Monday Morning Mourner: Reggie Wayne’s Absence

There was great symmetry on the field last Sunday night in Indianapolis: old vs. young, past vs. present, and Colts fans welcoming home one legend just as they were forced to say goodbye – at least for the rest of the year – to another.

Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in the 4th quarter of that game. The man who hadn't missed a start in 189 games will miss at least 9 this season.

Last year, Wayne seemed destined to sign with another team in free agency. Now, he's become one of the most irreplaceable pieces on the Colts offense.

No longer the down-field, all-purpose threat, Wayne has reinvented himself, evolving from a true #1 WR, lining up outside and completing the entire route tree, to more of a slot/possession receiver.

How important was Wayne to the Colts offense?

He's 17th in the NFL in yards, at 503.  Hilton is 33rd, Heyward-Bey 122nd.

Wayne has caught 38 passes on the year, 28 of them have gone for first downs (73.7%).

Reggie Wayne was targeted 57 times, he caught 38 of those catches (66.7%). TY Hilton has been targeted 52 times, with 27 catches (51.9%). DHB? 18 catches on 33 targets (54.5%).

As far as advanced stats go, Reggie Wayne was the 8th-best WR according to ProFootballFocus' grades and the 34th-best WR according to DVOA. Hilton was 45th and 63rd while DHB was 81st and 78th, respectively.

And remember how we mentioned Wayne's 28 first downs on 38 catches? That number is equal to Hilton's (18) and DHB's (10) production. Combined.
Reggie Wayne wasn't the guy making the big yardage plays, but he was the guy who kept the chains moving. Whenever Luck needed an outlet, a safety valve, a big catch in traffic, Reggie Wayne was his man. Now, he is left with a 2nd-year Hilton, DHB, and a ferris wheel of practice squad players?
Just reading these stats, it's shocking how little Luck and OC Pep Hamilton have used Darrius Heyward-Bey. But he's the man who's going to step up to replace Wayne's production?
And it would be wrong to boil Reggie Wayne down to a series of stats. What he provided went beyond the box score. This was his team. While he will still be present in team meetings – HC Chuck Pagano made that point clear – he won't be in that huddle on Sunday, and he won't be out there on the practice field showing the youngsters where to be and how to carry themselves.
I fully expect Reggie Wayne to return to the Colts next year. I listened to Pagano's post-injury press conference, and there is a real love and respect between these two gentlemen. Reggie will fight to get back on the field and Pagano will fight to keep him there, in the horseshoe.
I also expect him to continue to be relatively productive. I say relatively because, as I said earlier, Reggie's no longer a speed guy. He relies on brains, route running, and toughness to be effective. He may lose some quickness and speed (and he may not) because of this injury, but I don't think that will prevent him from doing his job. And if it does, well, 2014 is the last year of his deal, and he only makes $4MM, so it's not like it'll hurt the team to ride it out.
Reggie is one of the most important, beloved Colts of all time. While we've been robbed of proper goodbyes with some of our favorite players in years past, I think Reggie will wear the Shoe until he hangs 'em up.

The more immediate concern is, where do the Colts go from here?

The Options

1) Promote from within –  The Colts have a handful of young players they could use in more prominent roles.

Griff Whalen – If the Colts are promoting a young guy, Whalen is definitely the fan's choice. A standout in each of the past two preseasons, Whalen won't wow anyone with his great size or athleticism, but he can run good routes and make tough catches out of the slot. That, combined with his familiarity with both Andrew Luck and Pep Hamilton's scheme – he played his college ball at Stanford – make him a logical fill-in.

Da'Rick Rogers – An UDFA who originally signed with the Bills, the Colts signed him to their practice squad back on September 2nd. He was promoted to the active roster before the 49ers game, as TY Hilton was questionable with a lower-body injury.

Rogers is a tempting choice: he's 6'2", 217lbs, and displayed strength and the ability to make tough catches at Tennessee Tech.  He's not the fastest of players (4.52 in the 40-yard dash), but was the top performer at the Combine in Vertical Jump, Broad Jump, 3-Cone Drill, 20-yard Shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle. In other words… well, I don't know what all that jibber jabber means, actually, but I assume it's good.

The Colts clearly like the guy. If they choose to promote him, it wouldn't be a shock.


David Reed – Well… he's on the Colts roster, and he's a wide receiver. So I guess he's got that going for him? Acquired from Baltimore in the preseason (trade, the Colts sent Delone Carter to Baltimore), the former 5th-round pick was brought in more for his ability to return kicks. If that's the best part of his game, let's just hope he's not their answer. If you can't tell, I'm not enamored with David Reed. I don't think he's very good. Seriously. Am I being blunt enough?  I don't think he should be on the active roster. Period.
LaVon Brazill Brazill is the best of the bunch, though his 4-game suspension at the start of this season hampered his ability to earn any significant playing time. Brazill is more of a speedy, athletic receiver, who lacks the route running, toughness, and size to be a consistent over-the-middle guy.
My biggest issue with Brazill is his skills overlap far too much with the two healthy WRs ahead of him on the depth chart, TY Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If Brazill is the long-term solution to the Reggie Wayne problem, then I would expect Hilton and Brazill to spend most of their time split wide, while DHB, who has been abysmal on deep balls, moves inside.
2) Poach someone else's Practice Squad – I'm not a draftnik. I don't follow College Football enough to know the names of every WR on every NFL practice squad. Luckily, I trust Colts Authority's draftnik, Olly Dawes.  Here are some names he threw out there:
Tommy Streeter, Bills – 6'5", 219lbs and a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash, Streeter seems to possess all of the physical tools you need to not only be productive, but to be dominant. The problem? Streeter's mental game doesn't match his physical game. He needs work on his route running as well as his technique. Love the tools, but the Colts don't need another project.
Cobi Hamilton, Bengals – 6'2", 212lbs. Another man with a big frame who can make the tough catches. not the fastest guy (4.56 40), but quick enough to be productive. The problem? Route running (again, but that's not an uncommon issue with young receivers) , an inability to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage, and, according to Olly, an issue with drops. All of these are major issues for a guy expected to contribute on 3rd down.
Corey Fuller, Lions – 6'2", 204lbs, and a 4.43 40, Fuller, like Streeter, has all the physical tools you want in a receiver. Fuller falls short in a few areas. First, his route running and technique aren't great. More concerning, however, is a lack of physicality in both beating press coverage and in making catches in traffic.
Michael Preston, Titans – 6'5, 204lbs, 4.55sec 40. I looked and looked. I got nothing.  Guy is big and relatively fast, let's just guess: bad route runner, a bit of a project.
And that's the problem with anyone you poach off of someone else's practice squad: they are going to be a project AND they won't have had the benefit of at least practicing in your scheme the entire season. While any of these four may be better than someone like Da'Rick Rogers or Griff Whalen (I'm not saying they are), Rogers and Whalen have been practicing with the Colts for the past 8 weeks.  That matters.
Out of all of the Colts choices, this – signing a player from someone else's PS – is the one I least expect.
3) Make a trade – This is the route I believe GM Ryan Grigson will go. I'm not saying this is the route I would go, or that it's the right decision, but I strongly believe that this is the route he WILL go. Why?
a) The Colts roster remains at 52. While there's no real rush to promote someone from the practice squad, if Whalen or Rogers was in their immediate plans, why wouldn't they call them up now and remove the risk of some other team signing them first?
b) A series of tweets from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Why do these tweets make me think a trade is likely? "LaVon Brazill is the most talented, but he’s rusty after a suspension. David Reed is Mr. Consistency. Griff Whalen is fearless and an option."  Those don't read like Rapoport's personal scouting reports. As a matter of fact, I don't even know how he would build those scouting reports, since Brazill and Whalen have seen very little playing time at the NFL level and Reed has 5 catches. In his career.

Instead, they read to me like something a team "leaks" to the media when they are in the middle of trade negotiations and the asking prices are just a bit too high. You want HOW much? Well I happen to love the guys I have, I don't really need your guy. Look at it this way: if the Colts really wanted to get this message out to Colts fans, why use a national guy? Why not use any of the handful of local writers who do a great job at communicating with fans on a daily basis? Or, even better, why not use the twitter account of the owner, that seems to be the best way to get everyone's attention.

No, this was just the next step in a complicated dance that will likely go on until Tuesday morning (the day of the trade deadline). Grigson is still interested, he's just going to try to get prices down to a more-reasonable level.
So who's out there? Josh Gordon (Browns) and Hakeem Nicks (Giants) are the most oft-mentioned in these rumors. As a fan, I'm not really interested in either of these players. With Gordon, he has all the physical tools to be a dominant WR, but there are definite character issues. And after watching the Browns smartly move Richardson while he still held value, you'd have to wonder why they'd be willing to move a young, skilled WR such as Gordon.  With Nicks, talent is never a question, but an ability to stay on the field combined with an expiring contract are just enough to keep me away, unless he can be had for a late round pick.
Compounding issues is the Colts lack of cap space, which, as IndyStar's Stephen Holder points out, is sitting around $1.29MM. Now, you can massage the salary cap to make certain things work, but I'm not sure how much massaging Grigson can do mid-season.
Two names I think Grigson is interested in, that aren't really on people's radar, and would require some massaging are Falcons' TE Tony Gonzalez ($4MM base salary) and Cardinals' WR Larry Fitzgerald ($5MM base salary). The issue with Gonzalez is likely his unwillingness to "give up" on the Falcons' season and accept a trade.

The issue with Fitzgerald? While many may be surprised to see his name here, it actually seems plausible that he'll be moved within the next 12 months. The problem with doing it in-season? First, it would make it appear that the Cardinals, who are coming off of a 27-13 victory over the Falcons, have given up on the season. Second, Fitzgerald is the most-popular player on the Cardinals, and if the team hopes to continue to fill the stadium in yet another playoff-less year, they probably need Fitz on the field. Third, the Colts don't have their 2014 1st-round pick. The Cardinals would probably move him, but they need a package that makes it worth their while.  Would they be willing to hold off till the 2015 draft to reap the rewards of moving one of the best WRs in the entire NFL?

If the Colts can't acquire Fitzgerald (and while I'm sure Grigson is trying to, I don't expect him to), I believe the Colts priority should be a tight end. Everything they lost when Wayne went down – 3rd-down conversions, tough catches over the middle, a safety valve – are things that TE Dwayne Allen would have provided, if he were healthy. The Colts love to run the 2 TE sets. But neither Coby Fleener nor Jack Doyle provide the toughness and physicality of a Dwayne Allen. If Grigson can't find his #1 WR, he should be looking for a tough #2 TE.
Let me be clear: I do expect Ryan Grigson to make a trade. I'm not going to hedge my bets and say I expect him to try. He IS trying. I think he'll get it done. That's who he is. He sees what he's built, he sees a potentially weak AFC there for the taking. The riverboat gambler is going to shove all his chips to the center and see how it plays out.
Whatever the Colts do, whoever claims the 53rd roster spot and takes the field Sunday night against the Texans, they will be filling in for Reggie Wayne, but don't call them a replacement. There's only one Reggie (on the football field, anyhow), and he'll be back to claim his spot next year.