(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
First, let us be clear. This is not the "whopper,” Jim Irsay spoke of. At least, we don’t believe it is. A little over a week ago, the owner had Colts fans all speculating, and dreaming about whom the team was trying to sign as they worked on a mega deal to land a “whopper” at wide receiver. It was not unlike Christmas Eve, except Santa never came. The whopper deal never happened, and Irsay shifted gears to sign a backup quarterback instead (which he followed with the ‘soft pillow’ tweet). Thus, a vacancy remains at wide receiver.
This is the time in free agency to find players looking to sign one-year contracts and rebuild their careers or take one more shot at their dream. It’s the dollar menu of free agency, where teams can find decent players at a low cost. Enter, the Whopper Jr., better known as Darrius Heyward-Bey. Heyward-Bey, of course, would be the replacement for the departed Donnie Avery, who was, himself, a player looking to rebuild his career.
The problem is, despite his size and speed; it is difficult to say what the Colts will be getting. A marginal improvement? A horrid, drive-killing pass dropper? A misunderstood star? Based on the reaction to yesterday’s news of his scheduled visit to Indy, Colts Nation is split over Heyward-Bey. Thus, we’re going look at Heyward-Bey’s career, followed by the cases for and against signing the four-year NFL veteran.
(Update: Heyward-Bey is leaving Indianapolis without a contract and visiting the Lions today, according to the Detroit Free Press)
Whopper Jr.: The Backstory
Darrius Heyward-Bey (6-2, 216 pounds) was a star track athlete in high school and later joined the football team to make friends, according to his 2009 NFL Combine report. He ended up lettering as a wide receiver and an outside linebacker and went on to play football at the University of Maryland.
The offense Heyward-Bey played on in Maryland was a train wreck of inconsistency. Nevertheless, he was rated the third best wide receiver in the 2009 NFL Draft, with great size and strength, raw talent, and a blazing 4.3-second 40 time. The Oakland Raiders, ever in love with measurables, selected him with the 7th overall pick, passing over both Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. While Crabtree held out, and Maclin enjoyed a solid rookie season, Heyward-Bey withered under pressure and nagging injuries, catching just 9 passes on 40 targets.
By 2011 however, Heyward-Bey enjoyed the best, most productive season of his tumultuous career, hauling in 64 passes on 115 targets (55.6%) for 975 yards and 4 touchdowns in then-coach Hugh Jackson’s offense. He wasn’t ultra-consistent and still hadn’t become the elite receiver his team expected when they drafted him so highly, but he was finally thriving and being productive.
Heyward-Bey’s stats dropped off significantly under new coach Dennis Allen last season. He was knocked unconscious and hospitalized on September 23rd from an illegal hit from Steelers Safety Ryan Mundy. He finished the season with just 41 catches on 80 targets (51%) for 606 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The Case for Signing Heyward-Bey
Ryan Grigson and the Colts’ front are in serious need a wide receiver. In all likelihood, they will draft one. However, signing a mid to lower tier veteran to a small, “dollar menu” contract makes sense here. He can compete for playing time with Levon Brazill, one or more rookies, and even Graff Whalen, if he is healthy. Adding Heyward-Bey to the mix just increases the chance of finding a legitimate second or third receiver for 2013.
They will be vying to replace boom-or-bust speedster Donnie Avery, who struggled with drops all year but still managed to do enough to land a big contract with Kansas City. Like Avery, Darrius Heyward-Bey can line up on the outside and use his pure speed to get open, allowing Hilton or Wayne to work the slot. His size should help him snag more passes in traffic and over the middle than Avery, and those types of catches will be paramount in Pep Hamilton’s West Coast offense, which figures to be rife with horizontal routes.
Heyward-Bey wasn’t stellar in 2012, but he fared better than the man he could replace, ranking 63rd among receivers and posting a -6% DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Donnie Avery’s DVOA was -18.9%, helping him rank 82nd among NFL receivers. Heyward-Bey’s drop off year represented a significant gain over the best season of Donnie Avery’s career. And now, he will have the chance to play with the very talented Andrew Luck throwing passes his way.
Heyward-Bey looked tentative at times last year after taking that brutal hit that rendered him unconscious back in September. If he can get back to playing at or slightly above his 2011 level, he will be an improvement over his predecessor, and he can keep the spot warm until the Colts find their future number one receiver.
The Case against Signing Heyward-Bey
Some people are expecting this guy to come in and become a star. That is no fairer to him than it was for Oakland to harbor such lofty expectations. He just doesn’t possess that kind of potential. NFL players make the biggest leap of their careers between years one and two. If a player isn’t a difference maker by year three, he is either a backup or just another guy looking for a job. At 26, a run-of-the-mill player isn’t going to become suddenly great at football.
Sure, his DVOA was better than Avery’s was, but a whole slew of receivers had a better DVOA than the otherwise likeable Avery. Heyward-Bey’s catch rate last year was 51%, a drop off from 2011 (55.6%) and 10% less than his quarterback’s completion percentage. Avery’s catch rate was only 48%, but that was only 6% below Andrew Luck’s completion percentage. Even for a downfield threat, a receiver with a catch rate 10% below his quarterback’s completion percentage appears to be holding his offense back.
He had better find a way to improve, or Heyward-Bey stands a chance of actually being a downgrade from Donnie Avery. And the Colts have no time for that.
Fans expecting Darrius Hayward-Bey to become a breakout star at 26 years old will be sorely disappointed. That is not fair to the player, and was probably part of his undoing in Oakland. If such expectations were realistic, someone would have signed him already. For writing him off as a big, pass-dropping, butter-fingered failure, there is a chance of some self-loathing vindication. No fan truly likes being right about that, right?
The truth is this is not an ideal situation; signing a wide receiver who has struggled for most of his career for the second consecutive year. However, it could end up being a decent signing, which is all one can ask for this late in free agency.
While Heyward-Bey’s shot with the Colts could go either way, a realistic hope would be for him to be a solid contributor and slight improvement over Donnie Avery. It would be fair to hope for similar yardage output to Avery, with a lower ypc (because of the shorter West Coast routes) and higher catch rate. If he does not achieve a better catch rate than Avery does, it would be a disappointing signing.
Meanwhile, the team needs to be either developing or searching for their next top wide receiver, either through the draft or a mystery deal like the one Mr. Irsay teased us all about last week. If they draft a receiver who beats out Heyward-Bey, Brazill, and Whalen, all bets are off. Grigson should receive a medal, and Heyward-Bey might wish he’d signed somewhere he could get more playing time.
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