Who Will Step Up for the Colts If T.Y. Hilton Misses Time?
One of my favorite movies from the '90s is Bryan Singer's masterpiece, The Usual Suspects.
Beginning as a "whodunit" crime mystery, customs agent Dave Kujan interrogates Kevin Spacey's character, Roger "Verbal" Kint, a crippled, low-level con artist, in an attempt to determine the true identity of criminal legend Keyser Söze, the mastermind of a violent, botched heist.
The movie comes to a climax in one the biggest twist endings of all-time, (Spoler alert! Stop reading here if you haven't seen this movie in the 20 years it's been out) as Kint finishes his elaborate tale and leaves the station, his feigned limp turns into a swagger and it's revealed that Spacey's character was the legendary Söze himself.
I love this movie because it's always reminded me to expect the unexpected.
But what does this have to do with football?
Following T.Y. Hilton's recent knee injury suffered in the Colts Week 1 contest against the Buffalo Bills, many are wondering which of Indy's wideouts will step up in this offense if Hilton is unable to suit up.
Much has been said about the new additions to this team, with many heaping praise on Pro Bowl wideout Andre Johnson and first-round draft pick Phillip Dorsett. It would therefore make sense that the one to emerge should be one of these two receivers.
But as I've learned, things aren't always as they appear, and after a closer look it becomes obvious that neither of these receivers are the right man for that job.
Instead, just like the Spacey film described above, perhaps the one to fill the gap in Hilton's absence will be the one everyone least suspected.
The Usual Suspects
The obvious answer would be to expect newly acquired veteran wideout Johnson to step in and fill the void created if Hilton misses any playing time. But as I've said before, the obvious answer isn't always the right one.
Johnson's performance on Sunday perhaps was further proof that the Texans decision to move on from the aging wideout was a smart one. As our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason found, Johnson's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target of 0.38 in 2014 actually ranked him as the 86th out of 87 wideouts to receive at least 50 targets last season.
For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite.
So in 2014, in terms of contributions to his team's chances of scoring, Johnson was at the bottom of the barrel. And even after joining the Colts and getting a big upgrade at quarterback in Luck for 2015, Johnson continued this downward trend on Sunday by catching just 4 of 10 targets for 24 yards, resulting in a Reception NEP per target of just 0.26.
That's not the type of productivity someone looks for in a player you hope can step up to shoulder a bigger workload and fill an offensive void.
So what about the rookie Dorsett?
Dorsett burst onto the scene in Week 1 of the preseason with 4 catches for 51 yards, and many expected him to have the inside-track for the number three wideout job behind Hilton and Johnson. However, after receiving just three targets on Sunday, it's obvious that Dorsett's inexperience and inability to protect the football has relegated him, at least for now, to the same role that he previously held in Miami, one which kept him from catching more than 40 passes in any one season as a mere deep-threat one trick pony.
And while tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener serve as the big targets one looks for in excellent safety valves and red zone options, their relative lack of agility and top-end speed make them poor candidates to take on the type of routes the elusive Hilton is often asked to run in offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's offense.
So who will fill in for Hilton if he does indeed miss playing time this season?
Who Is Keyser Söze?
Despite everything that has been said about the pass catchers discussed above, of all the skill players on the Colts, the one that could pass them all and absorb the targets left behind by Hilton's injury is the one that's actually gotten the least press.
And that's because actions speak louder than words. When push came to shove this past Sunday, with the Colts trailing Buffalo by a wide margin and Luck needing someone to throw to in Hilton's absence, who did he look to?
None other than Donte Moncrief.
Luck's trust in Moncrief was evidenced by his 11 targets on Sunday, which was second only to Hilton's 14. But does Moncrief really have what it really takes to earn and thrive with an increased workload?
Well, if we're looking strictly at the physical tools at his disposal, the short answer to this question is yes.
Standing at 6' 2" and 221 pounds with 4.40 40-speed and an explosive 39.5-inch vertical leap and 132-inch broad jump, his comparables are some of the best athletes in the game. According to MockDraftable.com, Moncrief's Combine numbers place in the exact same company as Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson, Martavis Bryant, and Andre Johnson himself.
But Moncrief is so much more than just a physical specimen. He has the on-field skills one looks for in a wide receiver as well.
Moncrief has impressed with his excellent body control for a wide receiver of his size. He's also fearless in his route-running, willing to go after the tough yards down the middle of the field and -- unlike Johnson who has been criticized for his inability to separate from defenders nowadays -- Moncrief's size and speed allows him to eat up yards quickly and distance himself from opposing defenders.
All this combined has created a dangerous weapon in the Colts offense. Indeed, last year Moncrief averaged not only an amazing 9.06 yards per target in his rookie season (Antonio Brown averaged 9.44 to put things in perspective), but in terms of efficiency, his 0.73 Reception NEP per target actually tied him with Golden Tate, Charles Johnson, and Alshon Jeffery. Not bad company, if you ask me, though Jeffery and Tate did maintain that average on nearly 100 more targets than Moncrief did (he had 49 last year).
Among 51 receivers with between 30 and 80 targets last season, Moncrief's Reception NEP per target ranked him 13th.
It's clear that Moncrief has not squandered the few opportunities he's been given so far to impress in the NFL. And despite the small sample size, early indications are that Moncrief has what it takes to be a featured receiver in this Colts offense.
While not obvious on first pass, from what we've just discussed, it's clear why many expect Moncrief to start opposite Johnson if Hilton is forced to miss any time this season. Given his physical profile and on-field skills, one could argue he's actually a younger version of the All Pro wideout.
And from what we've seen so far from him, one could also argue that if he does indeed become the number two wide receiver on this squad, Moncrief just might work his way past Johnson on the depth charts to become Luck's go-to receiver.
While we're still unsure just how much time Hilton will miss with his current knee injury, if any, this much is certain, the Colts will indeed need to "Feed Moncrief."