Preparing for the Colts Future: Wide Receiver Conundrum

There is no position on the 2011 Indianapolis Colts that will undergo or require more immediate front office attention by way of future contract considerations than wide receiver. Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Anthony Gonzalez are all at the end of their contracts.

Two of the three were first round draft picks. One of the three is a perennial Pro Bowler.

The difficulty behind what direction Indy’s front office chooses to take includes a lot of variables.

At this point in his career, I think it is clear that either Gonzalez is incapable of staying healthy or the coaching staff prefers the options around him so much that they are not interested in giving him time on the field. In either case, it’s not a positive outlook for Gonzo wearing a horseshoe on his helmet in 2012.

That leaves Wayne and Garcon as players in two drastically different situations who will be looking to get paid significant contracts.

Putting in a one-three year bid for Wayne in what would likely be his final contract in Indianapolis is a possibility. The problem is that he is entering — or has entered — the twilight stages of his career and his drop-off in production could be drastic at any time. Overpay for an aging wide receiver and lose the cap space to sign a younger player at his position — or another position of weakness — and it could cost Peyton Manning (or Andrew Luck) an opportunity to get to or win the Super Bowl in the next three years.

Garcon showed a lot of promise in 2011 and has surprised his biggest detractors by displaying reliable hands. The only real knock on him heading into his contract year was the frustrating habit in previous seasons to drop easy passes and only make sensational ones.

Which gamble should the Colts take? Allow both players to exit via free agency and draft an early wide receiver like Iowa’s Marvin McNutt? Sign Garcon but allow Wayne to exit, hoping that Garcon’s improved play in 2011 is indicative of how he will play in the next four-six years of his career? Sign Wayne but let Garcon go, securing the most experienced wide receiver on the team for a final run with Peyton Manning, risking that the best years of his career have long since passed? Sign both receivers, tie up a lot of money in the process, potentially struggle to re-sign a player like defensive end Robert Mathis or center Jeff Saturday, and risk neither player working out as hoped?

Ultimately, retaining one of the three free agent wide receivers should be a no-brainer. Assuming Gonzalez is out, the choice between Garcon and Wayne is not easy.

Garcon has the upside of a marquee wide receiver, the physical abilities and strength of tenacious larger receivers like Anquan Boldin. Wayne has the experience and savvy to pick apart his younger competition and communicate seamlessly with Peyton Manning.

For the money, Garcon is probably the better play at this point because it should be clear that Wayne’s struggles to gain separation have become more noticeable in the last couple of years. Garcon? He does not have that issue at all and if he continues to work on his ability to grind out yards and catch routine passes, he could become the team’s number one receiving option moving forward.

The choice for Garcon also makes sense because the entire corps of receivers that remain on the team will be very close to one another in age and experience. The group would be young, energized, and if they can stay healthy, should have the best years of their careers ahead of them. Choosing only Wayne necessitates a wide receiver draft pick or free agent acquisition.

There should be no misunderstanding that Wayne’s ceiling is another three years in the league — with one year being an uncertainty already. Accordingly, keeping Wayne and parting ways with Garcon occurs only if the team wants Wayne to provide veteran leadership and mentor his successor for the future — and likely only if Wayne is willing to take a paycheck that reflects that role.

Key options in the early rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft include South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery, North Carolina’s Dwight Jones, Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, and Rutgers’ Mohamed Sanu. Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon is the clear favorite as the top receiver prospect in 2012 at this point and will not be available to the Colts unless they trade the top overall pick, but any one of these receivers projects well and should be able to play outside relatively quickly.

Middle round sleepers include Iowa’s Marvin McNutt, Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles — who suffered an ACL tear in November which will make him a potential steal if he can recover, or Wisconsin’s Nick Toon.