One of the best parts about seeing a young quarterback develop is seeing all of his weapons develop right along with him. If Andrew Luck really is going to become a top-five QB this season as Brad and I both expect, then the Colts receivers will only benefit.
Before Lavon Brazill's four-game suspension, it was easier to predict how the depth chart would shake out and how Luck's passes would be distributed.
Now, outside of Reggie Wayne, it's a little bit of a mess.
Thankfully, the transition to a West Coast offense shouldn't affect Wayne at all. He's proven again and again that he's a do-it-all receiver that can thrive in any situation and run any route. The expectation that his play will nosedive has been around for what, five years? And it still hasn't happened because his game isn't based on physical traits like Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. It's based on his on-field intelligence and precise route running. And it doesn't hurt that he has one of the cleanest injury histories you could want from an NFL receiver.
Even though Wayne should have another good year, his stats should go down slightly from last year due to Pep Hamilton's more balanced offense. Luck isn't dropping back 764 times again, which means Wayne shouldn't come close to matching his career-high 194 targets in 2012. Improved accuracy from Luck should slightly help offset a drop in actual receptions, but a less vertical offense should still have a noticeable impact on Wayne's stats.
Nevertheless, Wayne should be very good this season. He still has the ability to be a No. 1 WR, and Luck will treat him as such, so there is no competition here.
Not so much at No. 2 receiver. Even though T.Y. Hilton was arguably the Colts' most explosive receiver last season, he really was playing behind Donnie Avery, who had more snaps, targets and receptions. Avery was just a bad player, though, which is why he was let go.
With Darrius Heyward-Bey now taking over Avery's spot, the battle between him and Hilton will be one of the more interesting ones to watch over the next month. No matter how good Wayne plays this season, Heyward-Bey and Hilton need to take the pressure off him to be Superman all the time.
Hilton was electric will the ball in his hands last season, but he needs to greatly improve his on-field awareness and cut down on his drops. Training camp is the time for infinite optimism, so we can assume for now he'll take that second-year leap.
Heyward-Bey, meanwhile, is playing with the best quarterback he's ever had. His reputation as a bust has been manufactured ever since Al Davis drafted him over Michael Crabtree in 2009, but in reality, he's become a decent player. The problem for DHB was the garbage pit that is Oakland Raiders football, and not with his own production.
Now that he's playing with an actual good team, I expect him to have the best season of his career. He's more explosive than Avery and has slightly better hands. He'll be utilized as a deep threat in the Colts offense, and in taking over Avery's role, should become the Luck's No. 2 target.
While I do expect Hilton to improve, the fans expecting him to light up the stat sheet every week are probably going to be disappointed. Hilton left a lot of plays on the field last season in between all of the deep passes he managed to reel in. Even though I love his YAC ability, he's going to be limited to routes closer to the line of scrimmage, which should decrease his yards per catch and receiving yards at the end of the season.
But even if Hilton is the No. 3 receiver in title, he should be on the field often and serve as one of the team's best weapons on offense. Just don't fret over his stats too much.
And now we come to the No. 4 and 5 WR spots, which I'm going to put simply. Brazill won't be available for the first four games, and Donald Jones hasn't signed with the team. As of right now, there is a competition between several young players to earn those two spots, whether or not Brazill is eventually cut.
Griff Whalen is my first pick to stay on the roster.
The second-year receiver really has everything going for him right now. He's not only playing with his former quarterback at Stanford in Luck, but he's also been reunited with his his former offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton. He's the only true sure-handed possession/slot receiver the Colts have. And he was impressive last preseason before he suffered a foot injury that forced him to go on IR.
For more on Whalen, check out this article Josh wrote on him in March.
As much as I want to say Sambrano will make it based on the praise he received from coaches last offseason, I think Palmer will round out the WR depth chart. He's has already had an impressive offseason, and he managed to stay around for most of 2012 for a reason. The coaches like him, especially on special teams.
Of course, Sambrano is useful on special teams too, so the decision will likely come down to the old fashioned method of who plays better over the next month.
Unlike the Colts running backs, this is hardly a deep group entering training camp. It's not a matter of just hoping that some players step up. In order for the team to be secure with its depth at wide receiver, it desperately needs several of the younger players to prove they belong in the NFL.