Recapping the 2019 Colts: Wide receiver

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INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – DECEMBER 22: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to improve. We’ve got to evaluate everything we’re doing within our program and we’ve got to find the answers.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Receivers.

  • Starters: T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal.
  • Backups: Marcus Johnson, Dontrelle Inman, Ashton Dulin, Chad Williams.
  • Injured reserve: Devin Funchess, Chester Rogers, Parris Campbell, Reece Fountain, Steve Ishmael.

The good:

Two words: Zach Pascal. There were some in the media – OK, guilty as charged – who didn’t have Pascal making the cut when rosters were pared to 53. There was too much depth at the position, and what we believed to be the fifth and final spot went to Chester Rogers, who was the punt returner. In our mind, that left Pascal as the odd-man out.

Good thing Ballard and Reich didn’t listen to us.

As injuries depleted the position, Pascal was asked to do more and more. He responded by doing more and more. The 2018 waiver-wire acquisition enjoyed his best season: 41 receptions, a team-high 607 yards and five TDs, which tied T.Y. Hilton for the team lead. He posted his first two 100-yard games and had at least 70 yards five times. And let’s not forget he remained an absolute stud in run blocking.

“He has done a great job,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “A credit to him working his butt off to put himself in this position making this team and putting himself in this position . . . to someone we can’t play without.’’

Another positive was Marcus Johnson, who displayed deep-threat possibilities. He averaged 16.3 yards on 17 catches and went off for three catches, 105 yards and a 46-yard TD against Tampa Bay. He added a 50-yarder against the Bucs.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Hilton’s commitment to, well, being there for his team. He missed a career-high six games, including five late in the season with a calf injury. Yet he refused the option of going on IR.

“Anybody in my position could have done that,’’ he said. “I’m built different. I’m not that type of guy.’’

Hilton’s resume took a beating. His 45 receptions and 501 yards were career lows. So was his 11.1 per-catch average. He failed to generate a 100-yard game for the first time in his eight-year career.

The bad:

It started in training camp. First, Steve Ishmael blew out a knee. Then, Parris Campbell had a hamstring issue. Next, Reece Fountain fractured and dislocated his left ankle. In the season opener, Devin Funchess, one of Ballard’s key free-agent acquisitions, fractured his left clavicle and wouldn’t return.

This was a trend that would continue, even intensify. Hilton’s quad/calf injuries were the most debilitating, personally and collectively. It’s no secret he’s an offensive catalyst and the focal point of defensive game plans. With Hilton, the Colts feature one of the NFL’s best playmakers. Without him, they’re 1-10.

Campbell? The second-round draft pick endured a forgettable rookie season. He would require three surgeries to address a hernia, a fractured right hand and a broken right foot. His contributions: 18 catches, 127 yards, one TD.

Reich attempted to boost Campbell’s confidence after he was placed on IR with the broken foot.

“As a player no matter what round you’re picked or no matter what kind of college career you’ve had, you go through a year he has had to go through and it can wear on you,’’ he said. “As an organization, we love Parris.

“You just try to have a heart-to-heart with him about what category to put these things in. For him to stay positive, keep believing and get ready to go next year.’’

And let’s not forget the team’s patience running out with Deon Cain. The 2018 sixth-round pick missed his rookie season with a knee injury, but bounced back with a strong training camp. He was expected to make a splash in Year 2. Instead, Cain’s lack of progress – 4 catches and 52 yards in seven games – led to his release.

The offseason:

No area requires more attention in the coming months. Ballard and Reich each admitted the passing game must improve after averaging an unacceptable 194.3 yards per game and 6.5 yards per attempt. Yes, that starts with Jacoby Brissett, but the lack of playmakers is glaring.

We’re not blaming Hilton for averaging a career-low 11.1 yards per catch or having a season-long catch of 35 yards. The injuries sabotaged his season, and the reluctance of Brissett to push the ball down the field kept Hilton on a short leash when he did play.

It will be interesting to see if Ballard is receptive to offering Hilton an extension this offseason. He’s entering the final year of a five-year, $65 million extension and the team isn’t averse to locking up core players before it’s absolutely necessary. But was Hilton’s injury-plagued season a sign his body is wearing down? He’s 30.

Ballard already has signed Pascal to a one-year, $660,000 extension.

Hilton and Pascal are two good pieces, and we’re expecting Campbell to return in Year 2 with extra motivation. Ballard didn’t rule out re-signing Funchess, although that’s hardly a given. If he returns, might Ballard still scour the veteran free-agent market?

Even if those four components are in place, a couple of playmakers are needed. And that brings us to the April NFL Draft. By all accounts, it’s an extremely deep draft for teams seeking receiver help.

Did we mention the Colts need help at receiver? Of course we did. Chunk plays (20-plus yards) are an essential part of any passing game and Indy experienced a dramatic decline with the Andrew Luck-to-Brissett transition. After generating 53 in 2018, the Colts managed just 38 this season. More alarming, though, was only 11 pass plays gained at least 30 yards and three picked up 40 yards or more.

The draft could address that deficiency. Top-tier candidates include Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Clemson’s Tee Higgins and LSU’s Justin Jefferson.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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