The Indianapolis Colts are a team composed of young players trying to earn their chance to shine and be a part of a team that figures to win for a long time. At the same time, they have just enough stars and veteran talent that they will be doing quite a bit of winning too this season. The Colts are a young team filled with players trying to prove themselves, along with veterans who are leading the team towards what is hopefully a second straight playoff appearance behind their stars.
Perhaps no position on the roster embodies that more than the wide receiver position.
This is a group of ten players that, outside of Reggie Wayne, have virtually no NFL experience. Their average experience is 1.6 years. Even with Reggie Wayne's 13th year of experience, the average receiver on the roster has played just 2.7 years in the NFL and is just 24.7 years old.
The group is made up of underdog players and guys hoping just to get a shot on an NFL roster. We'll look at each one of them and assess whether that will happen this season with the Colts or not. First off, let's look at the three guys who will without question make the final 53-man roster.
Reggie Wayne is about as big of a lock to make the roster as anyone, including Andrew Luck. Wayne was entering the final stretch of his already borderline Hall of Fame career entering last season (from 2004-2010 he gained over 1,000 yards each year). A free agent after the 2011 season, there was a lot of doubt whether Reggie would return to the Colts - but he did, and he took less money to do so than what some other teams were offering. Reggie came back to a team expected to be among the worst in the league and helped them to win a stunning 11 games and make the playoffs. Wayne's leadership and play was one of the biggest keys to the 2012 season, and he not only provided Andrew Luck with an elite talent to fall back as a receiver but also provided extraordinary leadership in helping a young team greatly overachieve and helping them through an incredibly tough situation with Chuck Pagano battling cancer. 2012 was easily the finest season of Wayne'e career considering the circumstances and it elevated him from great player to a whole new level. Wayne will not only be regarded as a Hall of Fame receiver but will be regarded by Colts fans as one of the all-time classic Colts.
There is nothing to suggest that Wayne won't be just as effective in 2013 as he was last season, especially with Andrew Luck having a full season under his belt. While many fans point to how quickly Marvin Harrison dropped off and worry that the same may happen to Reggie, I'm confident that he still has at least one year left as a real productive player. There aren't many players that I feel more comfortable with than Reggie Wayne going into next season - in fact, I don't think there are any.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was signed as a free agent by the Colts this year after spending the first four years of his career in Oakland. A top ten pick in 2009, he never lived up to the expectations set for him - but that could be attributed to the fact that he played for the Raiders. In four years, he had seven quarterbacks and I would take Colts third-stringer Chandler Harnish over most of them. DHB struggled with drops a lot in Oakland and simply must get better in that area, but the speedster knows that he needs to have a good year to really keep his NFL career on track. If he is going to succeed anywhere, it will be in Indy with Andrew Luck. DHB's spot as the number two receiver is secure.
The final guy whose spot is completely safe is T.Y. Hilton. One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises from a year ago, Hilton exploded onto the scene in his rookie year and made an immediate and big impact. The small speedy wideout caught 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 scores, while also adding another touchdown in the return game. He too struggled with drops and must improve in that area, but Hilton did much more good last year than bad and will likely continue to develop this year. He will be the slot guy for the Colts and he could be an incredibly dangerous deep threat next season.
Now, let's look at the guys whose spots are much less secure. There are seven of them, and they are likely battling for only 2-3 spots.
The one who stands out among them and was really in-between these two categories is LaVon Brazill - that is, until he got suspended yesterday. Brazill will miss the first four games of the season after being suspended by the NFL for violating their substance abuse policy. It was an extremely dumb move for a guy who has talent and had an edge on the other guys. As a rookie last year he saw limited playing time but still managed to catch 11 passes for 186 yards and a score (a very important 42-yard touchdown in the 4th at the Detroit Lions that allowed Donnie Avery's game winner as time expired). The thing about Brazill's suspension is that I do not believe that he will count against the 53-man roster during the 4 weeks so the Colts could realistically keep him around and hold off on a final decision until he's ready to join the active roster. So let's just say that he won't be cut but that he won't be counting against the 53-man roster to start out with either.
That leaves just six guys battling for 2-3 spots. Here is where it really gets interesting and where an intense camp battle could occur.
Jeremy Kelley is a rookie who spent half of a season last year with the AFL's Utah Blaze. He caught 19 passes for 231 yards and 7 touchdowns with the Blaze. He is a really tall receiver at 6-6 and is a big, smart possession guy. He is a guy who fans have really become enamored with as his size really makes him appealing.
Nathan Palmer ("NaPalm") is an Indiana boy from Elkhart who also played with Chandler Harnish at Northern Illinois. Palmer was signed as an undrafted free agent by the 49ers last season and was signed to their practice squad, but in September the Colts signed him. He is a fast guy (he ran a 4.34 40 entering the league) and is perhaps most effective once he gets the ball in his hands.
Rodrick Rumble was signed as an undrafted free agent from Idaho State, where he was the school's all-time leading receiver. His measurables aren't anything spectacular and he will need to prove that he can play at the NFL level. Whether he can or not remains to be seen, but it would seem like his chances at making the roster aren't as good as the others. Still, he is an intriguing option who will get his chance in camp to impress. And besides, who doesn't want a guy whose name is Rodrick Rumble?
Jabin Sambrano looked impressive in the time we saw him last training camp and preseason, but it wasn't much as he was placed on injured reserve in August. He was waived in September and then signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad, and now he is back with Indy trying once again to earn his spot. As a senior at Montana two years ago, he gained 632 yards and 10 touchdowns receiving and also added 4 scores in the return game. Sambrano is a good enough receiver that if he can show his potential in preseason, his ability to return kicks could give him a slight edge over some of the other guys.
Lanear Sampson is another undrafted free agent signed by the Colts this year. As a senior at Baylor, he caught 52 passes for 646 yards and 6 scores. He ran a 4.38 40 at his pro day, furthering the idea that he is a real threat in the vertical passing game. While that would seem to clearly be his best fit, he does seem to have the ability to go over the middle as well, something that would be required of him in Pep Hamilton's offense.
Finally, Griff Whalen is back for another try at making the roster. He really may have made the final 53-man roster last year had he not re aggravated a foot injury in preseason that placed him on injured reserve. In two preseason appearances, he was very impressive, catching 12 passes (on 14 targets) for 125 yards (10.4 average) and a touchdown. He is a guy that walked on at Stanford and by the time he was a senior he was the leading receiver for Andrew Luck in Pep Hamilton's offense. Whalen's familiarity with the team, quarterback, and offensive coordinator likely gives him a slight edge heading into camp, but after that he will have to earn his spot. Whalen is an underdog who is hard not to root for.
So, after all of that, let's try to sort out what is likely to happen at this point. Remember, I said earlier that this will be an intense camp battle and that there are really 2-3 spots open for people to win. While we are making projections as to who will make the final roster right now in late June, this position is one that is seriously pretty open. The first three are set, but the next two or three are up for grabs. That said, however, we'll try to figure it out way early anyways.
Reggie Wayne is receiver number one, Darrius Heyward-Bey number two, and T.Y. Hilton number three. Those three will see the majority of the playing time at receiver next year and those three are entrenched at the top three spots. Outside of them, the other receivers have combined for 11 NFL catches for 186 yards and 1 touchdown - and all of those catches are by LaVon Brazill.
Speaking of Brazill, I thought that he stood a really good chance at making the 53-man roster. Does the suspension mean that the Colts will just give up on him? No, and that's the right thing to do. However, it does move Brazill a lot closer to the edge than he previously was and it opens up the other guys to possibly win Brazill's spot away from him. After the first four weeks, the team will have to make a decision on whether to keep Brazill or not, and that will be interesting in and of itself, but that's for another time. Basically, as long as Brazill doesn't count against the active roster I see no reason not to keep him, but whether he makes the roster after his suspension or not remains to be seen.
That leaves two or three remaining. The number of receivers the Colts keep will completely depend on how impressive people are in the preseason. Last year they kept five receivers, but keeping six is not unheard of. Still, I fully expect them to keep five guys, especially because Brazill will be waiting to re-join the team after the first four weeks.
Who do I think will be the fourth and fifth wide receivers to start the season? The guy I like best among the group is Griff Whalen, and I even wrote a while back about how he has the potential to make an impact this season. I really like Whalen and think that he has a real shot to make the final roster. He was very impressive in very limited work last preseason, and I expect him to continue that this preseason and, as long as he stays healthy, I expect him to earn the fourth wideout spot.
Whalen's biggest competition will likely be Nathan Palmer, Jabin Sambrano and Jeremy Kelley, all of whom are definitely players to keep an eye on. Palmer especailly has been very impressive this offseason, according to various reports.
Just for fun, I listed the ten wide receivers in order of the liklihood that they are on the roster when the team hosts the Oakland Raiders in the season opener, with one being the most likely and ten being the least:
1) Reggie Wayne
2) Darrius Heyward-Bey
3) T.Y. Hilton
4) LaVon Brazill *
5) Griff Whalen
6) Nathan Palmer
7) Jabin Sambrano
8) Jeremy Kelley
9) Lanear Sampson
10) Rodrick Rumble
* While LaVon Brazill appears on this list, it is just to show where I think he fits in among this group. Obviously, he most definitely will not be on the roster when the regular season starts.
I think the top five (not including Brazill) make the roster while the sixth ends up on the practice squad. But the bottom line and most important thing I want to highlight here is that this will be a big camp battle that, while it won't be as publicized because it's a battle of backups, will be a real fun one to watch that should provide top-notch competition.
Bring on training camp!