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Positional look at the Colts: receivers

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KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 12: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts high fives teammate Chester Rogers #80 after a late touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter of the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 12, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.

Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.

Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.

TODAY: Receivers

Starters: T.Y. Hilton, Dontrelle Inman.

Backups: Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, Ryan Grant, Reece Fountain.

Looking back:

The most physically demanding season of T.Y. Hilton’s seven-year career might also have been his best. After missing two games in his first six seasons, he missed road games against the Patriots and Jets with chest and hamstring injuries. When the Colts were mounting their late-season playoff push, Hilton remained an offensive force despite dealing with a significant injury to his right ankle. He routinely was held out of practice and concentrated on rehab to enable him to be in the lineup on Sunday.

“I’m not surprised anymore by T.Y.,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “He’s tough. He’s tough as nails.’’

Hilton posted his fifth-career 1,000-yard season (1,270) and tacked up five 100-yard games along the way. That included a nine-catch, 199-yard outing at Houston and a nine-catch, 155-yard performance against the Titans. Over the final nine games – the Colts were 8-1 during that stretch – Hilton led the NFL with 917 yards and was the only player to average at least 100 yards per game.

Imagine if he had been healthy. And imagine if he had a more formidable supporting cast.

While Hilton was limping his way to a Pro Bowl-level season, too many of those around him were either losing battles to injury (rookie Deon Cain, Marcus Johnson, Ryan Grant) or struggling with consistency. Charting dropped passes is a subjective/risky venture, but they were an issue no matter who was reviewing the video. According to Washingtonpost.com, the Colts ranked third in the NFL with 28 drops. During one especially careless three-game stretch early in the season, receivers endured 17 or 18 drops. Tight end Eric Ebron suffered nine, according to Fox Sports, and Chester Rogers had five despite being targeted only 72 times.

The strongest non-T.Y. impact was provided by someone who was added in mid-October out of necessity. With Grant hobbled and Johnson suffering a season-ending injury ankle injury, the Colts signed Dontrelle Inman off the street. Inman had a history with Sirianni and Reich with the Chargers, and got up to speed quickly.

Over the second half of the season and in the playoffs, the 6’3″, 205-pounder emerged as an Andrew Luck favorite. Consider Luck’s stats when targeting Inman: 36-of-47, 412 yards, four TDs, no interceptions, a 130.8 passer rating.

“He understands football,’’ Luck said. “He has been in this offense before. He started showing up at the right time in the right place. That’s music to a quarterback’s ears.’’

It’s worth noting Rogers overcame his early-season inconsistencies to enjoy his best season: 53 receptions, 485 yards, two TDs.

Looking ahead:

We’re not going to waste much time debating the merits of Ballard pursuing a trade for Pittsburgh wideout Antonio Brown. We’re on record that Brown is a rare talent and there should be internal discussion on adding his game-breaking skills to the offense. But while we’re in favor of kicking the tires, we’ll pass on a wideout who turns 31 in July, has been a major distraction with the Steelers and might not be satisfied with a contract that pays him roughly $12 million per season over the next three years.

In the real world, we’ll lobby long and hard for Ballard to re-sign Inman, who’s 30 and an ideal fit as a No. 3 wideout. He’s going to want to maximize his free-agent opportunity, but will be hard pressed to find a better situation than in Indy with Luck. Rogers is a restricted free agent and can be retained with a one-year, $2 million tender. Grant will be the latest one-and-done veteran wideout with the Colts.

A wild card moving forward is Cain. The sixth-round draft pick saw his rookie season end when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the preseason opener at Seattle. Prior to the injury, Cain was immersed in a solid training camp and expected to be a major contributor.

Offseason concern:

High. Most of the pieces are in place for a solid receivers group. What’s missing? A viable top-level sidekick for Hilton. We’re expecting Ballard to scour the free-agent market for someone capable of being a No. 2. We also won’t be surprised if Ballard invests an early or mid-level draft pick in a prospect.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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