Jan 11, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) catches a pass against the New England Patriots in the second half during the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Guest Post: T.Y. Hilton – In defense of Pep Hamilton (sort of…)

Editor’s note: Thanks to CA reader and friend of the site Ben Rathe for sending me this well-put-together piece on T.Y. Hilton’s usage last season. As always, we welcome any commentary or criticism that is well thought-out in order to facilitate discussion. You can follow Ben on Twitter here. – KJR

In his otherwise excellent piece over at Bleacher Report, Kyle repeated something about a player that I’ve heard dozens of times from Colts fans over the course of the last 10 months. The player is T.Y. Hilton and the accusation is that he’s, as Kyle put it, ‘underutilized.’ Others use different words but whichever turn of phrase you choose, the thrust is the same; that Hilton doesn’t get a fair bite of the proverbial cherry when it comes to the Colts offensive game-plan.

Hilton is an explosive playmaker who has made one of the best starts to an NFL career of any WR ever, so while there is arguably no upper limit on the number of times you get the ball in his hands, I don’t think that’s what people mean when they use words like ‘underutilized.’

To me, when people says he’s underutilized, they’re attacking the coaching staff for not getting him in the game enough, or putting other receivers in situations to succeed instead of Hilton.

There’s only one problem; it isn’t accurate. And set out below is my own statistical attempt to prove it. In order to do this, I’ve gone through a process of looking at how often Hilton was on the field , what he was actually doing when he was on there and how his usage compares to other receivers across the league.

And then I’ll tell you what the actual problem was.

Let’s kick off by looking at the pure snap counts for our WR core last year.

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Considering Pep’s love of running the ball, using the FB and running heavy sets with multiple tight ends or extra linemen, 73% is a surprisingly high number of snaps for a 5’9” receiver who weighs 183lbs. But pure snap counts can only be relied upon so far when judging a WRs use. They don’t take into account whether a player was targeted on a play, or indeed whether it was a passing play at all.

Fortunately, the folks over at PFF provide a better stat to truly measure a players use in the passing game: pass routes run. As the name suggests, this measures the number of times a receiver ran an out into a pattern on a pass play. This means you can actually look at how often a WR was out in a pattern & eligible to receive a pass, eliminating those plays where Hilton stood as the outside receiver as Trent Richardson ran into the backside of his offensive line for the 10th time that day.

So here’s how the Colts WR (+ leading TE Coby Fleener) stack up over the course of the regular season:

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So 533 routes in total, though it’s worth bearing in mind that this doesn’t take into account what happened on the play. So if Hilton runs a route and then the QB is sacked, or scrambles for rushing yards, then that will still count as a route run even if there wasn’t a pass attempt.

If you add together the total number of passes, sacks & QB runs (I don’t think there were any designed QB runs in the regular season) last year that gives the Colts a total of 677 ‘eligible’ passing plays last year, which means Hilton was an eligible receiver on nearly 80% of all Colts passing plays, a far greater number than any of the other receivers over the course of the year.

So we’ve established that Hilton was on the field for nearly three-quarters of all offensive snaps and was running a route on around 4 in 5 pass attempts the Colts had.  That’s great Ben, you’re saying (I hope…) but I’m still not convinced. Well that’s good, because I’m not QUITE done.

For most people, the most important measure of a receivers use is how often you attempt to get the ball in their hands. Players can be on the field and run as many routes as you like, but if the ball is not being thrown at them then they aren’t helping put points on the board and helping get wins.

If we take the above ‘routes run’ stat and then look at a players targets, it allows us to work out how often a player was targeted in comparison to how many routes they ran. This paints a much clearer picture than just looking pure targets, as it levels the playing field for players whose teams didn’t throw as much, or who were injured for some games. The results for TY Hilton are quite striking.

This is how Hilton compares to the rest of the Colts receivers.

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So not only was Hilton running more routes than any other receiver, he was more likely to get the ball than other receivers when running those routes as well.

And just before anyone comments about Wayne being injured skews the above figures, take a look at the split in just the first 7 weeks when Wayne was fully healthy.

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There are a couple of things to note about this:

  • Through the first 7 games, Hilton was more likely to be targeted than any other receiver, including a fully fit Reggie, when they ran routes.
  • Hilton’s target % was actually HIGHER in the first 7 weeks than the remainder of the season.
  • In the first 7 games, Hilton averaged 30 routes per game. In the final 9 games, he averaged 35 routes a game, so it wasn’t like he suddenly saw the field a dramatic amount more.

Now here is the bit that shocked even me when I was researching this article. I did the target % of every WR in the league and then eliminated those who had less than 90 targets, left me with a list of 41 receivers.

Remember, the point of this table is to illustrate the use of these receivers regardless of the system they are playing in.

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As you can see, Hilton is keeping some rather elite company in terms of his involvement. How many Browns fans were complaining that Josh Gordon wasn’t involved in the offensive system enough? I didn’t hear many Bears fans saying Alshon Jeffrey was ‘underutilized’. Did any Eagles fan say that DeSean Jackson wasn’t in the game plan enough? You get my point.

Heck, Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, Eric Decker & Jordy Nelson don’t even make it into the top 20.

So what’s all this really mean? Here’s my conclusion in two sentences:

T.Y. Hilton wasn’t underutilized in the Colts offense. Andrew Luck’s right arm was.

Now you may think this is just semantics, but it’s really important to differentiate between criticism about how one player is used in the offense and the offensive system itself. .

The fault with the Colts offense wasn’t that we didn’t pass to T.Y. Hilton enough. It was that we didn’t pass enough full stop.

There were 28 WRs in the league that ran more routes than Hilton. He ran 90 fewer routes than Brian Hartline. Think about that for a second.

I know this sounds like I’m arguing against myself, but bear in mind that I’ve already shown that Hilton was easily the most utilised receiver in the Colts offense and was targeted as much as some of the most elite receivers in the league. The problem wasn’t Hilton in the offense. It was the offense.

We have one of the premier QBs in the league and yet were 15th in pass attempts. Just look at what happens if you upscale Hilton’s stats to the passing levels of other elite QBs:

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So next time you’re tempted to complain how underutilized T.Y. Hilton was last year, stop. Instead write how underutilized the entire passing game was, because that’s the reality of the situation.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.

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