The storyline behind the Indianapolis Colts’ wide receivers is nearly as surprising as the defensive tackle position. Just one season ago, many pundits foretold the downfall of the Colts, due in part to the loss of future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison. Now, the Colts have arguably the most talented group of receivers in the NFL.
When Anthony Gonzalez went down with an MCL tear on the first offensive play of the regular season, it would have been easy to write the season off. No, not pack things in and hope to go .500, but suggesting in that moment that the Colts offense would be able to produce at levels capable of helping the team nearly go undefeated and reach the Super Bowl? Not a chance.
At least that would have been the popular perception around much of the league. Colts fans remained hopeful but they were depending on speedy development from a fourth round rookie and a second year, former sixth round, division III project receiver out of tiny Mount Union college. Banking on that happening seemed like a long-shot at best.
A year later, the Colts are in a far different position. Pierre Garçon’s physical development was outstanding, allowing him to abuse corners like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in just his third game as a starter. His speed made him a deep threat and his strength made him a formidable blocker and difficult match-up for corners trying to covering him on short routes.
Rookie Austin Collie proved worthy of a first or second round selection when he became the most productive rookie receiver in the 2009 NFL Draft class. By year’s end he was one of quarterback Peyton Manning’s favorite targets, particularly on third downs and near the goal line, as his seven touchdown receptions attest.
One year removed from his fluke injury, Gonzalez is healthy and has participated in Colts organized team activities. He suffered a hamstring injury that has “set him back” some but all indications lead to him fully participating in training camp and being ready for the beginning of the 2010 regular season.
Reggie Wayne is still on the roster and is coming off of a 100 reception, 1,264 yard, 10 touchdown season. He is the Colts unquestioned number one and is easily in the top 10 receivers in the NFL. Last summer he came into camp in the best shape of his career and with the development of Garçon and Collie there is a good chance that teams will be unable to focus as much attention on him, allowing him to be even more dangerous.
What makes the Colts receiver situation so intriguing this year is that the talent disparity between Garçon, Collie, and Gonzalez is small, with each of them capable of filling the number two spot if needed. It is unlikely that Collie would move outside but if he was asked, there is reason to believe that he would perform well and not serve as a liability in the Colts’ offense.
While it is hard to foretell the future of the receivers behind the Colts top four, there is a positive outlook for Giguere and Blair White. Giguere will be entering his third season with the team as a dual-threat, receiving and returning. White is an undrafted rookie free agent but has the look of a player with a bright future with a team like the Colts if he can learn the system and stay healthy.
Ultimately, the Colts are four deep with starting caliber receivers with little foreseeable drop-off if one of the receivers misses time. There are few, if any, other NFL teams who have the luxury of this position.
Comparing the Best
In order to determine whether the Colts group is the best in the NFL, we need to examine the deepest and most talented rosters on others teams.
Arizona – Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet
Baltimore – Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, Donte’ Stallworth
Cincinnati – Chad Ochocinco, Antonio Bryant, Andre Caldwell
Dallas – Austin Miles, Patrick Crayton, Roy Williams, Dez Bryant
Green Bay – Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones
Indianapolis – Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garçon, Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie
Minnesota – Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, Percy Harvin
New England – Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Torry Holt, Julian Edelman
New Orleans – Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore
New York Giants – Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks
New York Jets – Jerricho Cotchery, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes
Pittsburgh – Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antwaan Randle El
The first thing to do is eliminate any team with only three legitimate starting receivers. Even in the case that a team has three receivers together that are better than any collection of three Colts receivers, those teams are susceptible to injuries or missed time and do not have the overall talent of the Colts at face value. It’s hard to compare when you are a man short.
Teams like Arizona, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Minnesota, the New York Giants, the New York Jets, and Pittsburgh are out. This leaves Baltimore, Dallas, Indianapolis, New England, and New Orleans.
Baltimore’s receivers are good but Boldin and Mason steal the show. Clayton is not better than any of the Colts four receivers and Stallworth was out of football in 2009 serving a season-long suspension.
Dallas is potentially a real contender. Miles is comparable with Wayne, if he repeats his 2009 performance, while Williams and Crayton are solid receivers in their own right. The scales tip with Dez Bryant, one way or the other. If Bryant is as strong as some believe he will be, the Cowboys may have the deepest and most talented group of receivers in the league.
New England is top heavy with Moss and Welker. The intriguing development is whether Holt will have a starting caliber success this late in his career now that he has a quarterback like Tom Brady throwing to him. Julian Edelman has shown real promise filling in for Wes Welker. Still, it is fair to argue that the Patriots receivers are not quite as talented or deep due to age questions.
Along with Dallas, New Orleans has a very impressive group of receivers that could argue for the top spot. Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, and Lance Moore are solid NFL receivers, with Meachem and Moore both developing. At the very least, the Saints receivers’ age and talent levels are both impressive and certainly can keep pace with the Colts group.
In the end, the top receiver corps in the league likely belongs to either the Colts, Cowboys, or Saints. Who truly has the honor will likely not be known until the year plays itself out and each player’s development reveals itself. The potential development of a fifth wide receiver on each team could also play into how they should be rated.
Either way, the Colts have gone from a team with question-marks about how to move on from Marvin Harrison’s storied career, to a team with one of the most talented groups of receivers in the league. This season the Colts air game will be as dangerous as it has been at any point in Peyton Manning’s career.