With teams still not able to properly access their facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is some question about exactly if and when training camp will begin, as well as what it will look like if it does. However, let’s assume that some of the early positive signs prove to hold up and we are able to resume some kind of normality. The Colts are primed to be an exciting team in 2020, and ahead of camp, we’re going to review every position group and see how they look on paper.
Today we’re going to dive into perhaps the most mysterious position on the Colts roster: The wide receiver room. In 2019, we thought this group was relatively deep, if not overwhelmingly talented. T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Devin Funchess, Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers, Deon Cain, and Reece Fountain looked like a promising group of pass catchers. By season’s end, the team was relying on a T.Y. Hilton held together with medical tape and Zach Pascal to carry an anemic passing attack.
It stands to reason that the Colts would look to address the position in a real way in the 2020 offseason, and they have done so. Let’s take a look at how the receiver room looks ahead of 2020.
T.Y. Hilton is unarguably one of the best receivers in franchise history. His production paired with Andrew Luck has been prolific, and he has carried the offense in his time as a Colt. Unfortunately, that same chemistry didn’t exist with Jacoby Brissett.
With Brissett under center, Hilton was been limited as a receiver. His strengths in the deep passing game were negated by injury and Brissett’s inadequacy as a passer. Instead, he was relegated to working as an underneath receiver, and often a decoy. That simply is not enough to get out of your WR1, and the Colts’ offensive performance (or lack thereof) reflected Hilton’s lack of production.
The acquisition of Philip Rivers should mean new life for Hilton’s production in 2020. Rivers is a significant upgrade over Brissett, and Hilton will enter the 2020 season healthy. Hilton has had his yards per reception fall below 15.9 in only two seasons, 2013 and 2019. If he can boost that number back up again with Rivers, he’ll be a major factor for the offense.
The biggest question for Hilton is a very real one: Can he stay healthy? The veteran receiver is turning 31 this season and has missed multiple games in consecutive seasons due to ankle issues. Realistically, the Colts cannot expect to continue leaning on him for top production in the passing game forever. It would be reasonable to expect a bounce back season for Hilton, but given his age and recent injury history, the team would do well to see Hilton recede into a more complementary role to another top threat over the next few seasons. Whether that threat is already on the roster remains to be seen.
To say that Parris Campbell’s rookie season was a disappointment would be a colossal understatement. He suffered a hamstring injury early in training camp, and never truly reached full health afterward. A broken hand, a sports hernia surgery, and a broken foot later, his 2019 season was done.
Because of this, it has been easy for Colts fans to forget the promise he showed as a part of the Colts’ offensive system. Largely viewed as a “gadget” player coming out of Ohio State, Campbell is ideally suited to the Colts offense and Frank Reich as a play caller. A speedy player with the ability to break big plays, Campbell excelled on screen plays, jet sweeps, quick slants, and other routes that let him get in space and use his speed.
However, early in camp, Frank Reich saw more than that from Campbell, and in year two, he’ll look to put an injury-riddled season behind him and take a big step forward. Campbell’s level of production is a major projection. So far, any guess as to what he can provide is based on little more than potential. With that said, if he can stay healthy, that potential should be pretty great. With Philip Rivers getting him the ball, Campbell has a chance at a very good second season.
Michael Pittman Jr.
It is tough to find success for rookies in the NFL at almost every position. Receivers are certainly no exception, which should make for a challenging year for Colts 2nd round pick, WR Michael Pittman Jr. Pittman represents the type of receiver the Colts have long needed to put alongside a speedy player like T.Y. Hilton. He stands 6’4” and 223lbs, and should offer the kind of big bodied receiving weapon the team hasn’t had in a long time, if ever.
Given the arrival of veteran QB Philip Rivers as well as Rivers’ preference to throw the ball up for big receivers to go get it, it certainly could be a big year for the rookie. However, on a roster with multiple offensive weapons, he won’t need to be a focal point of the offense. The Colts can integrate him in and let him get acclimated to the NFL. They definitely would like to see him make his presence known this season, because someone needs to take the reigns from Hilton as the top receiving threat on the roster. A strong rookie showing from Pittman would indicate he could be up to the task, but he’ll need to show improvement throughout the year.
To say Zach Pascal has exceeded expectations would be to give him too little credit. The UDFA led the Colts in receiving yards and tied Jack Doyle for the most targets in 2019. He is a hard-working, tough player who gives full effort on every down, whether he’s blocking or getting the ball. As good as he’s been, you don’t want him to be your top receiving threat.
As the Colts’ fourth receiver, though, Pascal is a valuable and reliable target. At 6’2” 214lbs, Pascal provides a bigger target who lets the team play versatile football. He can stay in and block well, go over the middle on shorter routes, or go up for the ball. He doesn’t have the kind of speed that will break open a defense, but he’s developed his route running and football IQ to a point that he knows how to exploit zones and has solid hands.
Hopefully we see a major reduction in Pascal’s offensive role. Not as a reflection on him as much as because we see a healthy receiver room where the younger players step up and perform.
The Colts 2018 5th round pick, Reece Fountain has so far been underwhelming. A small school player whose freakish athletic profile convinced the Colts to take a flier on him, he hasn’t yet broken through. There is still some reason for hope, although the window to make his mark is closing quickly. Fountain looked really good through the 2019 camp, suffering a devastating ankle injury on the last day.
If he can come back with the same kind of fire and flash, he could carve out a roster spot for himself and keep his hopes of an NFL career alive.
Another UDFA, Marcus Johnson proved valuable, if somewhat inconsistent, down the stretch in 2019. 6’1” 207lbs, Johnson is a receiver who knows Frank Reich’s system perhaps as well as anyone on the roster. He spent time with the Eagles in their run to the Super Bowl before joining the Colts in 2018. The Colts re-signed him to a 1-year deal this offseason and hope he can contribute in a similar fashion as he did in 2019.
At 6’1” 215lbs, Ashton Dulin is yet another UDFA who will be battling for a role in the Colts wide receiver room. Perhaps Dulin’s most valuable area of contribution is on special teams, which could be the thing that keeps him on the roster while others fall away. He has decent but not great speed and has the ability to run good routes and beat press coverage, but he’s ideally suited as a special teamer who only sees the field in the event of injury on offense.
In a historically good wide receiver draft class, the Colts decided to double-dip at a position of need and grabbed 6’4” 225lb Dezmon Patmon in the 6th round. Patmon, from a measurable standpoint, compares very similarly to Michael Pittman Jr. He provides a big-bodied red zone threat, though one that will need to develop quite a lot to be an impact player. With decent long speed and great size, the Colts are hopeful they can coach him into a starting role on the offense. If he has the work ethic and drive typical of what the Colts look for, hopefully they’re right.
This receiver room is comprised largely on optimism. There is a ton of raw potential, as well as role players who could stand in if the need arises. However, there is nothing like a sure thing in this group. Almost every projection of this group begins with “If…” and there is just a lot left we don’t know.
Having hope for what this group could be is a good thing. The quote from the underrated movie Rogue One goes: “Rebellions are built on hope.” That applies to receiver corps, as well. There is talent, there is drive, and there are quality coaches. Now it is time to put those things together and get results.
We could be looking back on 2020 as the turning point for this group, or we could be looking at greater investment at the position next offseason.
So what do you think about this receiver room?