Justin K. Aller
With all the talk about the Colts' adding a wide receiver, a player to keep an eye on who is already on the roster is former Stanford wide receiver Griff Whalen.
Much of the past week, Colts fans have been speculating about which wide receiver the team would bring in. It was all sparked by Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeting out that the Colts were going after a "whopper" wide receiver. That led fans and media alike on a crazy, exhausting run in which pretty much every significant wide receiver in the NFL was mentioned. Victor Cruz? Nope - Irsay himself denied that one. Larry Fitzgerald? Nope. Desean Jackson? Jeremy Maclin? Nope, neither one of them. Doug Baldwin? He took to his own twitter account to deny that one. Davone Bess? Danario Alexander? Who could it possibly be?!?!?!? Well, like some of us began to wonder about, it was never a trade in the first place. Irsay confirmed to the Indianapolis Star that it was a free agent all along and that the deal seems to have fallen apart, as the Colts and the player could not agree to a deal. Who might that have been? I don't know, and I don't really care to discuss all the potential options of players who will not be signing with the Colts because the deal is dead (although, very quickly, some names I wonder about are Brandon Stokely or Brandon Lloyd).
The big thing to highlight from Irsay's comments to the Star, however, are that the Colts still intend to go after a wide receiver, presumably in the draft. The position is a huge need for the Colts, as they need a guy to come along and play alongside Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, both of whom had tremendous seasons last year. The number two wide receiver from a year ago, however, left in free agency (Donnie Avery). It wasn't a huge loss (he has hands of stone), but it does make getting a wide receiver a big need. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Colts take a WR in the first round of the NFL draft.
All of that said, however, there is actually a receiver out there who should be a very appealing option to the Colts and their fans. This is a guy who: 1) has plenty of experience playing with Andrew Luck (for much of the last 4-5 years); 2) is currently working out with Luck this offseason; 3) was Luck's leading receiver at Stanford in 2011; 4) has plenty of experience working with Colts' offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton in the west coast offense; 5) his salary will only be $405,000 in 2013; 6) he showed a lot of promise a year ago before a foot injury ended his season very, very early; 7) the Colts would not have to give up anything to get him. Sounds to me like a guy who I'm not going to rule out of the wide receiver race so quickly, and it also sounds like a guy who deserves a chance. And he likely will get it.
As many of you probably guessed (thanks a lot, headline spoilers!), I'm talking about Griff Whalen. Only 23 years old, Whalen was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Stanford a year ago, and from that point forward Colts fans were wondering just how much Luck's college teammate could do. In his collegiate career that began as a walk-on, Whalen amassed 56 receptions for 1,058 yards (13.2 average) and 5 touchdowns. In 2011, he led the team with 749 receiving yards and also added 4 scores. He missed time last offseason due to an injury but healed in time to play in the second preseason game against the Steelers. Whalen caught 4 passes for 59 yards (14.8 average) and a touchdown on 5 targets. The next week, he continued his impressive production against the Redskins by catching 8 passes for 66 yards (8.3 average) on 9 targets. At that time there was serious talk about whether Whalen would be able to sneak onto the 53-man roster, and it was generally assumed that at very least he would be signed to the practice squad. On August 27, 2012, however, he was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a broken foot. In only two preseason games, however, he made his mark by catching 12 of 14 targets for 125 yards (10.4 average) and a touchdown. Now, I agree that we shouldn't put too much stock into preseason numbers, but Whalen was very impressive in the two games he played in last year and that very well could translate to the regular season if he continues to get opportunities.
That leads us to this year. The Colts need another wide receiver to come along besides Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. They have LaVon Brazill, but aside from him and Whalen all the other guys don't figure to be much competition at all. Considering that Wayne is getting old, having a younger guy come along and develop would be huge. That's where Whalen comes in. At only 23 years old, he very well could be the guy the Colts are looking for. If they give him the opportunities, I think he could really take advantage of it. He isn't the fastest guy (then again, neither is Reggie), but he is quick coming in and out of his breaks and is a good, consistent route runner. To me (and I'm certainly not the only one), he is a guy who could very well be another big player if he continues to develop and get opportunities.
The last, and perhaps most obvious, reason why Whalen will likely get his shot this preseason is because of his familiarity with Andrew Luck and Pep Hamilton. Even now, Whalen is working out with Luck and other Stanford grads, and the two of them know Hamilton's offense extremely well. That alone will give Whalen an advantage over most other guys.
Bottom line is this - I fully expect the Colts to add a wide receiver, presumably through the draft. But I also want to say don't rule out Griff Whalen. No matter who the Colts bring in, they will have to earn their starting spot. Griff Whalen will very likely have the same opportunity if he can stay healthy. These aren't the Bill Polian Colts, where draft picks were immediately given the upper hand. These are the new Colts, where guys need to earn their spots. And I think Griff Whalen has as good of a shot as anybody to earn it. Regardless of whether he is a starting wide receiver or a practice squad player in 2013, however, if he continues to work hard and stay healthy, in a few years he no doubt will be a big producer for the Colts. The only question is when that time will come. There is a chance we may even start to see significant production this season.
Just remember one thing: don't rule out Griff Whalen.