INDIANAPOLIS – T.Y. Hilton is heading into a season like none of his previous eight. Yes, eight. The seasons have zipped past like Hilton running a deep post.
It starts with the COVID-19 ramifications, involves a minor hamstring injury and is framed with the Indianapolis Colts’ big-play wideout heading into a contract year for the first time. On the latter issue, barring an extension he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2020.
It’s not hyperbole to wonder if Hilton, who trails only Anthony Castonzo in tenure with the franchise, is heading into his final season with the team that selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft.
He understands that’s a possibility.
“Absolutely,’’ Hilton said on a Monday Zoom conference call. “This is my last deal on my contract. It is what it is. You know, we’re gonna concentrate on right now and then at the end of the season we’ll go from there.’’
The positional baton has been passed from Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne to Hilton, but might they also share a similar fate? Harrison and Wayne played their entire careers with the Colts, but neither went out on his own terms.
Harrison, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, had his contract terminated in February 2009 after 13 seasons. Wayne, who was one of 15 modern-era Finalists last year in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, wasn’t re-signed after the 2014 season, his 14th in Indy.
But we’re not comparing apples and apples. Harrison and Wayne were 36, and each had failed to top 800 yards in his final two seasons.
Hilton turns 31 in November. His predecessors earned and were given a third contract by the Colts. It’s up to Chris Ballard and Jim Irsay to determine if Hilton, who’s heading into the final phase of a five-year, $65 million extension signed in August 2015, joins them.
“That’s between Chris, Mr. Irsay and my agent,’’ Hilton said. “That’s up to them.
“My body of work speaks for itself. Ball’s in the their court.’’
Here’s where we remind everyone the company Hilton is keeping in the Colts’ record book. He ranks 4th in receptions (552) and yards (6,039). He trails only Harrison, Wayne and Hall of Famer Raymond Berry. He’s led the team in receptions six times. Only Harrison (eight) and Wayne (seven) did it more often.
Is there a chance an extension comes prior to the start of the season? He previously insisted his next contract will be his last contract.
“I honestly don’t know,’’ Hilton said. “It could be my last year (in Indy), it could not be. We could get an extension, we could not.
“I’m just going out there and play it out. If this is my last year, we’ll give it everything I’ve got no matter what.’’
One undeniable reality: the Colts have taken steps to be viable at the position moving forward, with or without Hilton. Ballard invested the 59th overall pick in the 2019 draft on Parris Campbell. His first pick in the April draft – also in round 2, 34th overall – delivered Michael Pittman Jr. to the roster.
At least initially, Hilton’s 9th season is on pause. He was placed on the non-football injury list after suffering what’s been described as a minor hamstring injury while working out on his own.
“It’s not going to be a problem,’’ he insisted. “I’m feeling really good. Feeling better, feeling like myself. Probably got maybe a couple more days, another week.
“They’re not going to rush me or put me out there anytime soon. I should be in the clear soon.’’
Every day Hilton misses is another missed opportunity to get in sync with Philip Rivers. Pads are not allowed and full-scale work permitted until Aug. 17, but Rivers nonetheless is leading pitch-and-catch sessions.
“We’ve thrown a couple of times,’’ Hilton said, noting he has to get comfortable with the way Rivers calls certain plays and sees certain routes.
“Just getting our language down with one another,’’ he said. “It’s going to be fun, man. I can’t wait. He’s special in a lot of ways.’’
The COVID-19 pandemic kept teams off the practice field during the offseason and forced adjustments to training camp regimens, and could result in limited or no fans in the stands during the season.
The latter would impact those players who feed of a sellout home crowd’s energy. Players such as Hilton.
Before Hilton settled in front of the Zoom screen, cornerback Xavier Rhodes ended his session. As Rhodes yielded things to Hilton, he broke into a wide grin and offered his best “TY, TY, TY’’ celebration.
If Hilton does that after catching his first touchdown from Rivers at Lucas Oil Stadium, he might do so in an empty stadium.
“It’s gonna be different. I know that for a fact,’’ he said. “It’s going to be something you have to adjust to, cause we’re only going to have a certain amount of fans in there, if any at all.
“It’s going to be different, but we have to adjust in order for us to accomplish what we came here for.’’
Hilton smiled when asked to respond to critics who wonder if his body is breaking down. After missing just two games in his first six seasons, he’s missed eight in the last two – two in 2018 with severe ankle sprain and six last season, the final four with a torn calf muscle. He played at a high level over the final portion of ’18 despite dealing with high and low sprains to his ankle.
“Whenever you see me I’m pretty much on the field no matter what it is, no matter what the circumstances,’ Hilton said. “We’ll see.’’
Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni considers Hilton “one of the toughest guys on this football team.’’
“Really, thinking back to 2018 when he played through all of his injuries and really carried us, right?’’ Sirianni said. “I mean we don’t win nine out of 10 in 2018 without him doing what he did.’’
The Colts clearly need Hilton. They’re 1-9 when he’s missed a game with an injury.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.