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T.Y. Hilton wants to retire a Colt, and a big comeback season could make that possible

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Carolina Panthers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The further from the 2012 NFL Draft we get, the more the luster has worn off of what was considered an absolutely phenomenal class for the Colts and their former general manager Ryan Grigson. In a class that resulted in Grigson being awarded Executive of the Year for the 2012 NFL season, there is now just one remaining player who is still on an NFL roster.

If you had been given your pick back in 2012 of anyone in the Colts’ draft class to choose as the person who would be the last man standing of the group, most would have said Andrew Luck. Some might have chosen Coby Fleener or Dwayne Allen. Without the benefit of knowledge of the future, few would have bet on the undersized “speed guy” from Florida International, yet that is exactly how it has played out.

Picked 92nd overall, T.Y. Hilton has been the best wide receiver selected in the 2012 draft, and it is not particularly close. As a rookie playing second fiddle to Reggie Wayne, Hilton quickly became a threat as part of the Colts offense, and in his second season, he showed himself ready to step out of Wayne’s long shadow and into the role as the top guy.

The lessons he took from Reggie were pretty clear on the field. Hilton worked tirelessly to improve his game, molding himself into an excellent route runner with the speed to find his way behind defenses before they knew what had happened, and the hands to make some truly impressive catches. His connection with Andrew Luck produced some remarkable performances, and Hilton has regularly put his cleats on the throat of the division rival Houston Texans in big spots when the team needed him. He has carved out a legacy as one of the best Colts players in the franchise’s history.

Over the past two seasons, Hilton has fought through tough circumstances, playing with ankle injuries that have hampered his movement and impacted his ability to be a factor. Despite being hurt, he has gutted through injury to contribute and help the team win. Through the back half of the 2018 season, he was barely able to practice due to injury, but lifted the team to a divisional playoff win despite dealing with both a high and low ankle sprain.

The 2020 season will mark the last of Hilton’s current contract. He’ll make $14.542M which puts him at 10th in terms of wide receiver pay for the year. In spite of all he has given to the team, the question of whether or not to re-sign Hilton is one that will have to be carefully considered.

Hilton has made no bones about what he wants.

“I mean I want to be a Colt for life, but it takes two sides. It is up to Mr. (Jim) Irsay and Chris (Ballard) to get the job done. So, for me, I want to be a Colt. So, you heard it from me.”

Few of the Colts greats have gotten their wish to be lifelong Colts. The era of the one-franchise player is largely over, and the business nature of the NFL has been a major reason why. Teams do their fans and themselves a disservice becoming too sentimental. Future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick has routinely jettisoned players who are no longer assets to his teams, however, that cold method of dealing with legendary players for your franchise is not the only way to be. It is possible to keep franchise legends around if the pay continues to match the production.

The Colts will have to make some tough decisions about Hilton, either before this season, or after. During the 2020 season, Hilton will turn 31 years old. The number of receivers who have excelled long into their 30’s is slim. According to Pro Football Reference, there are 29 receivers in NFL history who have recorded a 1,000-yard season at age 33 or older. That list shrinks to 24 at age 34. In short, Hilton’s time in the NFL is quickly coming to a close. Best case scenario? He plays out a 3 or 4-year contract with the team before hanging up his cleats for good.

For his part Hilton seems content with that reality. He stated it pretty plainly in his most recent press conference.

“I mean whatever I sign for in my next contract, that’ll be when I hang it up. Whether it’s two years, three years, four years – whatever it is. Whatever I sign for in my next contract, that’ll be it for me.”

With dramatic improvement at the quarterback position, and I do expect it to be dramatic, Hilton could have a very good 2020 season. His good health will be a factor there to be sure. If he plays out the season without troubles with ankle injuries, the Colts might be willing to sign him to a new deal, but for how long, and how much?

With Hilton stating that he intends to retire after his next deal, he may not be open to doing something like what Arizona Cardinals legend Larry Fitzgerald has done. Fitzgerald has been on 1-year deals worth about $11M/season for the past 3 seasons with the Cardinals. Perhaps this is the way forward for Hilton, and his words are more about contract leverage than his real feelings.

Whatever his reasons for stating it like he did, this will be a big season for Hilton. If he proves he can still play at a high level, the team will likely pay to keep him around. If Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell can take big steps this season, having T.Y. around as a mentor and supplemental piece might be exactly what the team needs.

If nothing else, let’s hope we get one more healthy year of T.Y. Hilton in a Colts uniform, and take time to appreciate it while it is here. Even legends can’t play forever.