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Is T.Y. Hilton a Top 5 Receiver?

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NFL: Pro Bowl Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On a roster with a lot of questions, there is one question Colts don’t have to ask. How good is T.Y. Hilton? The answer? Really good. So good in fact that he led the league in receiving yards last season and did so while his quarterback fought through a shoulder injury.

I have liked Hilton since he came into the league as a speedster, absorbing everything Reggie Wayne could teach him. He has consistently proven that he has the dedication and talent to improve with each year. However, like all players, he does have weaknesses in his game.

Weaknesses

His size is sometimes an issue. Hilton is smaller than what you ideally want for a #1 receiver. Because of this, he can struggle against physical press corners. When he gets consistently knocked out of rhythm on his routes he can disappear for long periods of time.

Because of his smaller stature, he cannot go up and get contested balls in the same way that a guy like Donte Moncrief can. He simply does not have the size and ability to go get those 50/50 balls.

The same problem becomes evident when he gets in the red zone. Hilton struggles to consistently be a danger to defenses in the red zone. While he might be the deadliest weapon in the NFL on passes over 20 yards when the field condenses down and his speed is not as great an advantage he can struggle to make an impact.

The last knock on Hilton is that he doesn’t generally fight for yards after the catch. Elite receivers can make something out of nothing, and that has never been Hilton’s game.

Personally, I don’t view that as a serious weakness because it is more out of self-preservation than anything. It is better to have him available for another day than to get five more yards.

Strengths

For all his struggles, Hilton has equally great strengths. First is the one that most people who aren’t Colts fans know about him. He is fast. That’s a label that is almost a curse in the NFL. Receivers who come into the league as speedsters get typecast, forced to break out of that label in order to be viewed as anything more. While Hilton’s downfield speed is great, and he can use that to burn defenders badly, it is hardly his only strength.

Speed in and of itself is valuable, but Hilton has great brakes. He can stop and go on a dime and that leaves cornerbacks falling all over themselves sometimes. The ability to quickly and effectively change speed and direction is a big reason why he has success on deep throws.

While many straight-line speedsters are typically used on the outside running deep routes, Hilton is no one trick pony. He can line up on the outside or in the slot and can run the whole route tree. In fact, his route running has really become the best part of his game, and he has an uncanny ability to find and exploit gaps in coverage for big gains.

After camp yesterday, Hilton chatted with Stephen Holder of the Indy Star and talked about feeling disrespected as a receiver. Whether he wants to really admit it, Hilton doesn’t like that he is not viewed as an elite receiver nationally and feels he deserves it.

If you recall, he ranked No. 61 on the NFL Network Top 100 list. He definitely remembers. Now that shouldn’t really bother him because that list is essentially worthless. It is a league wide popularity contest that put guys like Tyreek Hill and Jarvis Landry above Hilton. While they are both nice players, neither is the quality of player that Hilton is.

He views himself as a top 5 receiver. As Colts fans, our knee-jerk reaction is to agree completely. We cannot imagine how anyone could miss that he is an obvious top 5 pick. But if we try hard to be unbiased we realize how competitive it is for those top 5 spots. We have an embarrassment of riches right now in the NFL as far as receiver talent goes.

At the top of the list and in whatever order you prefer, are Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr. You can argue, but these three are really hard to unseat because they produce year in and year out. Beckham and Brown have gone over 1,200 yards and snagged double digit touchdowns for three years running. Jones’ touchdown numbers are similar to Hilton but has netted 1400 yards or more for 3 straight seasons. A.J. Green probably comes next and has topped 1,000 yards in every season except last when he barely missed the mark due to only playing in 10 games. He has had double digit touchdowns in 3 seasons as well.

If Hilton wants to stake his claim on that 5th spot, he will need to battle with guys like Jordy Nelson, Mike Evans, and Larry Fitzgerald to claim it. The biggest area that he will need to improve is one he has already identified. He needs to score more. If Hilton can improve in the red zone and get into double digit touchdowns, the football world at large will view him differently.

There is another thing that is holding him back from being accepted into the ranks of the elite, and it is the one many people use to complain about Luck as well. Until Hilton can really dominate top competition, he will be on the outside looking in at that group of elite receivers. Whether or not it should count, until Hilton consistently wins battles with the league’s top cornerbacks he will be overlooked by many who don’t understand how versatile and talented he is.

He entered this offseason determined to be better, and if Luck is back and healthy there is no reason to think he won’t exceed his numbers from last year and make his mark on the league yet again.