With both the return of Reggie Wayne from an ACL tear and the signing of free agent Hakeem Nicks, it now begs the question as to what we can reasonably expect for the placement of Colts’ wide receivers in 2014. Gone are the days of Reggie Wayne always aligned on the left side, Marvin Harrison on the right, and Brandon Stokley handling slot duties during the “Peyton Manning Era” of Colts’ football. However, in what roles are the Colts’ current group of receivers most effectively utilized?
Up until former Offensive Coordinator (now Arizona Cardinals’ head coach), Bruce Arians, arrival in 2012, Reggie Wayne was almost always aligned on the outside left of the Colts’ formation. Arians used a multitude of formations and kept Wayne frequently in motion to keep opposing defenses off-balance and continuously guessing. The result paid dividends, as Wayne rebounded from an mediocre 2011 season in which he caught 75 receptions for 960 yards and 4 TD’s to post 106 receptions for 1,355 yards and 5 TD’s in 2012. While some of this is directly attributable to the massive upgrade that is QB Andrew Luck (even as a rookie) over Curtis Painter, there’s no question that Wayne thrived in his newfound slot receiver role, as according to TheFakeFootball.com:
Back to Wayne, briefly: Only Wes Welker – the everlasting slot machine – ran more routes out of the slot in 2012, with Wayne drawing a whopping 90 targets on 421 slot routes (61 percent of his total routes). He caught 48 of those 90 targets for 679 yards and two touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Wayne saw the third most targets of any wide receiver (179), trailing only Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson.
Renowned NFL Films Analyst, Greg Cossell, praised the new maneuvering of Wayne by Arians, commenting:
“The thing for people who remember Reggie Wayne with Peyton Manning, when he pretty much lined up on the left side every single snap — he’s all over the formation in terms of where he starts and finishes his routes,” Cosell said during the Nov. 2 Shutdown Corner podcast. “This is what coaches look at when they game plan, and this is the concept we’ve talked about before — receiver distribution and location. Where do receivers line up? What routes do they run? They know that if Reggie Wayne runs his inside route off the hip of the tight end, he’s going to run certain routes. And he’s running such a variety of routes right now — far more than he ran with Peyton Manning.”
Heck, even the Colts’ Arch-Rival, New England Patriots’ Head Coach, Bill Belichick, had nothing but positives to say about Reggie Wayne in the slot in 2012:
“They’ve moved him around a little in the past, but not much,” Belichick said of Wayne, the NFL’s leader in receiving yards since 2001 with 12,639. “He’s like Hines Ward. They motion him a lot, he’s blocking, cracking, lining up close to the formation. He’s in the slot. He’s been doing a lot of things that Hines Ward did in Pittsburgh. It’s interesting to see him in that role, but he’s always been good at whatever he’s done.”-Bill Bellichick
So did Reggie Wayne’s role change with new Offensive Coordinator, Pep Hamilton’s offensive scheme in 2013? Not really, even while the team went to a more “power running” oriented attack. Wayne played in the slot quite a bit, just as he did with Arians the season prior. In fact, even after his Week 7 season-ending knee injury against the Broncos, Wayne was still used to read slot coverage for T.Y. Hilton in the following week against the Houston Texans:
“Reggie Wayne tore his ACL against the Broncos on a close win at home. It seemed that Wayne’s season was over with the Colts but he still wanted to help as much as he can. Therefore, with the help of Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, Reggie Wayne got the title and role of assistant wide receivers coach. His role probably saved the game as Wayne had the duty of checking the slot coverage to see if the Colts can take advantage. And the Colts took advantage indeed.”
As a direct result of his slot play, Wayne has shown some resurgence in his career, as his Offensive Coordinators have moved him around in formations. He’s thrived when utilized in his recent slot role, but he’ll likely be sharing some of the slot duties with…
Prior to Wayne’s injury, Hilton wasn’t significantly used in the slot. In fact, according to ESPN’s Mike Wells:
He was in the slot on 26 percent of his routes, targeted 23 percent of the time, and produced 22 percent of his 27 receptions heading into Houston.
After Reggie Wayne’s injury, his slot utilization was closer to 50%. Hilton just didn’t play the slot though, he flourished in his new role. It’s where he exploded in the AFC Wildcard Playoff game against Kansas City, on his way to racking up 13 receptions for 224 yards and 2 TD’s. Our friends at ProFootballFocus (PFF) went as far as to rate him as a Top 5 Slot Wide Receiver in all of the NFL at yards per route:
With this being the case, it appears that there’s a strong chance that we’ll see both Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton alternating reps in the slot. Wayne at 6’0″, 203 lbs, provides Luck with a bigger, possession receiver (and target) to work with over the middle. While T.Y. Hilton at 5’9″, 178 lbs, gives the offense a rare deep speed threat and more big play potential. It’s a good dilemma to have for the team, as it allows the team to flip Wayne and Hilton all over the formation without really losing a beat from the slot receiver position. One guy that likely won’t factor much into the slot receiver equation is…
Hakeem Nicks has been best utilized throughout his career with the New York Giants as an outside receiver, helping to free up Giants’ natural slot receiver, Victor Cruz:
When the Giants offense has been at its best in recent years, it has featured Hakeem Nicks winning battles on the outside often enough to draw extra defensive attention that would then open things up for Victor Cruz to do damage out of the slot.
It doesn’t appear to me that his role with the Colts will change much, except it’s unclear whether he’ll line up predominantly on the left or right side under Pep Hamilton’s direction. With the Giants, he played more on the right side, but still saw ample reps on the left side as well. One thing is for certain, if he can return to his prior form, it will provide either Wayne or Hilton far more cushion to work with in the middle.
The Colts are facing a pretty favorable problem, as far as who to play in the slot with both Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton being effective in that role. It will give Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton tremendous flexibility with the formations, assuming Reggie Wayne can make a full recovery from ACL surgery. This, in turn, will keep opposing defenses off-balance, as the Colts will be able to throw out a variety of differing looks.
One player, who can certainly make the life of either Wayne or Hilton easier in the slot is freshly signed, Hakeem Nicks. Having been primarily used as an outside receiver during his entire 5-year career with the Giants, Nicks will look to free up the inside by keeping opposing defenses honest on the outside. If he can regain some of his prior form, “The Big 3” of the Colts’ receiving corps could create quite a few headaches for opposing defensive coordinators in 2014.