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Looking back and moving on, Colts 2018 season review: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Indianapolis Colts v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Colts’ season ended just as it began: in disappointment, frustration, and general helplessness. The team was thoroughly outplayed and outclassed by a drastically more talented Chiefs team, falling 31-13 in a game that was, despite an admirable performance by the defense in the second half, never close. The Colts looked like the 1-5 team they started the season as; they were uncreative, uninspired, and frankly untalented.

The disappointment in Kansas City falls mainly on the shoulders of the offense, as once again quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t show up in a playoff game, while head coach Frank Reich’s gameplan was completely unsuccessful. No receiver other than Dontrelle Inman could get open against a pretty average chiefs secondary, and the offensive line, the key to the Colts’ playoff run, was dominated in the run game by a defensive front had been the weakness of the Chiefs’ absurdly awful run defense throughout the season.

On Saturday the Colts looked like a team that wasn’t in the same class of Kansas City or any of the other NFL elites. But the good news, as every Colts fan knows all too well, is that they shouldn’t be.

As admirable as the team’s 10-1 run this season was, it was pretty clear this team was not a true playoff contender as much as we might have tried to convince ourselves otherwise. The team’s best wins of the season came against a Dallas team with an unusually inept performance by quarterback Dak Prescott, twice against a Houston team with an offensive line that would make the Grigson/Pagano Colts proud, and twice against a Tennessee team starting quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert, who’s proven to be terrible, and Marcus Mariota, who Tennessee should and presumably will be looking to replace in the next couple of the years.

All of that’s to say that their divisional round loss must be put in the right context. As admirable as their run was, the Colts were lucky to make the playoffs (thanks to the easiest schedule of the past three seasons) and were lucky to be placed against a Houston team that they were extremely comfortable with.

But while the Colts’ success this season can be seen to some degree as a fluke, the foundation they were able to lay this season is something to be incredibly excited about going forward. The post-Grigson rebuild is over for all intents and purposes. GM Chris Ballard has put together a young core that’s only going to get better, has extra picks in the second and likely fourth round from the Sam Darnold Trade and the Donte Moncrief signing respectively, and has $100+ million in cap space that he could and absolutely should use recklessly before it comes time to pay Luck and the young studs from the 2017 and 2018 draft classes in a few years.

This team has all the makings of a team that will be ready to truly compete in the playoffs as soon as next year, despite an absolutely brutal road schedule. This is a critical offseason for Ballard and company because if they take advantage of the plethora of resources at their disposal, those Super Bowl dreams fans had at times this season will not be far-fetched.

So what exactly must the team do in the offseason? Let’s dive in, position by position, as the offseason ramps up in the next few months.

Note: UFA denotes an unrestricted free agent, RFA denotes a restricted free agent, and ERFA designates an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.

Wide Receivers

On Roster: T.Y. Hilton, Deon Cain, Zach Pascal, Daurice Fountain, Krishawn Hogan, Steve Ishmael, James Wright

Free Agents: Dontrelle Inman (UFA), Ryan Grant (UFA), Chester Rogers (RFA), Marcus Johnson (ERFA)

What They Have:

The WR position has been pegged as the biggest weakness on the team heading into the offseason and that is well deserved. But before getting into that, we must step back and look at what T.Y. Hilton was able to do this year.

Two simultaneous ankle sprains couldn’t stop Hilton from amassing an amazing season, and the winner of the fictional non-QB MVP award for the team. Starting in the first game against Tennessee, Hilton went on an absolute tear, posting almost seven receptions and 120 yards a game from weeks 11-17. Hilton finished as a top ten WR in DVOA and in PFF grade, two years removed from leading the league in receiving yards with a half-dead Luck throwing him the ball. Hilton is a top ten, elite, whatever-arbitrary-distinction-you-want-to-give-him receiver, and should continue to be so if he and Luck can both stay healthy.

Rant aside, the Colts wide receivers suck. End of story.

The second best on the team this year was Dontrelle Inman, who is simply not good enough to be the second WR on this team going forward (but certainly keep him around as a third/fourth WR). Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant were both immensely disappointing, and I would be surprised if either is retained in free agency, though Rogers could conceivably get a shot at the 53 due to his history with the team and contributions as a returner.

People are incredibly excited about rookies Daurice Fountain and especially Deon Cain going forward, and while I understand the hype with a guy like Cain, I think it is foolish to rely on either of them for any meaningful production next year. Anything they can provide is great, but don’t leave a hole at wide receiver that you need a 6th round player who’s never played a regular season snap to fill. Finally, I think Zach Pascal is worth bringing into camp, but he’s hopefully a longshot to make the 53.

What They Need:

Wide receiver is the position the team must invest in this offseason. Ballard said Monday that they feel comfortable with the internal development of the guys they have in place right now, but I have a hard time believing that will hold true when he gets the chance to add a receiver who is immediately capable of contributing.

Similar to Bell, fellow (soon to be former) Steeler Antonio Brown seems poised to be on a new team in 2019, and the Colts have been pegged as a logical destination due to their dire need at the position and their abundance of cap space. Unlike Bell, however, a Brown trade would be a move that I would be incredibly interested in, even if it sounds like Ballard isn’t. Brown, though he had a down year this year, is one of the best receivers in NFL history, plain and simple. Trading the 34th or even the 26th pick for such a player and the rest of his contract is a worthwhile pursuit, though again the locker room concerns he seems to present makes it unlikely Ballard would pull the trigger on such a move.

In free agency, Chargers wideout Tyrell Williams has logically been connected with the Colts since his former positional coach Nick Sirianni was named offensive coordinator. Golden Tate, though on the wrong side of 30, is the most established receiver in free agency (other than Larry Fitzgerald which… isn’t going to happen) and would come in right away and give the Colts the best #2 receiver they’ve had in the Luck era.

Another one of my favorite options is John Brown, who would give the offense, among other things, a deep threat they simply don’t have outside of Hilton. And though I don’t necessarily support these moves, the team could target some of the riskier options in free agency in Josh Gordon and Martavis Bryant.

Even if the Colts add any of the aforementioned guys in free agency, Ballard could and should still add another wide receiver fairly early on in the draft. I’m not into #draftmode quite yet, but guys like North Carolina State’s Kelvin Harmon and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler stand out to me as lengthy guys with strength, reliable hands, and the ability to win the ball downfield. There are plenty of worthy targets who will be taken between picks 20 and 40, a range in which the Colts have two picks — one of them pretty much has to be a receiver.

Tight Ends

On Roster: Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Billy Brown

Free Agents: Ryan Hewitt (UFA), Ross Travis (RFA)

What They Have:

The Colts’ TEs is one of the most interesting units on the team as we head into the offseason. Eric Ebron is the big name here after his Pro Bowl season, yet he is not even the most valuable tight end of the team. That distinction goes to Jack Doyle, who’s injury really hindered Reich’s offense towards the end of the season, as his combination of blocking and receiving was something they didn’t have on the roster. The subsequent six OL sets with Joe Haeg were generally unsuccessful and made the Colts’ offense painfully predictable. Coming off of injury, Doyle is still only 28, and will hopefully be able to contribute at a high level in both the run and pass game in the coming years.

As for Ebron, despite his Pro Bowl accolades, I am skeptical of his role if/when Doyle isn’t able to return to full strength. The year Ebron put up was wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but he did not show much to make me believe he is a fundamentally different player than he was in Detroit. The main issue is of course his blocking, which is close to non-existent, and the fact that his receiving skills, as exciting as they are, are not enough to fully mitigate his deficiencies in the run game. His drops have been well noted, and the short-of-the-sticks stick route he ran against Kansas City Saturday was indicative of some of the mental lapses that have plagued him throughout this season and his career as a whole. The value he provides in the red zone is obviously superb (he put up a whopping 13 touchdowns on the year), but is it enough to outweigh his many weaknesses and make Ebron a starting level player? I’m not so sure.

The player in this group I’m most excited for going forward has to be Mo Alie-Cox. The second-year former basketball player impressed me with his blocking and obvious receiving talent. I’m not going to rely on him for serious production immediately but based on what he showed in the back half of the season, is well worth a developmental spot on the roster and a situational role in the game plan. Finally, credit goes to Ryan Hewitt for his work in jumbo sets this year and to Ross Travis, who really impressed me in training camp before going on IR early in the season.

What They Need:

I would expect the team to add a tight end sometime in the offseason. In Free Agency, this could take the form of a guy like Blake Bell or Luke Stocker who would fill in nicely to the TE/FB role that Hewitt occupied this season. The upcoming class is touted as having a historically deep tight end class, so the Colts using a pick on a potential Doyle/Ebron replacement as early as day two would not surprise me. Keep an eye on T.J. Hockenson from Iowa or Missouri’s Kendall Blanton.

What do you think of the Colts’ roster as a whole? What player would you most like to add in free agency? What position is in the most need of talent? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter, @__AlexJacobson.