In what progressed into an active, fruitful offseason for general manager Chris Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts, a position looked upon as a weak link within an otherwise formidable chain will now have to conquer a case of bad injury luck following neck surgery to wideout T.Y. Hilton—now on injured reserve for the first few weeks of the season (at least). Ballard expects his explosive wideout to return “sooner than later,” but Hilton’s setback has added insult to the litany of injuries and COVID disruptions the team has been forced to face during the preseason.
Outside of Hilton, the Colts lack punch on the boundary—there’s just no way around it. With zero assets set aside to address the position in free agency, the Colts added just one pair of hands on the outside in the draft. We’ll get to that later. For Week 1, second-year talent Michael Pittman Jr. and do-it-all speedster Parris Campbell will look to fill the void of Hilton’s loss, providing quarterback Carson Wentz with reliable options on the outside.
For Campbell, his unproductive first two seasons have represented more of an anomaly than a lack of preparation and conditioning. In two campaigns, Campbell has appeared in just nine games, recording just five starts, in a rather underwhelming genesis for a once sought-after wideout prospect who still has yet to carve out a footprint in an ever-changing Indianapolis offense. 2020’s season opener offered a glimpse into the electric talent Campbell possesses, as he accumulated six receptions for 71 yards in a Colts loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a bright flash in a rather dark tunnel for Campbell, who believed it served as a turning point in his career.
“That was the game where I kind of felt like myself again,” Campbell said. “Coming off my rookie season – just dealing with all those things I did my rookie year... that’s just a piece of what I can do.”
However, as it has thus far in his career, Campbell fell victim to the injury bug, suffering a knee injury in Week 2 that eventually shelved him for the entirety of the 2020 season. Despite the setback, Campbell enters the regular season with new hope, fresh legs, and a sparkling new talent at quarterback to fuel his progress toward a potential make-or-break campaign.
In year three, he’ll be asked (again) to serve as Indianapolis’ do-it-all talent with the ability to pick up yards in chunks with the ball in his hands, especially with Hilton out. As he did at Ohio State, Campbell touts one of the most sought-after skill sets for pass-happy NFL offenses. Campbell can run the full route tree and work throughout each level of the defense, but where he thrives is on quick-hitters, screens, and designated touches where Campbell is allowed to use his unique vision and elite first-step to jolt by opposing defenders. It’s been a strenuous 25 months for the former Buckeye standout, who sits with a substandard total of 198 receiving yards and just one touchdown to his name, but the proof is in the pudding for Campbell who now has the opportunity to work in tandem with Wentz to put a career once ravaged by injury in the rearview mirror.
Looked upon as a flier prospect following the draft, the physical specimen that is former Division II standout Mike Strachan has progressed into much more than just a feel-good summer story. His camp has been that good, to where many within the Colts facility believed his role, even with Hilton healthy, would have been substantial considering his production during the Colts’ slate of exhibition matchups. With the nine-year veteran in Hilton out for the foreseeable future, Strachan has shouldered the hype within an average, at best, group of pass-catchers.
A chiseled athlete standing at 6-foot-5, his journey to Sunday football came via a footpath less traveled, earning his way to Indianapolis as a day-three selection. A former standout at DII Charleston (WV), Strachan dominated headlines at Colts camp with acrobatic receptions and elite prowess in his ability to high point the football, while showing excellent burst for a wideout of his stature.
“It’s not just a flash play here or there. It’s happening every day, there is a consistency,” head coach Frank Reich said. “There’s been a few mental mistakes here and there, that’s normal for a rookie, but physically there’s been good consistency… We have a good group, but we really like where he’s at right now and expect him to continue to grow and make an impact on our team.”
With Pittman Jr. expected to serve as a potential breakout candidate within an offense littered with youth-infused talent including power back Jonathan Taylor, staying consistent in his reps should allow Strachan to find himself with a heap of targets early on in the Colts’ campaign. An arsenal of weapons touting Strachan, Hilton, Pittman Jr., and Campbell—who enters a potential make or break campaign following two unproductive seasons—places Indianapolis in an opportunistic spot to produce from the opening snaps of Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks.
The overall success of the Colts’ passing game will rely solely on the ability of Pittman Jr. to produce week in and week out. With 503 total yards in his first season as a pro in 13 games of action—including eight starts—Pittman’s target share and designed touches should skyrocket until Hilton returns. An intimidating presence at 6-foot-4, Pittman won’t blow you away with speed like Campbell or earn a spot on the highlight reel each week with freakish 50/50 ball ability like Strachan, but his attention to detail and focus on the acute art that is the line of success and failure in today’s NFL has Pittman in a spot to thrive in his sophomore season.
“That pressure is what I’ve been looking for,” Pittman said. “I want to be that guy, so I will accept that pressure and try to play to the highest of my ability.”
A top-10 finisher among all first-year wideouts in targets, receptions, and receiving yards, Pittman flourished when presented with the opportunity to produce. On the field for just 64% of the Colts’ offensive snaps last fall, his rise in the depth chart to WR1 alongside Campbell, Strachan, and Zach Pascal, at least for the first few weeks, has offered Pittman a platform to excel his progression into one of the league’s top up-and-coming pass-catchers.