INDIANAPOLIS – For so long, there never was a doubt. For more than two decades, there always was an unquestioned go-to guy.
Now, not so much.
As age has crept up on Hilton – he turns 32 in November – so have injuries and a diminishing impact with the offense. He remains the unquestioned leader in the receivers room, but it’s fair to wonder whether the Indianapolis Colts’ longest-tenured player has a 6th 1,000-yard season in him. He’s failed to reach that level in consecutive seasons for the first time in his nine-year career, and three times in the last four seasons.
Rather than being so T.Y.-centric, Carson Wentz’s passing game likely will be a diversified approach. A lot of Hilton, to be sure, but steady doses of Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal, Parris Campbell, Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Nyheim Hines, Jonathan Taylor and perhaps Marlon Mack.
And that’s just fine with coach Frank Reich.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “We feel like we have great depth. I remember going into this year’s draft. Chris (Ballard) and I were talking, and I basically said to Chris multiple times, ‘I feel good about our receiver room and our tight end room.’’’
Spreading the football around, he added, “keeps the defenses guessing. We could easily say, ‘Hey, we’re going to feature T.Y. and try to get T.Y. 100 catches.’ But we don’t sugarcoat the fact that we’re going to spread it around. In fact, we take a lot of pride in that . . . we want to spread it around because we believe we have that kind of talent, and it keeps everybody fresh and strong and healthy. It keeps defenses guessing.’’
Last season, the Colts rode that share-the-ball approach to an 11-5 record and wild-card playoff berth.
Nine different players finished with at least 250 receiving yards. Eight players led the team in receptions at least once and seven led it in receiving yards.
That diverse approach wasn’t an aberration for Reich. That’s his motus operandi. In his role as head coach/offensive coordinator/position coach with the Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals from 2012-20, he’s had only two players crack the 1,000-yard receiving level: Hilton in 2018 and Keenan Allen with the Chargers in ’13.
In his two seasons with the Eagles (2016-17), tight end Zach Ertz was Reich’s leading receiver. In 2015 with the Chargers, running back Danny Woodhead led the way after Allen missed the second half of the season with a lacerated kidney.
It’s debatable whether there’s a bona fide No. 1 in the receivers’ room – Hilton used to be, Pittman might soon be one – and that’s fine with Ballard.
“They’re a talented group,’’ he said in an interview with SI.com. “Is there a guy that, you know, you just line up and go, ‘Holy crap, how are we gonna stop this guy?’ Maybe not, but they are really (darn) good players.
“We think we’re a little better than other people do.’’
On a team level, the Colts have endured consecutive seasons without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since a five-year stretch from 1994-98.
Barring Hilton experiencing a serious bounce-back season or Pittman emerging in year 2, the Colts might be relying on another group effort with their passing game. Players report to training camp July 27 at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.
Here’s a look at the position:
Starters: T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr.
Slot: Parris Campbell.
Depth: Zach Pascal, Dezmon Patmon, Ashton Dulin, DeMichael Harris, Michael Strachan, Tyler Vaughns, Gary Jennings, J.J. Nelson, Tarik Black, Quartney Davis.
More from T.Y.?
The Colts obviously are convinced there’s more tread on the tires and brought Hilton back for a 10th season with a one-year, $8 million contract that’s fully guaranteed. It wasn’t a given he’d return, and didn’t materialize until he turned down a more lucrative free-agent offer from the Baltimore Ravens and re-upped in late March.
Remaining in Indy, Hilton said, “made sense for me. The moment I had the chance to sign back here it was only right. I love it here.’’
Now, he must provide a suitable return on the investment. It might be difficult for Hilton to post a 6th 1,000-yard season – Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne share the franchise record with eight each – primarily because of Reich’s penchant for using every skill player at his disposal, the expected emergence of Pittman and the optimism Campbell will stay on the field and command touches.
There have been extenuating circumstances to Hilton failing to reach 1,000 yards in three of the last four seasons. After missing just two games in his first six seasons, injuries have kept him out of nine the last three years. And then there’s been the revolving door at quarterback. Wentz will be his fourth different starting QB in as many years, following Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett and Andrew Luck. He hasn’t benefitted from the same quarterback in consecutive seasons since Luck in 2015-16.
But management didn’t funnel $8 million to Hilton simply because they value his locker room presence and loyalty to a franchise that selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft.
“T.Y. Hilton can still play,’’ Ballard said. “T.Y. Hilton is as competitive and as good a teammate as I’ve ever been around.’’
Hilton wasn’t a consistent factor early last season, but finished strong. Over the final six games he generated 27 receptions, 435 yards and five touchdowns. That translates into a 72-catch, 1,160-yard stat line over 16 games.
The Colts would take that from Hilton in year 10.
What’s Next for Pittman?
At first glance, it was a modest first step into the NFL for Pittman. He ranked 4th on the team with 40 receptions and 3rd with 503 yards. His only TD came in week 11 against Green Bay.
But there’s no dismissing the early impact of a lower leg injury that sent him to the injured reserve list for three games and impeded his development.
“That was a serious injury,’’ Ballard said, “and he fought to come back, and it took a little time to get back.’’
After getting past the leg issue and despite dealing with a lingering toe injury, the team’s second-round draft pick flashed. There was a seven-catch, 101-yard outing at Tennessee and five catches for 90 yards in the playoff loss at Buffalo.
The 6-4, 223-pounder gave every indication he’s a keeper.
“I think Michael Pittman is going to be a great player,’’ Ballard said.
Big Year for Campbell
And the team’s 2019 second-round pick knows it. Campbell’s first two seasons have been marred by one injury after another. He’s missed 23 of 32 games and managed just 24 receptions and 198 yards in his nine appearances.
In an attempt at starting anew in year 3, Campbell made a jersey switch from No. 15 to No. 1.
“I think it looks fast on the field,’’ he said with a smile, quickly adding the switch was more to give him a fresh start.
“Yeah, that’s honestly what was the main reason for that. I just needed something new. Definitely a new start.’’
A healthy Campbell offers an intriguing, explosive option to the offense. He brings size (6-0, 205 pounds) and speed as a slot receiver, and can be used on occasion on jet sweeps. That’s how he suffered his latest major injury – two damaged ligaments in his left knee in a week 2 meeting with the Minnesota Vikings when he was undercut by safety Harrison Smith.
“Getting Parris Campbell back is a big bonus, and he’s looked good during the offseason,’’ Ballard said.
It’s easy to overlook Zach Pascal. And it’s a mistake if you do.
“All Zach does is produce,’’ Ballard said.
Since being claimed off waivers from Tennessee in June 2018, Pascal has established himself as one of those critical pieces, not only to the offense but the entire team. He’s unselfish and durable. He’s appeared in all 51 games, including the playoffs.
“Everybody just ignores Zach Pascal,’’ Ballard said, “but all he’s done is catch (10) touchdowns over the last two years.’’
Pascal has had at least 40 catches, 600 yards and five TDs in each of the past two seasons. Last year was his best yet: 44 catches, 629 yards, five TDs.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.