If you were to ask me what the deepest position on the Colts roster is entering training camp, I'd answer that it's easily the wide receiver position. This is a welcome change after last year, where after an injury to Reggie Wayne the Colts receiving core was basically T.Y. Hilton and then everyone else.
This year, however, that group of "everyone else" looks to be much improved, and of course T.Y. Hilton is still there - as is Reggie Wayne, who is recovering from his torn ACL. In short, the receiver position looks to have plenty of weapons for Andrew Luck.
While Reggie Wayne is the fan favorite and has easily been the most productive player of any receiver over his career, the Colts best receiver is no longer Reggie Wayne - and yes, I realize what a big statement that is. For the first time in years, the Colts will enter a season with another receiver on the roster better than Reggie Wayne, and that's T.Y. Hilton.
That's not to take away from Reggie whatsoever. When healthy, he's still an elite guy and one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. He's a terrific route runner (as good as there is) and is always reliable and always there when Luck needs him. But the reality of the situation is that he's 35 years old and coming off of a torn ACL. Colts fans remember how quickly Marvin Harrison dropped off after his injury and many fear the same for Reggie. There is no doubt whatsoever that he will be back for the 2014 season and I expect him to be a solid contributor - I just don't think he'll return to the form he was beforehand. He should continue to be good and he should continue to be reliable, and I fully expect him to be the team's number one receiver. But does that mean he's really their best one?
On that note, I think the answer might be no. I think that T.Y. Hilton might actually be the best receiver on the roster. In his second season in the league last year, Hilton racked up 82 catches for 1,083 yards and 5 touchdowns. In two playoff games, Hilton put up all-time great numbers, catching 17 passes for 327 yards and 2 scores. Including the playoffs, Hilton notched five 100+ yard receiving performances, including a 224 yard game in the thrilling come-from-behind win in the wild card round against the Chiefs. He also had three games (including playoffs) when he recorded multiple touchdown receptions. Also of note last season, Hilton dominated the same Seattle Seahawks secondary that demolished the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl and the same Richard Sherman who will be on the cover of Madden this year. Hilton is incredibly talented and there aren't many people in the league who can match up with the speed and receiving talent that he brings. He showed last year that he can function as a number one receiver, though it might be better to have someone like Reggie Wayne as the number one receiver and then T.Y. as the two receiver, which is what will likely happen.
Backing up Reggie Wayne and playing when the team goes to three-wide sets will be Hakeem Nicks, who the Colts signed this offseason. Nicks has had two career 1,000+ yard receiving seasons and in 2010-2011 Nicks was among the best receivers in the NFL. Recently, however, he has dealt with injury issues and his play has dropped off quite a bit. If he's healthy he will be able to help the Colts immensely, as he's a very talented guy - but the big question is how effective he'll be, as in recent years he hasn't been as effective as he could have been. The Colts signed him to a low-risk one-year deal and he should step in and help the Colts out a lot.
Furthermore, the Colts third round pick Donte Moncrief will certainly make the roster and will likely be the fourth receiver, though he was drafted for the future. Here's what I wrote about him in my draft pick profile:
"Don't rule him out of the offense completely this year, either. He'll get playing time and that likely will increase as the year goes on. I expect him to be the Colts number four wide receiver and with that role I'd expect him to see significant time, just without the pressure or expectations of a number one receiver. It would be great for Moncrief to be able to contribute this year alongside legitimate number ones Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, gaining valuable experience, producing, and developing into a starter in a year or two. Donte Moncrief is a guy who will help the Colts out quite a bit in 2014, but the Colts hope that his biggest contributions will come in the future."
After those four guys, however, there appears to be a battle for the final two (likely) spots between three (perhaps more) players. Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen seem to be fighting for only two roster spots. Rogers is probably the most talented of the group and as such he likely has an advantage, but for as much as Colts fans love him, the bottom line is that he simply must get better if he wants to continue to make the roster and see playing time. Last year, his route running was bad and it led to a couple of interceptions. I know he made some great plays too, and that's why he should stick around - he's got the talent, he just needs to continue to work. Brazill has talent as well and showed what he can do in an impressive 53-yard, 2 touchdown game against the Bengals last year. Whalen is more of a possession and slot receiver who's not as physically talented as the other two but who was the most productive of the three last year, catching 24 passes for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns. All three are deserving of the spot and it will be a battle that won't be decided until training camp and preseason, although at this point I think Griff Whalen will be the odd man out. It's not so much about him but what the other two bring - they both appear to have more potential and need to keep working at it. At the same time, however, Whalen can contribute if the Colts need him to and I wouldn't be surprised whatsoever (in fact, I'd expect it) if he's playing with the Colts this year. No matter who the odd man out is, I think that might be the case, depending on how the injury situation goes.
The rest of the receivers on the Colts roster right now appear to be nothing more than camp bodies - although if they play well enough they might earn their way into that battle with Rogers, Brazill, and Whalen for what will likely be two spots. Here's what I wrote about the other guys when I looked at the undrafted free agents:
Gregory Moore, WR, Lane College
Gregory Moore is a 6-4, 197 pound receiver who starred at Lane College during his senior season, catching 59 passes for 910 yards and 11 touchdowns. He began his career at junior college (Mesabi Range) but transferred to Lane for his sophomore season, where he started 9 games. He's a guy with good speed and versatility and obviously he brings height to the table as well.
Outlook: The wide receiver position is a loaded one for the Colts this year, but they're always looking toward the future and Moore has the potential to make it in the NFL as a successful slot guy, as he brings great route running and speed to the Colts. The problem he'll have is making the team over guys like Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen, who likely will be among those competing for the final spot or two at the position. After that, competition for the practice squad would be present too. Moore has talent and potential, but the receiver one is a loaded one for the Colts, and I don't see any undrafted receivers doing enough to earn a roster spot.
Eric Thomas, WR, Troy
The man who broke the Sun Belt Conference's record for most career touchdowns (29) signed with the Colts, joining the man who previously held the record, T.Y. Hilton. Eric Thomas, a 6-1, 209 pound receiver, caught 66 passes for 993 yards and 12 touchdowns (good for the 10th most in the country) in his senior season and at one point caught a touchdown in eight straight games. He was named first-team All-Sun Belt and participated in the Senior Bowl, the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl, and the Medal of Honor Bowl. He ranks in the top three in Troy career records in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Thomas visited the Colts prior to the draft.
Outlook: The production is certainly there. But what about the skills and the roster spot? Now that's a little more uncertain. I think that Thomas could translate to the NFL (though he'll need to continue to work, as will all of these UDFAs), but I have a hard time seeing him beat out Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill, or Griff Whalen for the final spot or two at receiver, and on that note I don't think he'll beat out Gregory Moore either. I guess it depends on what they're looking for, as Moore is a better slot receiver but Thomas a better outside guy, and either way I doubt Thomas makes the roster.
Tony Washington, WR, Appalachian State
In 49 career games at Appalachian State, Tony Washington caught 139 passes for 1,837 yards and 10 touchdowns while also rushing 13 times for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also excelled as both a kick and punt returner, ranking 11th in the FCS in kickoff return average and 21st in punt return average. In Appalachian State's final year in the Southern Conference, Washington was named first-team all-conference as both a receiver and as a returner. Additionally, Washington gradueaded from Appalachian State with a cumulative 3.80 GPA and was one of just 16 winners of the 2013 National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Award.
Outlook: The best thing that Tony Washington might have going for him is his ability to return kicks and punts. He'll likely get a shot to do that in camp and in preseason, and that's where he could earn his way onto the team. I don't see him beating enough people out at wide receiver to make the roster there. If, however, he stands out in the return game, the Colts might decide to keep him there. I mean, heck, they kept receiver David Reed around purely as a returner and he sucked at it, so why not Washington if he's good? I could really see the Colts keeping Tony Washington if he impresses as a returner.
Josh Lenz was on the Colts 53-man roster for the final playoff game of the 2013 season, having just been promoted to the active roster, though he was inactive for the game. He was signed by the Bears as an undrafted free agent last offseason out of Iowa State, was cut from the Bears then signed by the Seahawks, who cut him about a month later. A while later the Colts signed him to their practice squad and then, as already noted, activated him at the end of the year. Ryan Lankford was signed this offseason as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois by the Dolphins but was released less than a week later. He's a small player, standing only 5-11 and weighing just 163 pounds.
The bottom line with Greg Moore, Eric Thomas, Tony Washington, Josh Lenz, and Ryan Lankford is that their chances of making the roster are all long shots. They all seem to be just camp bodies, although perhaps one of them can play their way into the battle with Rogers, Brazill, and Whalen or perhaps one of them can play well enough to warrant a spot on the practice squad.
The Colts receiver position is deep this year, and that's a good thing. It's headlined by Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, though Hakeem Nicks will get a lot of playing time as well. Then between guys like Donte Moncrief, Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, and others, there will be plenty of competition in camp and plenty of weapons for Andrew Luck.
Week One Starters: Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton; Backups: Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill; Cut: Ryan Lankford, Josh Lenz, Greg Moore, Eric Thomas, Tony Washington, Griff Whalen
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: