NFL Draft: Colts have need and plenty of options at WR

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – By any measure, the Indianapolis Colts’ wide receiver room didn’t measure up last season.

And still doesn’t.

The returning group posted modest numbers in 2019: 106 receptions, 1,252 yards, 11 touchdowns. That’s 43 fewer catches and 473 fewer yards than New Orleans’ Michael Thomas generated in 2019.

There’s no question injuries undermined Colts wideouts last season. T.Y. Hilton missed a career-high six games while dealing with a torn calf muscle. Devin Funchess was brought in with a one-year, $10 million contract, then missed the final 15 games with a broken collarbone.

Rookie Parris Campbell was limited to seven games and 18 catches by four injuries and three in-season surgeries. Reece Fountain’s second season ended with a dislocated ankle in training camp.

Forget the past. This is about the present.

And it must be addressed in the April 23-25 draft, arguably with one of the two second-round picks – 34th or 44th overall – or the third rounder (75th overall).

Chris Ballard often downplays the urgency of investing high-end capital in a wideout, Funchess’ addition notwithstanding. Remember his comment during the NFL Scouting Combine?

“Ya’ll obsess about wideouts,’’ he said. “I obsess about o-line and d-line.’’

True to his word, Ballard went out in mid-March and added a d-line difference-maker. He sent his first-round pick – 13th overall – to the San Francisco 49ers for tackle DeForest Buckner.

But while once again telling everyone his roster-building always – always – will be focused on ensuring the Colts are strong up front, Ballard also acknowledged this is a good draft for those teams in need of top-end wideouts.

You know, like his Colts.

“There is tremendous depth at wide receiver,’’ he said.

Does anyone really believe Ballard would invest a one-year, $25 million contract in Philip Rivers, then not upgrade his receivers room?

Of course not.

The draft offers more than a few options. Regardless your mock draft of choice – Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay, Daniel Jeremiah, whomever – there is a clear consensus: this is the Year of the WR.

Jeremiah, one of NFL.com’s top draft analysts, has 27 receivers “with top-3-round grades.’’

“This is really a phenomenal group of wideouts,’’ he said.

Added Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock: “There’s depth throughout and there’s quality up top. That’s what you’re looking for in a class.’’

Some mock drafts project six receivers being selected in round 1, with Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Clemson’s Tee Higgins drawing universal approval.

It would mark the first time since 2015 six wideouts were taken in round 1. Kiper and McShay, ESPN’s draft tandem, project 12 receivers being selected in the first two rounds.

For Colts-related context, Kiper slots Baylor’s Denzel Mims to Indy with the 34th overall pick. McShay also envisions Ballard snaring a wideout with the second pick of round 2: USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

Each would represent an intriguing complement to Hilton. Pittman, son of former Tampa Bay standout running back Michael Pittman, is 6-4 and 220 pounds. Last season, he had 101 receptions for 1,275 yards and 11 TDs. Mims, a 6-3, 215-pounder, had 66 receptions for 1,020 yards and 12 TDs last season.

Even before injuries began decimating the Colts’ wideouts in 2019, big-play capabilities were lacking. The passing game averaged 10.8 yards per completion and 6.5 yards per attempt.

It was a shared blame: Jacoby Brissett’s reluctance to push the ball down the field and a receiving corps incapable of getting downfield with any regularity. The Colts generated 38 pass plays – so-called “chunk plays’’ – that gained at least 20 yards, tied for the second-fewest in the league.

Frank Reich has conceded the passing game must improve moving forward. The Colts averaged just 194.3 yards per game, 30th in a 32-team league.

“That hurt,’’ he said. “I’ve always taken pride in having a dynamic passing game. Everywhere that we’ve been, I’m not saying we’ve been the best in the league, but the teams I’ve been on have been pretty dynamic for the most part.

“We just have to figure that out and get better there and I think the end result will be a good thing.’’

Initially, Reich is a fan of his returning receiver corps.

“You try to be unbiased,’’ he said, “but it’s hard to be unbiased. You’re very subjective because of the experiences that you’ve had. So on one hand, I look at our receiver core and I am very excited about the guys that we’ve got. T.Y. is a great leader. He’s a great player. He’s got some good years left in him.

“The other guys we’ve got back, we feel can all play ball. Looking for a big year from Parris. Zach continues to turn everybody’s head and prove what kind of player he is and the rest of the guys we feel good about.

“But this is the NFL so we are always looking to make the team better.’’

That includes through the draft.

“Certainly receiver is a position we are looking hard at,’’ Reich said.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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