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Neglecting the receivers will hurt the Colts in 2022

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Watching last Sunday’s performance against the Houston Texans wasn’t easy; the Colts were lethargic for most of the game and just couldn’t get anything going on offense, despite good yardage totals from Matt Ryan and Jonathan Taylor (which are usually indicative of performance). Ryan wasn’t great, the offensive line wasn’t great and the play calling was subpar. However, it was the first game of the year with a new quarterback, so there isn’t too much to be concerned about long-term, except one thing: the receivers.

After Sunday’s performance, I came away only worried about two things: Rodrigo Blankenship, who has since been cut, and the lack of talent or production at the receiver spot outside of Michael Pittman Jr. Pittman Jr was a wonderful selection in the 2020 NFL Draft and has proven to be a reliable top receiver for the Colts, but he can’t do it by himself. In an offseason with insane amounts of receiver turnover and even more receiver talent on the free agency market and in the draft, the Colts somehow came away with a weaker group than the one they had in 2021. The Colts lost TY Hilton and Zach Pascal and only gained Alec Pierce. The team is banking on guys like Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin and Michael Strachan to step up into bigger roles this season, but that’s a risky bet to make. Dulin and Strachan have proven very little in their NFL careers and Parris Campbell has missed 33 out of a possible 49 games in his career so he can’t be relied upon to get on the field. Outside of those guys, the Colts also put some pressure on Alec Pierce to step in and become the #2 receiver right away, but despite the high ceiling, Pierce was far from a finished product going into the draft so to rely on a relatively raw high upside player to come in and take over the #2 spot from day 1 was a stretch.

The Colts desperately needed a stopgap #2 receiver to compliment Pittman for 1 or 2 seasons while Pierce develops and while guys like Campbell, Dulin and Strachan come into their own. The Colts tried to work it out with TY Hilton, but Hilton missed several games last season and played injured quite a bit, as he was seemingly on the injury report every week last year. When healthy, he didn’t produce and put up a measly 331 yards in 2021. He was a guy who was at a point in his career where he just couldn’t be relied upon anymore.

So with no real options on the roster and with no draft pick until the 2nd round (where the Colts took the 12th receiver off the board), the Colts needed to look to the free agency market... and they didn’t. The Colts had money; they currently have 8.5M in cap space and used around $23M on Yannick Ngakoue, Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Facyson. Are they good players? Absolutely. Should the Colts have used some of their free money on getting another receiver? Probably.

The Colts traded for Matt Ryan in the offseason, a player who’s entering the final stage of his career and might be in the final year or two of his quarterback prime. He’s not in a position anymore to carry a team by himself and when you look back at his years in Atlanta, he’s always had future Hall of Famer Julio Jones on top of great receivers like Roddy White, Calvin Ridley and Tony Gonzalez. Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, but he never had a shortage of good receivers in his career. No matter who you are, you need to have good receivers to thrive, especially when you’re on a new team.

The Colts didn’t need to trade for Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill and they definitely didn’t need to go out and overpay for Christian Kirk or Allen Robinson, but there were some very good value receivers in the middle of the pecking order like Russell Gage, who has a long history with Ryan, or like Zay Jones or Cedrick Wilson. The Colts had good options on the market to temporarily fill the #2 receiver spot.

What is a #2 receiver statistically? An average to above average #2 receiver takes the pressure off the #1 receiver, is usually less well rounded than the #1 guy and tends to average in the the 650 to 900 range in terms of yards and in the 55 to 70 range in terms of catches. Of course, very good #2 receivers go above those numbers, but the Colts didn’t need a very good #2, they just need an average to slightly above average #2 to help take the burden off Pittman and to help ease the transition of Ryan. They didn’t get one.

Were they too expensive? Not at all. The players that were listed all got between 7M and 10M per year, something the Colts could’ve afforded without any issue. They chose to invest no money in the receiver spot and they have 9.3M allocated to the receiver position, which is the 2nd lowest in the NFL (in terms of full rosters), only behind the Ravens.

Matt Ryan will clearly be better, as will the offensive line and the defense; they have a large body of work to go off of and you know that that last performance was well below their average so they’ll find a way to back to their mean. These are generally strong units that have been good historically for the Colts. The receiver spot, on the other hand, has no body of work to go off of and a lot of question marks, perhaps more than any position on the team. Michael Pittman Jr had an incredible game; in fact, 9 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown is arguably the best game of his career. Unless Pittman becomes a top 2-3 receiver in the league this season, he won’t be able to sustain those others, which brings us back to the original: who are the other guys and what have they proven? Nothing. None of them have proven a thing in the NFL and that’s dangerous. There seems to be more hype around Ashton Dulin, but whether you’re a super fan of him or you despise him, it’s a fact that Dulin has never performed consistently on the field so he’s impossible to trust right now, especially in a #2 role.

So where does that leave the Colts for 2022? The Colts threw the ball 50 times and Pittman only got 13 of those targets, so that’s an additional 37 targets to go around and the guys getting those passes aren’t winning you football games. It’s going to be very hard to have a consistently strong passing game if you only have one receiving threat. Jonathan Taylor helps solve a lot of problems and give the passing game a lot more space to work with, but if teams key in on the run game and taking away Pittman Jr, they will have a relatively easy time against the Colts offense.

In my opinion, their best course of action is to look for a receiver, whether it’s on the trade market or through the draft next year, but waiting another 7 months to find a receiver is not what the Colts need. In my opinion, I believe the Colts should look to either sign a street free agent like Odell Beckham or look to trade for a value player like Darius Slayton or Nelson Agholor who are supposedly on the trade block. This group needs help and they need quality starters, even if those quality starters aren’t superstars, they can have a meaningful short term impact on the group.

Chris Ballard not properly addressing this position last year and doing very little this year has hurt this group and this offense. The Colts will have extremely tough tests in 2022 against some incredible defenses so they will need to put up points. Leaving the receiver position in worse shape than what it was one year ago is negligible and detrimental to the 202 team.