INDIANAPOLIS – The transformation began with Shane Steichen and the addition of Jim Bob Cooter as his offensive coordinator. In the April draft, the quarterback of the future will be added to the mix.
But as monumental as those decisions are for the future of the Indianapolis Colts, it’s also imperative to ensure the total product is sound.
Whether Steichen, general manager Chris Ballard and their personnel staff opt for Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis or Florida’s Anthony Richardson, the incoming offensive centerpiece will require an effective supporting cast.
That in mind, over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at a franchise that has a ton of work ahead. It’s missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons and six of the last eight since reaching the AFC Championship game in 2014.
Today: Wide receivers
Starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce.
Backups: Michael Strachan, Ethan Fernea, Vyncint Smith, Krisitian Wilkerson, Malik Turner.
Pending free agents: Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin.
It’s impossible to massage the stats and give the impression the receivers were a position of strength in 2022. In reality, they never had a chance. Blame a regression by the offensive line, which led to faulty protection and contributed to inadequate quarterback play and an inconsistent run game. To a lesser degree, blame the receivers for failing to perform better even in those adverse conditions.
The end result: the least impactful season in franchise history. The Colts averaged 9.7 yards per catch. That was the lowest in club history – the 1991 group held the previous low-water mark at 10.1; that team finished 1-15 – and the third-lowest in the NFL.
Also, for just the second time in team history the top two pass catchers failed to average at least 10 yards per catch. Michael Pittman Jr. fell to 9.3 after 12.3 in 2021 and Parris Campbell finished at 9.9. The only other occasion: 1978 (Joe Washington, 8.9; Don McCauley, 8.7).
The lack of a vertical threat turned the offense into a dink-and-dunk-and-hope attack. The Colts had just 41 receptions that gained at least 20 yards, tied-7th fewest, and four that picked up at least 40 yards. Only three teams had fewer 40-yarders. Colts receivers generated nine in ’21.
Pittman seldom had deep-threat opportunities and often had difficultly creating separation to make any significant play; nine 20-plus yard receptions with a long of 28. Campbell was able to stay on the field for the first time in four seasons and had his moments working out of the slot. The 2019 second-round draft pick had the game-winning 35-yard catch-and-run TD against the Raiders, along with 49-, 39- and 38-yard receptions.
Rookie Alec Pierce battled through the normal rookie issues and gave every indication he was worth the second-round investment. He was responsible for three of the four 40-yard completions and added the game-winning 32-yard TD against Jacksonville.
But overall, not nearly good enough. The fourth-most productive receiver was Ashton Dulin with 15 receptions. Michael Strachan had three.
One last issue. Pittman became the first Colt to finish with 99 receptions. Shame on the coaching staff for not finding a way in the season-ending loss to Houston to get him one more. A bubble screen. A touch-pass in the backfield. Something.
It’s currently a top-heavy group with Pittman and Pierce. Five others have combined for 61 receptions, 870 yards and seven TDs.
The team has been waiting for Strachan to develop into a viable option, and there’s no time like 2023. The 2021 seventh-round pick has appeared in 19 games with just five catches for 85 yards.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Campbell picked a perfect time to be available for all 17 games and compile career-best numbers (63 receptions, 623 yards, three TDs). He’ll be a free agent next month. He’s always been a Ballard favorite – on the field, in the locker room, in the community – and this is his opportunity to secure a life-changing deal. It would behoove the Colts to make Campbell’s re-signing a priority, if the price is even remotely in their ballpark. Pro Football Focus ranks him No. 83 on its list of free agents and projects a new deal at three years, $23.25 million with $13.25 million guaranteed.
And then there’s Pittman. He’s heading into the third year of his four-year rookie deal, which is when teams normally offer extensions to players they deem core players. The issue with the 2020 second-round pick – remember, he was selected eight spots ahead of running back Jonathan Taylor – will be cost. As much as the Colts’ value Pittman – and they do – will they back that up with owner Jim Irsay’s money?
The receiver market is skyrocketing. According to overthecap.com, the top 10 receivers make at least $20.6 million per season and the top 16 pull in at least $19.25 million. A reasonable guarantee would be in the $30-35 million range.
Will the Colts pony up to that extreme at that position?
“Pitt’s a good player,’’ Ballard said last month.
Is he a bona fide No. 1 wideout?
“I don’t know,’’ Ballard said. “We’ve all had this talk before. What’s a real No. 1? A guy who every time he touches the ball you’re scared to death he’s gonna score? There’s very few of those.
“Is he a really good freaking player? Damn right he is. And he’s passionate and tough, and he competes his ass off, and he wears it. I love that about him. I love that he wears his emotions on his sleeve. I love that he cares deeply about winning. Pittman’s a really good football player, and we’re lucky to have him on our team.’’
Also, it’s obvious a couple of players who need to be significant contributors in 2023 aren’t currently on the roster. That means Ballard must be active on the free agent market, and we don’t need to remind you he’s never invested heavily in that option. The Colts’ biggest free-agent acquisitions: Devin Funchess in 2019 (one-year, $10 million) and Ryan Grant in 2018 (one-year, $5 million). In 2021, they re-signed T.Y. Hilton to a one-year, $10 million contract.
It doesn’t appear to be a robust free-agent market: Robert Woods, Michael Thomas, Nelson Agholor, D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jarvis Landry.
Ballard probably will look to the draft to add another young wideout, but that could be impacted if he swings a trade with the Bears to secure the No. 1 overall pick. A suitable package to Chicago could include a second-round pick in this year’s draft.
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