[Editor's Note: Please welcome Zak Kolesar to Stampede Blue as a contributing writer! - Josh]
Indianapolis Colts fans will always remember the magical 2006 NFL season for one specific reason: the team captured its first Lombardi Trophy since moving westward from Baltimore to Indiana. It was a memorable season for many reasons, stacked with all sorts of talent offensively, defensively and on special teams.
Those were the Peyton Manning days; the days when the defense was led by the likes of Antoine Bethea, Gary Brackett, Dwight Freeney and Cato June; when Dallas Clark added an almost unprecedented dimension to the Colts' air attack; when former New Englander Adam Vinatieri recorded one of his best seasons; the days of a two-headed backfield monster consisting of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. For the reasons listed above the 2006 Colts will always be heralded as one of the most talented and hard-working rosters in the franchise's history.
Needless to say, Indianapolis scrapped their way through the regular season and playoffs to stand in the warm Miami rain victorious with the help of a wide variety of talent. Two players I have yet to mention are, as you can already guess, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. This Indy tandem still stands as arguably the best one-two receiving punch in the 21st century, and they had their best seasons as teammates during that 2006 campaign.
At age 34 Harrison nearly surpassed the 1,400-yard mark and almost topped his career best in yards per reception, gaining 14.4 yards per catch. Wayne, then 28-years old, also posted his second-best YPR average (15.2) and broke the 1,300-yard barrier as well. The two combined to score over two-thirds of Peyton's passing touchdowns, starting all 16 games for the Colts that regular season.
Nine years later, neither Harrison nor Wayne are to be found on the team's roster. Harrison retired two years after the Colts captured their second Super Bowl title and, after two injury-riddled seasons, Indianapolis decided to part ways with Wayne following the 2014 season. It is always tough for a team to go in a different direction from a player who was committed and consistently productive for so many seasons, but the Colts have been revamping the roster ever since Ryan Grigson came to town. Saying bye to Reggie meant that no Colts remain on offense from the Peyton Manning days.
The offseason move that solidified that Wayne would not be signed on for another season was the corralling of former Houston Texans wideout Andre Johnson. Per Spotrac, Johnson signed on with the Colts for three years, making $21 million over that span before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018. The addition of Johnson makes the 2015 Colts' wide receiving corps look just as explosive and dangerous as the 2006 bunch led by Harrison and Wayne on paper.
The tight end/flanker duo of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in 2014 added a whole new dimension to the long air raid that Andrew Luck loves, averaging 15.2 and 13.6 YPR respectively and combining for 16 touchdowns. Rookie wideout Donte Moncrief showed flashes of being a solid option as the third wideout, much like Hakeem Nicks was last year. And who could forget the Pro Bowler. T.Y. Hilton rounded out the NFL's top 5 in YPR in 2014, averaging 16.4 yards per catch, per Adavanced Football Analytics.
The group listed above may be the most well-rounded unit on the Colts going into the 2015 season. Fleener and Allen will continue to be favorite across-field targets for Luck, and Moncrief gained enough experience during his rookie campaign to possibly have a breakout year this season. But the obvious two players to look at when talking about Luck's passing options are Hilton and Johnson. For many reasons I believe that those two will be able to recapture the magic that Harrison and Wayne brought to the Colts in 2006. According to Advanced Football Analytics, Wayne and Harrison posted the best and second best Win Probability Added numbers among wide receivers that season, miles ahead Isaac Bruce, who ranked third. Also, in the category of one of the more popular statistics nowadays -- Expected Points Added -- Wayne and Harrison also ranked one-two among wide receivers, per Advanced Football Analytics. So why will Hilton and Johnson be able to match this dominance?
Out of quarterbacks who played in 10 or more games last season, Luck ranked third in the NFL in terms of his deep passing game. According to Advanced Football Analytics, 23.1 percent of Luck's passes were 15 yards or more down the field. With a healthy Wayne during his rookie campaign, a highly respectable 27.0 percent of Luck's passes were considered deep. So with Hilton and Johnson lining up on the same team this year, we should see Luck's 2014 deep pass numbers climb back and possibly surpass those from his rookie season. This stems from the fact that Indianapolis won all eight of their contests and averaged 35.9 points when Luck's Adjusted Yards Per Attempt was greater than 6.5, per Advanced Football Analytics. Luck loves to go deep to start off games and continues to go deep once his team has established a lead. His rocket of an arm seems to never tire.
So that is why he is going to have a lot of fun throwing the ball to Hilton and Johnson this season. Let's start with the new guy. With four different starting quarterbacks last season, Johnson posted the second lowest Deep Pass Percentage of his career (23.3), while his average over the last nine seasons stands at 26.2, per Advanced Football Analytics. By the time training camp starts up in July AJ will be 34-years old, the same age Harrison was in 2006. Although some critics have deemed Johnson as being "too old," his deflating numbers can be traced to the inconsistent play at quarterback that he experienced during his 12 seasons in Houston. Johnson is very glad to be out of Texas because of how the last two seasons played out, and he is very much looking forward to working with the best quarterback -- by a long shot -- that has ever thrown to him in the NFL.
One of the main aspects of Johnson's game has always been his explosiveness. When he was recruited out of Miami his explosiveness was the highest rated attribute, according to Mock Draftable. As you can tell from the video below, he can go from zero to 100 in no time:
This video is somewhat old, so he has definitely lost a step or so, but he also has not had a cannon-like arm throwing to him during his career in Houston. In his first three season playing with Luck Hilton has averaged over 15 YPR twice, while Johnson only eclipsed that mark once. With two streaks of lightning dashing downfield and Fleener and Allen causing defenses to guard the first-down barrier, Johnson will see plenty of opportunities throughout the year to beat his opponent deep. His motivation will be at an all-time high, as he will be playing for a Super Bowl-contending squad. Despite a shaky 2014, remember that Johnson is only two seasons removed from eclipsing 1,400 yards and three seasons from posting his career high of 1,598 yards, in which we posted a career-high EPA of 83.4, according to Advanced Football Analytics.
Do not forget the other head to the deep-threat receiving monster that will be present in 2015. Hilton has shown significant improvement in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. His rapport with Luck will be at an all-time high this upcoming year, which is extremely scary for opposing defensive backs. With Hilton looking to become a vocal leader of the team, Colts fans hope that will translate to his production on the field. Last season, despite only receiving 20.2 percent of Luck's targets, Hilton posted a 66.4 EPA, good for seventh in the league behind an elite group of Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown, Randall Cobb, Emmanuel Sanders, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones, per Advanced Football Analytics. Being mentioned in this group of primed veterans just goes to show you how far Hilton has come in just his third NFL season.
During the 2006 campaign, Harrison and Wayne posted DPPs of 31.6 and 29.5 respectively, which was in the middle of the pack of receivers that season. Last year, without a solidified deep threat opposite of him, Hilton posted a DPP of 32.8, per Advanced Football Analytics. In their three seasons together Wayne averaged a DPP of 26.4, which is right around Johnson's career average. During Hilton's first three seasons with Luck and Wayne, he has averaged a DPP of 33.6. These numbers show that Hilton and Johnson can balance out the percentage of long passes they see from Luck and still be highly effective as down-the-field targets. It will not be a case of sacrificing passes 15 or more yards past the line of scrimmage in order for the other to succeed. Luck has shown that he can spread the ball around effectively while still taking advantage of the incredible strength of his arm.
So how has Hilton, comparable in explosiveness and agility to Johnson, fared in the NFL so far? Check out how quickly he can get down the field from the point of snap at the 0:29 mark, how fast his cuts and how precise his route-running ability is at 1:35 and how quickly he can turn on the jets after a reception at 3:13 from the video below:
Mix height with explosiveness and you get Andre Johnson. Mix agility with explosiveness and you get T.Y. Hilton. Add one of the strongest arms in the NFL to that and you get, quite possibly, the most potent air attack in the NFL in 2015.