INDIANAPOLIS – As the Indianapolis Colts packed up after a disappointing 7-9 season last month, veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton remained optimistic about the future.
Entering the final year of his contract, he shrugged off a question about potential negotiations for an extension. He’ll leave those talks to his agent and Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
But Hilton was adamant the quad and calf injuries that limited him to 10 games in 2019 will not have a long-term effect on his productivity.
As evidence, he pointed to a three-catch, 72-yard performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the season finale. The game highlighted some of the changes that could help the 30-year-old speedster prolong his career – shorter passes in open space giving him room to operate and time to get down before taking unnecessary hits.
Though Hilton’s raw numbers dipped – particularly a career-low 11.1 yards per reception, more than two yards below his previous worst – the receiver’s importance to the roster remained abundantly evident.
When training camp started in July, Hilton said this would be the most talented team he’d ever been a part of. Even after the unexpected retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck less than two weeks before the start of the regular season, there were flashes of that potential.
Before the injuries began to take their toll.
“We was 5-2 when I was healthy,” Hilton said. “It’s tough. It’s tough, man. It’s just tough. We won two games after that. So it is what it is.”
It wasn’t just Hilton on the shelf.
The receiver depth looked strong in training camp, but attrition started quickly. Free agent addition Devin Funchess broke his collarbone in the season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers and didn’t play again. Rookie second-round pick Parris Campbell appeared in just seven games because of a variety of ailments. And Deon Cain, a popular breakout candidate in the summer, was so inconsistent he was cut and eventually signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Zach Pascal stepped forward as a solid secondary option, and Marcus Johnson displayed flashes of big-play potential. But it’s clear there’s no ready-made successor to Hilton on the current roster.
A draft class that could be historically deep at wide receiver offers a potential solution to that issue, and Ballard has acknowledged the need to add explosive elements to the passing game.
Much of the offseason focus will fall on the quarterback with incumbent starter Jacoby Brissett’s future uncertain, but Ballard and head coach Frank Reich have been consistent in their belief the passing game as a whole needs to be upgraded.
The Colts finished 30th in the NFL in passing offense last season, and they’ve already made a few coaching changes to address the issue.
Reich brought in an old friend from his championship run with the Philadelphia Eagles – new wide receivers coach Mike Groh – and former receivers coach Kevin Patullo will fill a new role as pass game specialist.
Personnel changes are next, with the NFL Scouting Combine setting the table in a few weeks and free agency set to open March 18.
“Anytime we have a chance to acquire a player that makes us better, at any position, we’re going to do it,” Ballard said last month. “Any position, whether it’s wideout, quarterback, running back, linebacker – it doesn’t matter. So, I wouldn’t just single out the quarterback. Any chance we have to get better, we’re going to do it.”
Hilton certainly can help in that endeavor as an experienced voice for a roster that figures to get even younger at his position.
But questions remain about his ability to physically contribute at the level that made him a four-time Pro Bowler.
Brissett’s struggles in the deep passing game – he averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt – did the receiving corps no favors.
Hilton also battled with a 3-centimeter tear in his calf for most of the second half of the season.
There still were signs of the game-breaking talent that has defined the receiver’s career. Hilton was a much bigger factor in the red zone than he’s been in years past and was on pace for a career-high in touchdown receptions before injuries settled in.
As it was, he scored five times – just two off his career best.
His burst remains effective, and he still draws plenty of defensive attention away from his teammates – opening up opportunities across the board.
Reich has no doubt Hilton can continue to be a star in 2020. He puts the pressure on himself and his coaching staff to maximize that potential.
“You just want to get him the ball more,” Reich said. “I said it (after the season finale), if we’re going to fulfill our vision and win the games that we want to win, he has to be at the center of it.
“We are still going to be a run-the-ball team, but T.Y. has to be at the center of it. He is a great player, and it is our responsibility to get him involved and get him the ball.”