Since Peyton Manning arrived in Indianapolis in 1998, the organization made widespread changes in its philosophy and modified how it evaluated players at each position. Manning’s presence gave wide receiver the biggest boost.
Some will incorrectly assume that the Colts front office has scrambled relentlessly throughout Manning’s 13 seasons to shower him with a pool of highly drafted receivers, but only two first round receivers have joined the team — Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez — and they were drafted six years apart. The other primary contributors have been from the fourth round or lower, including many undrafted players. Jerome Pathon and E.G. Green were second and third round picks in 1998 but neither panned out.
Part of the reason Indianapolis did not have to rush around to find receiving talent is that future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison joined the team before Manning. His importance is recorded in NFL history books and he stands with Manning as the best statistical quarterback to receiver combination ever. One simply does not stumble upon another Marvin Harrison in the draft. The likelihood is minuscule and expecting it or waiting for it would be maddening.
How can it be that the Colts will have the best group of wide receivers in Peyton Manning’s career — if not franchise history — heading into the 2011 season without a sure-fire Hall of Famer at wideout?
First, it goes without saying that although Reggie Wayne did drop more passes than he typically drops in 2010, he was thrown to more than ever and is one of the league’s top receivers. If Wayne can manage to play through an entire season without the pain of a lingering knee-injury, he could put up a final dominant year or two before his career may start to trail off.
Second, Austin Collie has become the unquestioned “number two” receiver in Indianapolis — note receiver, not tight end. When healthy in 2010, Collie was arguably the most productive receiver in the NFL. Consider that in only nine games — three of them he was unable to finish, including one in Philadelphia which severely hinders his statistical averages — Collie put up 649 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. He was on pace to put up more than 100 receptions, 1150 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns.
Take out the Philadelphia game — still including early exits against New England and Jacksonville — and he was on pace to make 114 receptions, 1300 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns (would be good for second in receptions, fourth in receiving yards, and first in touchdowns in the NFL in 2010). All of that would be out of the slot, from a guy who is not even always on the field — due to different personnel groupings and offensive schemes.
Unfortunately, the jury is still out on Pierre Garcon and whether or not he will develop. Some have noted that numerous receivers, including the great Jerry Rice, have come into the league with a bit of trouble with their hands only to “get it” later in their career and truly take off. The problem with Garcon is less that his hands are brick and more related to mental errors — wanting to run before the catch, getting too excited when easy passes are on his way. Everyone knows that nothing fires up “the waiter” more than doing something with the football after the catch but that mentality has taken away opportunities for him, and cost the team downs and possessions far too often — except in the playoffs.
What makes Garcon’s uncertainty manageable is the presence of Gonzalez and undrafted free agent Blair White. Gonzalez has had the misfortune of suffering from knee and ankle injuries over the last two seasons but one thing should be sure to all Colts fans — when Gonzalez is healthy, he is a legitimate NFL receiving weapon. In fact, an intense debate took place in the Colts fan community prior to the 2010 season regarding whether the front office should start Garcon or Gonzalez, if both were healthy and ready to go. Even in 2011, if Gonzalez is healthy, the debate will rage on.
Blair White is another one of Bill Polian’s undrafted discoveries that could play a big role in the future of the Colts offense. Even first round receivers have a major learning curve as they enter the NFL and being a receiver with the Colts demands an even greater curve than possibly every other team in the NFL — due to a great deal of responsibility reading and reacting to defenders and running hot routes in sync with Peyton Manning. For an undrafted rookie to come in, as early as Week 3 against Denver — he got his first NFL touchdown in his first game — pick up the offense well enough to be targeted regularly by the best quarterback in the league, start four games, and generate 36 receptions, 355 receiving yards, and 5 touchdowns is extremely impressive.
White has had his share of trial by fire, school of hard knocks, developing by making mistakes in meaning game situations — to be sure. However, even highly drafted players who project 52 receptions, 516 yards, and 7 touchdowns over full rookie seasons would inspire confidence in their franchises that they will be ready to develop into legitimate NFL receiving threats.
In the Colts lone playoff game, White was targeted more than any other receiver and made 6 catches for 54 yards. There is little doubt that he should be retained in 2011, fill the punt return role — he did really well as the team’s punt returner — and provide excellent depth behind the Colts veterans.
The only concern for Indianapolis this off-season surrounds the question-marks that go along with some of these players. As mentioned, Gonzalez has not been healthy for two years. Garcon has yet to show consistency and dependability during the regular season. Collie suffered three concussions in consecutive games, after resting games in between. White did play well but also made some frustrating mistakes and unless he can work those out with Manning, those mental errors could limit his impact.
Trading a receiver for another position of need, or drafting a receiver has to be a very real consideration for the Colts front office in the face of these question-marks. It is rather unlikely that Indianapolis will select one early in the draft, unless Polian thinks the perfect player has fallen into his lap, but finding someone for insurance, other than Taj Smith, would not be a surprising move.
Either way, very few teams in the league — if any — can boast that they have five receivers on their roster who could legitimately start for the bulk of the other franchises. The 2011 Indianapolis Colts may be able to make that claim. If White, Gonzalez, Collie, and Garcon all return and develop, Manning will have the most dynamic and talented group of receivers in his career.