INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: wide receivers.
- Outside starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce.
- Slot: Parris Campbell.
- Depth: Ashton Dulin, Dezmon Patmon, Mike Strachan, Keke Coutee, DeMichael Harris, Kekoa Crawford, Ethan Fernea, Michael Young Jr., Samson Nacua.
Pitt’s the guy:
The baton has been passed yet again. From Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne to T.Y. Hilton to Michael Pittman Jr.
This was the long-range plan from the start. Remember, Pittman was the Colts’ first pick in 2020, a 2nd-rounder taken 34th overall and seven slots ahead of Jonathan Taylor.
Now, with Harrison in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Wayne serving as his position coach and Hilton unsigned, the Colts’ receivers’ room belongs to Pittman. Never mind he’s 24 and heading into his third season.
“Trying to be a team leader now, now that I’m kind of the older guy that’s in that room,’’ he said. “I’m only going into year 3 and I’m still young, but I’m the elder.’’
More importantly, he’s still ascending – “I’m just trying to take the next step,’’ Pittman said – which was the objective heading into 2021.
“Last year, I said that I was going to double every single category, and I did that,’’ Pittman said.
He bounced his receptions from 40 as a rookie to 88, his yards from 503 to 1,082 and his touchdowns from one to six.
“This year, I’m just trying to build on that and become that definite No. 1 that everybody talks about,’’ Pittman said. “Everybody has their own definition. I think I am that (a No. 1 wideout). I’ve just got to go ahead and prove that to other people.
“I’m just trying to make that next jump.’’
The Colts desperately need Pittman to continue to improve, continue to be the leader of the pack. He’ll be dealing with a third starting quarterback in as many seasons – Matt Ryan follows Carson Wentz who followed Philip Rivers – but that should boost Pittman’s effectiveness and productivity. He and Ryan are in the early stages of developing that critical quarterback-receiver synergy.
Pittman is the total package. He’s 6-4, 223 pounds, adept at coming down with contested passes, an absolute beast after the catch and a solid run-after-the-catch threat.
Is this Campbell’s year?:
If not now, when. And if not in Indy, where?
Those are among the questions following Parris Campbell into 2022. Incredibly, he’s heading into the final year of his rookie contract. At the of the season – if not sooner – he’ll be a free agent.
The Colts remain convinced their 2019 2nd-round draft pick can be an integral part of Ryan’s passing game this season. He’s 6-1, 208 pounds. He has speed and run-after-the-catch skills. He can work out of the slot or split out wide.
“Parris Campbell is still a very talented guy,’’ Chris Ballard said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “Unfortunate for the injury part of it, but the flashes have been really good with Parris. . . . hopefully we’ll see it come to fruition.’’
Yes, the talent.
But yes, the injuries.
Campbell has been on the field for just 15 of 49 regular-season games while dealing with a variety of serious injuries: torn knee ligaments, a broken bone in both feet, a fractured hand. His been limited to 34 receptions, 360 yards and two TDs.
“From the outside looking in, people are like, ‘OK, he can’t stay healthy,’’ Campbell said. “Excuse my language, but to hell with that.
“I know who I am. At the end of the day, I know the type of player I am. I know why they drafted me here.’’
In a profession that tests every player’s durability on a daily basis, Campbell simply can’t afford more time on the sideline or the training room. The pressure’s on, and he’s ready for it.
“What better way to prove everybody wrong and prove myself right in year 4 and my contract year,’’ Campbell said. “I’m ready for it.’’
As much grief as Ballard gets for not ponying up serious free-agent money in a wideout, he’s not shy about investing significant draft picks. For the third time in four years, he snatched a receiver in the 2nd round.
Alec Pierce follows Campbell and Pittman, and the University of Cincinnati standout hit the ground running. He was given a heavy workload during the team’s offseason program and minicamps, and did nothing to temper everyone’s optimism.
Reich insisted Pierce “looked really good. I mean really good. He’s really acclimated well. It seems like he’s been here a long time.
“Matt and I were just talking about that . . . he just does a couple of things instinctively that are really good signs. I think some of that is Matt and how smart he is and knowing how to use him, but some of it is Alec. He’s a smart player. Not just smart, but instinctive.’’
The immediate draft buzz with Pierce involved his versatility – work outside and in the slot – but Reich sees him more as an outside option, at least while he’s getting comfortable with the NFL.
During offseason work, Pierce’s sure hands were obvious and he had no issues getting open or picking up chunks of yards after the catch. One day, he had a pair of acrobatic sideline catches in the end zone for TDs.
“It’s been awesome,’’ Pierce said of his early NFL steps. “It definitely has taken off quickly.’’
By the numbers, Part I:
Pittman is in position to join elite company after his 1,082-yard performance last season. Only three players in franchise history have posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons: Harrison, Wayne and Hilton.
Pittman also would join that prolific trio as the only Colts with multiple 1,000-yard seasons. The team’s 1,000-yard club boasts 10 members: Harrison (eight times), Wayne (eight), Hilton (five), Raymond Berry (one), Bill Brooks (one) Brandon Stokley (one), Dallas Clark (one), Roger Carr (one), Reggie Langhorne (one) and Pittman (one).
By the numbers, Part II:
So much of the Colts’ passing game hinges on Pittman’s continued progress, Campbell’s ability to stay on the field, Pierce making an immediate impact and someone – anyone – taking a significant leap. That’s because the team’s decision not to add a veteran presence to this point – Hilton or someone else – has left the rest of the room largely unproven.
A stat that we’ve absolutely worn out this offseason: returning receivers not named Pittman combined for 28 receptions, 387 yards and four TDs in 2021.
Also, consider a comparison of Pittman’s 2-year career with the combined career numbers of the other six returning wideouts who’ve had at last least one catch. Pittman: 128 receptions, 1,585 yards, seven TDs. The others: 150 receptions, 1,675 yards, nine TDs.
Again, the team is banking on someone emerging. Ashton Dulin? Dez Patmon? Mike Strachan?
“I feel really good about the group,’’ Reich said as offseason work concluded. “The young guys look big, strong and fast.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.