The ‘sophomore slump’, talked about by panicking fans on Sunday afternoon, is oft used to validate their trust in an underperforming star. If they pan out in year two, a quiet sigh of relief can be heard right before “I never had any doubt.” If they throw a few interceptions, fumble, and end up injured in week five, fantasy football gurus can be heard muttering curses under their breath as they refresh ESPN’s homepage every twenty seconds. Never swing on the first pitch goes by the same logic as never bet on the second year wideout, all the more infuriating when it turns out to be true.
The Colts face a unique debacle this year, as five of their first seven draft picks saw extensive time on the field last year; while only Andrew Luck played every snap, T.Y. Hilton and Vick Ballard stepped up in a big way when required, and Dwayne Allen became the most reliable player on their offense. That, like waking up to the smell of bacon, is the good news.
Then comes the inevitable paranoia. What if Andrew Luck collapses under the pressure? What if Dwayne Allen loses focus? Where did that suddenly prevalent burning smell come from? With that in mind, here are – in one writer’s mind – the best and worst case scenarios for each of those five sophomores, along with their primary focus and expected outcome.
Primary Goal: Spread the ball around. The Colts, uniquely, are in the awkward state of having two running backs, three wideouts, and two tight ends all vying for serious playing time/starts next year; a less-predictable offense will give everyone more space to work with. Reggie Wayne might be Luck’s go-to guy, but he can’t be double-teamed if Luck starts deferring elsewhere. With this many skilled players cluttering Indy’s depth chart, running a repetitive offense would be nearly criminal. Hinting at a deep passing game early will be important.
Best-Case Scenario: The o-line works. It has been on a steady decline since Tarik Glenn left, but new additions to Indy’s front five – like rookies Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes – have given new light to the Achilles heel of an otherwise dynamic offense. A good o-line would give Luck more time, free up Allen and Fleener, and greatly increase the value of ex-Raider Heyward-Bey.
Worst-Case Scenario: Reggie gets hurt. The Colts only have depth in their passing game if Wayne is healthy, as DHB and Hilton thrive on speed rather than route running. If the Colts find themselves without their top wideout, you can bet that the other defense will find themselves without their biggest problem. If Luck wants to minimize mistakes this year, he’ll need Reggie Wayne in a big way.
Expected Outcome: He won’t be perfect, but you can expect a faster start this year than last. Remember, by the end of week three last year, positive plays were good enough. No one anticipated wins. Luck seems to do better when more is expected of him, so the added pressure after an 11-win campaign should bode well.
Slump Chances: 43.74% With Indy’s surprise success last year, most people will be expecting Luck to pull off a 12-win divisional crown; any less will be considered regression.
Primary Goal: Stay healthy. While Dwayne Allen proved to be Indy’s smartest draft selection, Fleener couldn’t string together any sort of production, and was one of the few Colts to drop off midway through the season. Sure, he was injured, but his final five games produced only 5 catches for 59 yards. By comparison, his first game as a pro – against Chicago – resulted in a 6 catch, 82-yard game. Sadly, in his absence and ensuing injury-stricken performances, Indy went 7-2. With him, they were barely above .500. In games where he caught more than two passes, they were 1-2; these certainly aren’t resume-grade statistics. If he ever wants to meet the hype surrounding him, Fleener needs to bounce back and stay reliable … because, right now, Allen’s best argument towards increased touches is that Indy wins with him. Period.
Best-Case Scenario: Lots of Red Zone chances. Even in his five-game slump, Fleener managed to piece together a pair of touchdowns, two more than at the start of the season. As long as he proves to be effective in the red zone, he’ll get chances a-plenty from Pep Hamilton, who will probably have a little more faith than Arians did by week 16 last year.
Worst-Case Scenario: A slow start to the season. The Colts start with two home games against the Raiders and Dolphins, 13th worst and 6th worst respectively against the pass last year. Fleener was at an advantage last year; this year, he and Allen will be starting on par with each other. If he can’t start the season off fast, games 3-7 will exhibit three of the best passing defenses in the league (San Fran, Seattle, and Denver); chances are he won’t pick up increased production in those games either. Not to say they won’t give him another chance, but Allen will become the primary tight end by default if that happens.
Expected Outcome: He’ll start strong, and – at least at first – will probably get more chances than Allen. Last year’s performance will be largely negated because new OC Pep Hamilton knows how good Fleener can be. Not to say that he’ll stay strong all season, or that he’ll be a viable fantasy option, but Fleener should get more than 26 catches this year, and will hopefully have one for more than 26 yards.
Slump Chances: 26% His first season didn’t really set him up for a slump, so unless he gets injured early on, this won’t be a discussion.
Primary Goal: Be the safety net. Peyton relied on Dallas Clark for years because the veteran TE was typically mismatched in coverage, and could block downfield as well as anyone. Allen needs to go a step further; he has to be able to block as well as he did last year, and become Luck’s most reliable receiver. If Luck can count on him on every down – like most of last year – he’ll find the same amount of mismatching as Clark, especially with big names like Wayne, Heyward-Bey, and Bradshaw on the field. In other words … pick up where he left off.
Best-Case Scenario: The run game take off … running. Allen is a great blocker, sometimes outshining Indy’s front five last year, but he’s at his best when downfield, especially right after he’s caught the ball. Allen’s 251 YAC last year was top-40, and, running backs excluded, he did so with the least overall yards (521); furthermore, of tight ends with over 20 receptions, he ranked 7th. If the running game can force defenses to play safe, Allen won’t need to protect Luck every other play and should see more action downfield.
Worst-Case Scenario: An injury. Despite everything Allen accomplished last year, he will still be fighting to win touches from Coby Fleener. Last year, Fleener’s injury allowed Allen, in the last nine weeks, to compile 28 catches vs. Fleener’s 5. If that situation flip-flops this year, Allen will be the first player Colts fans write off as a sophomore bust – even though Allen is a better all-around player.
Expected Outcome: Productivity should stay about the same; do not expect a marked increase, especially with Fleener set to get more looks again this year. A lot will tell in the first few weeks, as Pep Hamilton’s grand plan is unveiled; still, I expect the rookie OC to see Fleener as innocent until proven guilty – just like last year, but with a shorter rope.
Slump Chances: 40%. People won’t be looking towards Allen to succeed, but Colts fans know what he’s capable of – and are, strangely, expecting more. Besides Luck, he will have the most expected from him come the start of 2013.
Primary Goal: Minimize drops. Colts fans coming back this season after taking a sad, understandable two-year hiatus will probably overlook Hilton’s dropped passes last year and think “hey, for a rookie wide receiver, 50 catches for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns is pretty impressive!” Meanwhile, the rest of us who struggled through New York and New England last season will be shaking our heads, knowing that Hilton has nothing on DHB unless he can prove to be more reliable. Like fellow Colt Vick Ballard, Hilton’s great rookie season might have set him up for a disappointing year two, simply due to Indy’s new personnel.
Best-Case Scenario: DHB draws coverage downfield. Hilton’s 861 yards came on a paltry 50 catches, at 17.2 yards/catch; in comparison, only two wideouts had a better average and more yards. In other words, T.Y. Hilton is, first and foremost, a deep threat (apologies for blowing everyone’s mind there). Seriously however, this means that, with DHB running downfield along side him, Hilton will get a lot of opportunities this year; if the ex-Raider can draw double coverage, Hilton will be laughing all the way to the end zone.
Worst-Case Scenario: The run game can’t get going. An ineffective run game will mean more catches for down-and-in route runners like Wayne and Fleener, meaning more two wideout, two tight end sets … and Hilton, at least for now, is Indy’s clear #3 WR. If he’s only used to stretch the field on the rare instance DHB can’t, expect production to dwindle; if he tries to become a predominantly underneath receiver, expect some mistakes early on.
Possible Twist: Hilton actually does develop into a great underneath receiver. In the playoffs last year, his 8 catches for 66 yards were both second on the team to Reggie Wayne; maybe there’s something to that.
Expected Outcome: Last year, Hilton proved to be more valuable downfield than he did running underneath routes, and besides Wayne, was eventually their go-to guy on the deep ball. With DHB in town, expect his role as Indy’s #3 WR to limit that strength, providing everyone stays healthy. Because that won’t happen, we’ll probably see more T.Y. come mid-season than right away.
Slump Chances: 70%. People are on the verge of finding out who Hilton is, especially after five 100-yard games last season; still, those same people will write him off as slumping if he doesn’t perform immediately. If DHB breaks out, Hiltons numbers are sure to plummet.
Primary Goal: Compliment Ahmad Bradshaw. The former Giant will be getting a lot of hype going into the season, and instead of trying to beat out Bradshaw for the starting job, it might be better for Ballard to be there for third downs and second-half playing time. While both stand to get a lot of carries this year, Bradshaw will be the bigger target for defenses; this should open up holes every time Ballard, the ‘backup’, is in play.
Best-Case Scenario: Develops into a good receiving RB. In this hypothetical situation, Wayne runs an underneath route, DHB goes up the side, Fleener cuts upfield, and Allen runs a shallow corner route; who, as a defense, do you cover the running back with? If Ballard can work on his 17 catches for 152 receiving yards, expect Indy to use him more often each week.
Worst-Case Scenario: Turnovers increase. With the exception of 2010, Bradshaw does a decent job of protecting the ball, yielding a total of 12 fumbles over his other five years. If Ballard becomes fumble-prone, given his slightly more limited play, he’ll lose a lot of playing time to Bradshaw; worse yet, Indy might start deferring to Donald Brown, or whoever happens to be their third string guy. It seems like, if Ballard gets buried in the depth chart, a return will be unlikely.
Expected Outcome: Though in a similar situation to Hilton, Ballard is more likely to best his yardage from last year, especially if he can grab some playing time from Bradshaw early on. Don’t expect his two touchdowns to go up by much, because Bradshaw should get more red zone time than the second year RB; still, it’s safe to assume that a solid effort this year will help win him the starting position in 2014.
Slump Chances: 30%. No one who casually follows Indy will expect anything more from Ballard than a carry here or there, so the likelihood of him being written off early are slim, because … there’s not a lot of expectation there, anyway. He might slump, but given Bradshaw’s presence behind the line, it probably won’t be his fault.