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Colts’ training camp preview: Receivers

Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton takes off downfield after making a 2nd quarter catch against the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.

Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?

Today: Receivers.

Starters: T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief.

Main backups: Phillip Dorsett, Chester Rogers, Kamar Aiken.

Others: Quan Bray, Tevaun Smith, Bug Howard, Harvey Binford, Chris Briggs, Fred Brown, JoJo Natson.

More to come?:

Hilton joined select company last season when he led the NFL with a career-best 1,448 receiving yards. Previous Colts to set the pace: Reggie Wayne (2007), Marvin Harrison (2002, 1999), Roger Carr (1976) and Raymond Berry (1960, ’59, ’57). It was Hilton’s fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season, something previously accomplished by Wayne (seven straight) and Harrison (eight). He led the NFL with 16 receptions of at least 25 yards.

But something was missing: wire-to-wire consistency. While Hilton matched a career single-season best with six 100-yard games, he was a non-factor five times. In games against Denver, the Texans in Houston, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Minnesota, he was limited to 14 catches, 209 yards and no touchdowns. It’s no coincidence the Colts were 1-4 in those Hilton-less games.

Look, sometimes defenses geared to containing a top receiver get the job done, especially a receiver who lacks size (5-9, 180 pounds). But the next phase of Hilton’s game must include fighting through coverage that’s physical at the line of scrimmage or involves deep help from a safety. That’s what separates elite receivers from very good ones.

Hilton enjoyed a solid offseason before a minor hamstring injury sidelined him for the mid-June minicamp.

“I just tackle everything,’’ he said of his offseason regimen. “Leave no stone unturned. So far me, I work on everything – footwork, speed work. Just continue to train everything – my hands, eye-hand coordination.

“Just everything that I need to get better at.’’

New position coach Sanjay Lal didn’t hesitate when asked about the next step in Hilton’s progression.

“Consistency,’’ he said. “Making the big play even bigger. It goes back to refining your technique to another level . . . he’s a playmaker now, but let’s go to the next level.’’

Hilton’s per-year compensation of $13 million places him 6th among wide receivers. He’s emerged as one of the NFL’s legitimate game-breakers.

But there needs to be another level to his game.

Deep supporting cast:

It’s no stretch to consider the position the team’s deepest heading into training camp. There’s quality and quantity. The 53-player active roster probably will include five receivers – the fifth will need to possess return skills – and a viable player or two will be cut.

Ballard admitted he was “excited” about the group. In an interview with Colts.com, he was lavish in his praise for many of his receivers.

“I thought Donte Moncrief had an outstanding, outstanding offseason,’’ he said. “T.Y. Hilton had a very strong OTAs. I thought Chester Rogers was outstanding. I think we’ll see more of Kamar Aiken getting into a new system and learning it, but he gives us another big, physical receiver.’’

There was a glaring omission until Ballard summarized the position.

“The battle for the fifth spot will be interesting to see,’’ he said. “(Phillip) Dorsett had flashes when he was practicing. I shouldn’t say just fifth (spot); third, fourth and fifth spot there’s going to be some heavy competition for who gets playtime.’’

Perhaps Ballard simply overlooked Dorsett when assessing the depth at the position. If so, that hardly bodes well for the Colts’ 2015 first-round draft pick.

No player figures to be under heavier scrutiny heading into training camp than Dorsett, who’s entering year 3. It’s time to emerge as an upper-tier player after two lackluster seasons. Dorsett has just 51 receptions for 753 yards and three touchdowns in 26 games, and has been limited to two catches or fewer 19 times.

“Every year is big for me,’’ Dorsett said. “That’s how I look at it. Even when I first came in, I thought it was going to be a big year. I’m trying not to worry about where I got drafted and who’s in. It’s just put your head down and grind, compete.

“I love competition. If you’re not cut out to play football, you’re not ready to compete. Every year is a big year for me.’’

Until Dorsett proves himself, Moncrief, Rogers and Aiken appear in line to serve as Hilton’s main supporting cast.

Moncrief is entering in the final year of his rookie contract, so there’s ample motivation. Rogers was one of last season’s pleasant surprises with 19 catches and 273 yards as an undrafted rookie. Aiken was one of Ballard’s free-agent acquisitions who flashed his potential two years ago in Baltimore with 75 catches, 944 yards and five TDs.

Worth noting:

It’s easy to diminish Hilton’s accomplishments because of his occasional vanishing acts against aggressive coverage. But let’s give him his due. Hilton’s first five seasons compare favorably to Harrison, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016. Hilton has piled up more receiving yards (5,861) than Harrison (5,554) while Harrison had more receptions (413) and touchdowns (47) than Hilton (374 and 30).

Also, as noted by Colts.com, Hilton’s 5,861 yards are the 9th-most in NFL history by a player in his first five seasons.