Colts’ camp preview: Wide receivers

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 24: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The wait is nearly over. Months of speculation–how much progress did general manager Chris Ballard actually make in his offseason upgrade of the Indianapolis Colts’ roster?–will give way to some type of reality.

Players report July 25 for the start of training camp at Grand Park in Westfield, and then we’ll get some answers.

“Let’s just wait until training camp, get everybody out there, be at full strength,” coach Frank Reich said.

Between now and then, we’ll take a look at some positions of interest.

Today: Wide receivers.

Projected starters: T.Y. Hilton, Chester Rogers.

Key backups: Ryan Grant, Deon Cain, Reese Fountain.

Others: Krishawn Hogan, George Odom, K.J. Brent, Zach Pascal, Dres Anderson, Seantavius Jones, Steve Ishmael, Kasen Williams, James Wright.

Bounce-back for T.Y.? Hilton is looking for a bounce-back year, and should experience it if quarterback Andrew Luck is back under center. The 2012 third-round draft pick is coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, matching a streak achieved by only three other wideouts in team history: Raymond Berry, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Nice company.

Hilton realized his latest Pro Bowl as an alternate, but let’s not quibble. He was working with Jacoby Brissett, who was acquired Sept. 2 and started eight days later. That’s the reason Hilton endured the fewest catches (57) and yards (966) since his rookie season, and had a career-low 4 touchdown catches. Hilton’s game didn’t slip, his ability to play the game at his usual level dipped because of Luck’s absence.

There will be no lack of motivation as Hilton heads into–brace yourself–his seventh season. The only players who’ve been around as long, or longer: Adam Vinatieri, Anthony Castonzo and Luck.

Hilton conceded last season was a down year, by his standards.

“Yeah, I didn’t get 1,000 yards,” he said. “For me, I always kept that in the back of my head and I just kept going.”

He’s “just consistently trying to get better and continuing to work on my craft. All the great ones, they find a way to just continue to keep working. For me, ever since we camp off the field in week 17–I probably took a day or two off–but I just kept working. I just wanted to get better.”

Who lends the hand(s)?: The wideout rotation during the final two days of minicamp in June was striking, and more than a little concerning. Minor injuries or maintenance kept Hilton and Rogers off the practice field. We keep waiting for Rogers to stay on the field and emerge, but he first must stay on the field.

Of the wideouts catching passes from Brissett and the other QBs, only two–Ryan Grant and Kasen Williams–caught a pass in 2017. Wright has 18 receptions in his career, and none since 2016. Four were rookies.

The coaching staff has gushed about the top-to-bottom skill level in the receivers’ room, but a few players with little experience are going to have to make significant and immediate progress. The most likely candidate is Cain, the rookie sixth-round pick out of Clemson. He seemed to do something every day that caught someone’s attention.

“I’ve seen play-making ability,” Reich said of Cain. “I’ve seen really good body control, good speed, good route runner. Like with a lot of young guys and really probably all the young receivers, you just need to kind of fight for the consistency. To do it every play.”

Worth noting: Hilton has posted 100-yard games in the regular season 28 times, third in team history behind Harrison (59) and Wayne (43). The total number of 100-yard games by the rest of the receivers on the roster: 1. Congratulations, Chester Rogers, who had 6 catches for 104 yards and 1 TD last season against Pittsburgh.

By the way, it should come as no surprise the Colts are a more effective team when Hilton eclipses the 100-yard mark. Last season, the Colts were 3-1 when Hilton reached triple digits, 1-11 when he didn’t. For his career, they’re 18-10 in the regular season when Hilton has at least 100 receiving yards.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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