Is T.Y. Hilton an Elite Wide Receiver in Fantasy Football?
As the 2014 season approached, many assumed the book on Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton had already been written. He was a pint-sized deep threat who would have an explosive yet inconsistent season in an offense loaded with other weapons. Sure, he would have his monster games due to his big-play ability, but they would be impossible to predict and his inconsistency would drive fantasy owners mad.
And that seemed like a probable narrative coming off a 2013 season where Hilton had 52 yards or fewer in 10 games, scoring touchdowns in only two contests. The offense ranked near the middle in the NFL in pass attempts, and the addition of Hakeem Nicks and a healthy Dwayne Allen and Reggie Wayne (who tore his ACL in Week 7 last year) seemed likely to siphon targets away from the young receiver.
But that script has clearly been rewritten in the early part of the 2014 season, with Hilton and the Colts passing offense producing at a much higher level than most anticipated. After a monster Week 6 performance against the Texans, it seems reasonable to ask if Hilton should join the ranks of the elite, or if he is likely to remain an inconsistent week-to-week player.
The Case for Elite Status
Through six weeks, Hilton ranks sixth in the NFL in targets with 59 and fourth in the NFL in yards per game with 100.7. According to our metrics, he's listed fourth in the NFL in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) at 49.94, behind only Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Jordy Nelson. He currently ranks ninth in fantasy points at wide receiver in standard scoring leagues and is fifth in the NFL in receptions with 40.
Heading into Week 6, our metrics had the Texans as the top-ranked pass defense in NEP, and Hilton did whatever he wanted against that secondary, securing all nine of his targets for 223 yards and a touchdown. Reggie Wayne was second on the team with just four catches. This season, Hilton has received nine or more targets in five of his six games, proving to be so much more than just a deep threat.
And the amazing thing about his season to this point is that he hasn’t come close to being the big-play weapon we know he can be. His longest reception on the year is 49 yards, and through six games, he's on pace to produce the lowest number of "explosive" plays (40 yards or more) in his short career.
It helps that Hilton is in an offense that ranks second in the NFL in Passing NEP at 85.86. Many presumed that Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton would continue to cap the ceiling on Andrew Luck and this passing game by continuing his stubborn dedication to Trent Richardson and the anemic running game, but Indianapolis is currently first in the NFL in pass attempts by a sizable margin. Luck is second in the league in Passing NEP behind only Philip Rivers, and he continues to look to Hilton as his primary weapon in this offense. The results have been impressive and this team shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, especially with Richardson still struggling to produce in the run game and Ahmad Bradshaw seemingly on a snap count.
At 5’9”, 178 pounds, Hilton will never be a jump ball red-zone target like Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones, but his ability to separate from defenders at will with his quickness allows him work his way open at every level of the field. Perhaps he has been unlucky with touchdowns as well, having a Week 5 red zone touchdown called back due to penalty and being tackled by the Texans at the 1-yard line in Week 6. We've seen similarly sized players like Steve Smith and Desean Jackson produce as top fantasy players, and it is far from unprecedented for small receivers to have prolonged success.
Obviously there's no guarantee that Hilton becomes a more consistent touchdown producer, but that's the only statistic that's holding him back from becoming an elite fantasy wide receiver. His targets, receptions and yards are on pace (or better) than the NFL elite, and he's now in the most pass-happy offense in the league that boasts the highest per game scoring average in football.
Hilton should be considered a top-10 receiver moving forward, with the upside to add to his fantastic early season numbers. If the touchdowns and explosive plays continue to come, he could very well end up as a top-five receiver for the rest of the season in this offense. Yet, even without the touchdowns or big plays, he's proven to be a reliable option for owners, possessing a much higher floor than in years past. And while that floor makes him a much safer week to week option in 2014, it's his ability to produce 20-plus point games that has him on the cusp of elite.
For now, he remains at least a part of that conversation, and fantasy owners are reaping the rewards.