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Indianapolis Colts 2014 Positional Review: Wide Receivers

Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson evaluates the 2014 Indianapolis Colts position by position. Today, we look at the wide receivers.

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, we looked at the running back position for the Colts and we looked in-depth about the changes that had taken place in the Colts' offensive philosophy.  They no longer were the run-first team that would run to set up the pass (they ended the 2013 season ranked 17th in passing offense), but instead they embraced the talent that they had and passed to set up the run.  The result?  The Indianapolis Colts' finished 2014 with the top-ranked passing offense in the entire National Football League.

Led by quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts finished first in the league with 305.9 passing yards per game, finished first in passing touchdowns (42), finished first in passing attempts per game (41.3), finished tied for sixth in yards per attempt (7.7), were tied for fifth in percentage of passes going for a first down (38.0%), were seventh in passer rating (96.8), were first in passing plays of 20+ yards (78) and tied for second in passing plays of 40+ yards (15).

We already looked in great detail at Andrew Luck's season, however, so now we turn our attention to his receiving core.  There were six wide receivers who caught at least one pass this season, and we'll take a look at each one of them and evaluate how they played (some with many words and some with few) and then shift our attention to the outlook for next season.

When discussing the Colts' wide receiver position, the talk has to begin with the team's Pro Bowl receiver, T.Y. Hilton.  The third-year receiver tied a career high with 82 catches, set a career high with 1,345 yards, and tied a career high with seven touchdowns, averaging 16.4 yards per catch - and this all with Hilton not catching a single pass in the final two regular season games as he was limited due to injury.  In six regular season games and one postseason game, Hilton topped 100 yards receiving - even going over 200-yards in a game against the Texans.  He finished sixth in the league in receiving yards per game (again, without catching a pass in the final two games) and the ninth highest single-season total in Colts' franchise history.  Hilton became just the third Colts receiver in franchise history to post multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his career, joining Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.  Hilton had a terrific season and continued to establish himself as one of the NFL's best receivers and biggest playmakers.  He was truly the team's number one receiver ever since Reggie Wayne was injured in 2013 and it's a role that Hilton retained this year, developing even more and improving on the chemistry that he has with his quarterback.

As for Reggie Wayne, it was a completely different story in 2014 than that of Hilton's.  While Hilton is a young receiver with a ton of talent who had another impressive season, Wayne is the old receiver who used to be great but struggled in 2014.  A lot of the struggles certainly had to do with injury, as the receiver played for much of the season with an elbow injury and a torn triceps that will require offseason surgery.  Add that in to the fact that Wayne is 36-years old and was one year removed from a torn ACL, and the struggles make sense - but they don't make them any easier to watch.  According to Pro Football Focus, Wayne dropped nine passes in 2014 and had a drop percentage of 12.33%, which was the twelfth-worst among receivers who saw at least 25% of his team's targets.  That 12.33% drop rate also ranks as the worst drop rate for Reggie Wayne since PFF began keeping track of those stats in 2007, spanning the last eight seasons - and it's not even close, either.  Wayne still did finish second on the team in receptions (with 64) and receiving yards (with 779) while also catching two touchdowns and averaging 12.2 yards per catch, but he wasn't the same.  He saw his streak of consecutive games with at least three catches come to an end, and it got to the point where he caught just one pass and was targeted just twice in the three playoff games combined - and zero times in the final two games.  That was Reggie Wayne at the end of 2014 - an injured shell of himself who was nothing more than a decoy in the Colts offense, and it was hard to watch a great player struggle like he did.

Reggie Wayne Before Injury vs. After Injury - 2014 Season

Before Injury (first six games) After injury (last eleven games)
Games Played 6 11
Receptions 34 27
Receptions per Game 6.7 2.5
Targets 54 59
Targets Per Game 9 5.4
Percent of Targets Caught 62.96% 45.76%
Yards 419 357
Yards Per Game 69.8 32.5
AVG. 12.3 13.2
TD 1 1
Drops (per PFF) 2 5

While Reggie Wayne started out playing well and ended the season on a very disappointing note, another Colts receiver started the season on a very low note though he ended by playing his best football in the playoffs.  Hakeem Nicks was signed by the Colts to a low-risk, one-year deal last offseason, and there was hope that he could get back to his form from a few years ago when he was among the league's best.  Since then, injuries had derailed him, however, and he came to Indianapolis hoping to get things going again.  Right from the start, however, it was clear that wasn't going to happen.  While his inability to create separation was again noticeable, perhaps the most concerning part of his game for much of the season was the lack of timing that he had with Andrew Luck.  Look at the interception Luck threw in the Pittsburgh game, for example - that was a result of the awful timing that the quarterback and receiver had.  During the first 13 games of the season, Nicks caught 24 passes (on 48 targets) for 243 yards and three scores, averaging 10.1 yards per catch.  During the last six games, however, Nicks caught 20 passes (on 27 targets) for 260 yards and two scores, averaging 13 yards per catch.  So, while even in the last few weeks of the season Nicks still didn't have a huge role in the offense, he clearly played better late no matter what metric you use.  It was a disappointing year overall from Nicks, however, as for much of the season he was outplayed by the other receivers and showed no timing with Andrew Luck.

The player who jumped Nicks as the number three wide receiver on the Colts during the season was rookie Donte Moncrief, who was part of a historic rookie wide receiver class and who impressed with the Colts.  Moncrief caught 32 passes (on 49 targets) for 444 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season (averaging 13.6 yards per catch) and added five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown in the postseason.  He also recorded two 100+ yard receiving days during the season.  There were clearly limitations in the rookie's game this year, as he was inconsistent from week-to-week, but there was no doubt that he was one of the few players the Colts had who could be a big-play threat downfield (along with Hilton) and showed great potential and promise for the coming years.  In fact, when looking at the receiver position as a whole, one of the biggest regrets from the 2014 season could end up being not getting Moncrief more time, as the Colts still would play Reggie Wayne and at times Hakeem Nicks over the rookie.  It wasn't a bad thing to split the time between the three, but giving Moncrief more time throughout the season would likely have been a good idea.  Altogether, however, it was a solid rookie campaign for the 21-year old receiver and one that leaves plenty of legitimate hope for the young combination of T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief for quarterback Andrew Luck for several years to come.

The other two wide receivers who caught passes for the Colts in 2014 were Griff Whalen and Josh Cribbs, though neither were on the team for receiving purposes.  Whalen caught two passes for 23 yards this year, while Cribbs caught one pass for eight yards.  While Whalen made the roster out of training camp after being a depth receiver in 2013 and can service as a reliable backup, he was the Colts punt and kick returner before being replaced by Cribbs.

So where do the Colts go from here?  Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks are both free agents, and Wayne has a big decision looming about whether to retire or not.  While Griff Whalen might get a shot to stick around again as a depth receiver and returner, he won't factor into the full-time plans at wide receiver (and Josh Cribbs never did), leaving just T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief as the guys locked up for next season.  Obviously, this position is definitely a need for the Colts to address this offseason.  Might Hakeem Nicks come back?  Six weeks ago, I'd have said no way, but he finished the season strong and if the Colts could get him on another low-risk deal and hope that he finally got some of the things figured out (such as timing with Luck), then I could see the team bringing him back as a role player like he was this year.  And then there's the question of Reggie Wayne.  My guess is that he will retire, but we really don't know - and he doesn't either.  If he does come back, however, the Colts would see how he is doing post-injury and he likely would be nothing more than a role player as well.

I think the AFC Championship game loss against the Patriots showed us, among other things, that the Colts need wide receiver help.  In that game, the Colts' receivers were getting absolutely no separation.  The Patriots took T.Y. Hilton out of the game (which is another topic entirely, particularly about the Colts needing to gameplan to get him open and Hilton needing to be able to beat double teams), and besides that the Colts' receivers really couldn't do much.  It's hard to blame Andrew Luck a ton when his receivers aren't getting open.  That was a debacle of a game, but it brought to the forefront an issue that had surfaced at time this year - the Colts' receivers overall inability to create separation - and reminded us yet again that the Colts need to add some receiving talent for Andrew Luck this offseason.  The young core of T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief is around and looks very promising, but other than that there are a lot of question marks at the receiver position moving forward - much like there were in the 2014 season, besides Hilton.

For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2014 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews:

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