonzalez roster value debate, but I'm just saying it could happen.

White is a decent possession receiver.  Not very fast, not spectacular, just has the ability to run some good routes and make tough grabs.  He has good hands and above-average height which allows him to pluck high passes out of the air and adjust accordingly for passes thrown behind or ahead of him.  I think he's also good at making those adjustments.  Like Garcon, though, he suffers from inconsistent performance, but unlike Garcon, most of that stemmed from being a rookie and not knowing where to be on every play.  Several of Manning's interceptions on the year seemed to be a result of expecting White to be in one place when he ran another.  Obviously, this is understandable given that White was an undrafted rookie thrust from the practice squad to the active roster and into a featured role just a week into the season.  He had to adjust on the fly and did an admirable job of that.  

Personally, I like White because he never complained about being expected to do so much with so little time and he rarely looked lost even though he sometimes played like it.  You never questioned White's effort and largely understood his shortcomings.  But I think he is a limited player because he doesn't have anywhere near the route-running prowess and change-of-direction ability that a guy like Collie has, so he's only ever going to be average in the slot, and he doesn't have the speed or explosion to be anything notable on the outside.  At best, I think White is a quality reserve that can step in for a game or two if your slot guy is down, which isn't bad, but it seems that some fans talk about him like he's a building block of the future and I just don't see it. 

In a crowded receiving corps, I don't see White getting many snaps barring injury next year, and I'm not sure he's a lock to make the roster either.  He's got a good chance, but the spot is not assured.  

5.  Anthony Gonzalez

Sometimes, Gonzalez' presence on the team feels like more urban legend than fact.  He only played against Houston in 2010 -- twice -- and exited both games with a knee injury.  The circumstances behind both injuries were extremely frustrating.  The first was just an awkward adjustment that Gonzalez should have never had to make on a decent sideline pass by Manning.  Not only did Gonzalez not make the catch in bounds, but by kneeling to make the catch, he banged his knee.  Out through the bye week.  I was less irritated that he proved injury-prone, yet again, than the fact that he didn't field a relatively simply ball while doing so.

The second was even more maddening but for a different reason.  Bernard Pollard slammed him late and out-of-bounds and was neither flagged nor fined for it.  Again, I'm not a big rah-rah NFL refs suck kinda guy, but that was a horrible no-call and cowardly display of inaction in the week following.  It was as obvious a late hit as there can be, by a guy with a history of cheap shots and late hits as it stands.  That one still baffles me.  More frustrating than the NFL's response to the hit, though, was the front office's response to the hit.  Essentially, they IR'd Gonzo with no real medical conclusion as to the severity of his injury, choosing to hold onto hope of Bob Sanders' return instead (why you would ever bank on Sanders returning is beyond me), and it turns out a few weeks later that Gonzo is completely fine and would have been able to return as little as four weeks after his knee injury.  

No matter where you fall on the IR priority debate, you have to agree that Gonzo had a frustrating year and there's simply no way, given the way the last few seasons have gone, that the Colts can rely on him going forward.  When healthy, he's a reliable receiver who can operate well in the slot or out wide, and maybe my greatest memory of him is absolutely shredding the Chargers' secondary in the 2008 postseason before exiting the first half with...you guessed it, a knee injury.  Prior to that, Gonzo was getting whatever he wanted against that secondary and Manning was hitting him with military precision.  

I know the kind of player Gonzo can be, which is a smart route-runner with great agility that picks his spots well and has a natural feel for finding the soft spots of defenses and consequentially drawing Manning's attention.  But even the biggest Buckeye fan can't expect Gonzo to be that guy in 2011.  You can't expect Gonzo to be that guy again unless he shows that his knees can make it through a football season.  The consensus from several national writers I've spoken to is largely that "he's done" and it's hard to disagree, but Gonzo is inexpensive at this point in his career and works too well with Manning to just cut him before injury.  I see him making the 2011 roster for the same reason Sanders made the 2010 roster, but hopefully with a different result.

6.  Taj Smith

I think most have conceded that Smith will never be much in terms of a receiver, unless you value final preseason game performances, but Smith was still a valuable part of the Colts' 2010 roster after being cut before the season (on an injury settlement ) and reunited with the team in November (because of injury settlement rules.)  Few were overwhelmed by the signing even if it made sense, but most were impressed by his impact on a lackluster special teams unit.  In his first game "back" with the team, Smith blocked and recovered a punt for a touchdown against Dallas.  In his second game, he recovered a botched punt snap against Tennessee.  And against the Jets in the postseason, he almost blocked a punt and in the same breath almost became public enemy number one in Colts' fans eyes on an Oscar-worthy dive by Steve Weatherford.  I don't know about you all, but I saw a pattern developing: Smith is around the ball a lot on special teams, and Ray Rycheleski's unit isn't exactly chalk-full of that type of player to say the least.

If Smith makes the 2011 roster, it won't be because of what he brings as a receiver, it will be because he's the closest thing to a special teams ace that the Colts have.  And when your special teams are as bad and continue to be as bad as the Colts' special teams are and have historically been, you increase your chances of making the squad significantly by bringing some life to such a maligned unit.  So considering that, I like Smith's chances of sticking around for 2011.

7.  Brandon James

The last two receivers here aren't going to necessitate much analysis because they simply didn't do much, or anything.  James was obviously an emergency emergency option and it showed in his play.  He appeared to possess dangerous open field speed in practice and training camp that never translated to games.  Sometimes, your reaction time slows you down, and that seemed to be the case with James: practice speed never translated to game speed.  He was indecisive as both a receiver and a returner -- mostly as a returner, where he made some dreadful decisions -- and was never a serious part of this passing attack.  His only real action came against the Bengals, in an alright-for-a-backup's-backup's-backup kinda performance, but it was clear that his stay on the team would be limited and few were surprised when his release was announced.  I don't expect James to have any future with this team.  He just doesn't appear ready to play this game at the professional level.

8.  Chris Brooks

I know nothing about Brooks, as he never actually saw action with the Colts, but was a practice squad stash (with a brief active stint) for the season and appears to be pretty close to Garcon and Smith.  I don't know if that counts for much, but I'll reserve judgment until I actually see him do something.

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