The pass catchers headline this edition of Jay’s annual article series: 2023 Stat Projections
The Colts have one of the youngest receiving cores in the NFL heading into 2023. The average age of their top 6 WRs is 25.3, which is brought up by Free Agents Isaiah McKenzie (28), and Breshad Perriman (29). 3 of their top 4 TEs are 24 years old (all but Mo Alie-Cox at age 29). With the younger players likely being starters, it’s clear the youth movement in the receiving game is the priority.
How will this young group of pass catchers do in Year 1 of Anthony Richardson at QB and Shane Steichen at HC?
|Colts 2023 WR Receiving Projection|
|Michael Pittman Jr||Alec Pierce||Josh Downs||Isaiah McKenzie||Breshad Perriman||Ashton Dulin||TOTAL|
|Yards Per Catch||12.2||14.7||10||9.5||13.7||9.5||12.1|
Michael Pittman Jr. WR1 Yet Again
Michael Pittman Jr. is the clear leader amongst the Colts receiving targets. As the WR1 for the last 2 seasons, he has had 270 targets, 187 receptions, 2,007 yards, and 10 TDs. This is in spite of the Colts instability at QB. Instead of catching passes from veterans like Phillip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Nick Foles, or Day 3 QBs like Sam Ehlinger, he now has the opportunity to catch passes from a young, highly drafted QB in Anthony Richardson. How would MPJ’s stats rank in year 1 with Richardson?
Based on 2022 Stats, out of 60 WRs (min. 68 targets), MPJ’s 2023 stat line would rank:
- Targets: T18th
- Receptions: T16th
- Catch %: 27th
- Yards: T21st
- Yards Per Reception: 31st
- Drops: T18th
- Drop %: T14th
- TDs: T30th
Michael Pittman Jr. would continue to be a solid WR1 for the Colts in 2023. He might not be the most flashy player, but Pittman’s dependability is huge for the young Colts receivers. He has yet to get 1,100 yards or 7+TDs, and he isn’t the fastest receiver downfield. But MPJ wins with a well-balanced game of sure hands, solid route running, strong contested catch ability, and some powerful running after the catch.
PFF ranked Michael Pittman Jr. at No. 30 among WRs, calling him an ‘outstanding possession receiver.’ https://t.co/FBw0ux9FA4
— TheColtsWire (@TheColtsWire) June 11, 2023
With yet another solid season, the Colts should look to extend their young top pass catcher. The 25-year-old is now in the final year of his contract and could be extended either before, during, or shortly after the 2023 season.
WR2: Alec Pierce vs Josh Downs
Behind Michael Pittman Jr. the question remains: who will step up as the 2nd option behind Michael Pittman Jr.? 2022’s 2nd option was Parris Campbell with a breakout in Year 4 as he finally emerged healthy. Now Campbell has been signed by the Giants in Free Agency, taking his 91 target share with him. Who will fill the void?
As of now, the 2 most likely answers are the Colts latest Day 2 WRs from the last 2 drafts: Alec Pierce or Josh Downs.
The Case for Alec Pierce
Alec Pierce’s rookie year was marked with flashes, yet inconsistency. After a slow start (2 targets but 0 catches in week 1, inactive week 2), Pierce caught fire over the next 6 weeks. From Weeks 3-8, Alec Pierce had: 36 targets, 24 catches, 373 yards, 15.54 yards per catch, and 1 TD. That one TD was especially memorable, as it was the game-winner late vs division rival Jacksonville in front of a raucous crowd of Colts fans.
— Chris Shepherd (@NFLscheme) October 16, 2022
Once OC Marcus Brady was fired in Week 9 and Jeff Saturday was installed as the interim HC in Week 10, Pierce failed to make as consistent of an impact. The shuffling of QBs didn’t help matters either. In the final 9 weeks of the season, Pierce had: 40 targets, 17 catches, 220 yards, and 1 TD. Predominantly being used on deep or intermediate routes, the Colts QB’s inability/unwillingness to throw deep hurt him down the stretch.
Enter Anthony Richardson & Shane Steichen. Steichen’s Offenses have ranked 6th and 8th in Average Depth of Target the last 2 seasons. A disciple of Norv Turner, the former Eagles OC loves vertical route concepts and gives his receivers a solid amount of deeper targets.
And as for Richardson’s impact on the deep passing game, flashback to my previous article on Anthony Richardson‘s deep throwing impact:
“After Matt Ryan (only 4.3% of his throws were 20+ yards), Nick Foles (20% completion % on throws 20+ yards), and Sam Ehlinger (15.4% completion % on throws 20+ yards) at QB in 2022, the deep passing game needs a spark. Enter Richardson with both the willingness (19.9% of throws were 20+ yards at Florida), and the deep ball placement (40% completion % on 20+ yard throws) to challenge defenses vertically.”
Additionally, Richardson ranked in 2022 (among 143 qualifying QBs) for deep passing:
- 19.4% Attempt % = 28th
- 40.6% Completion % = 49th
- 1000 Yards = 16th
- 25% Big Time Throw % = 62nd
- 1.5% Turnover Worthy Play % = 10th
- 93.1 Passing Grade = 20th
With one of the better deep ball passers in the NCAA coming to the Colts who love to air it deep & have one of the highest volume deep ball systems coming to town, Pierce is due for a bigger role in 2023. One of the most athletic WRs in the NFL, Pierce’s ability to stack CBs vertically and win contested catch situations should make him a favorite target of Richardson’s.
The Case for Josh Downs
A fellow rookie of Anthony Richardson’s, Josh Downs, has already got an early shot at reps with his new QB.
Colts rookie receiver Josh Downs, on Day 1 of rookie camp, says he went out to catch balls from Anthony Richardson in the hotel parking lot last night. Didn’t want to waste any time.
— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) May 5, 2023
Josh Downs is the most natural fit to fill the “Parris Campbell” role in the Colts WR room. Parris Campbell played in the slot 82% of the time in 2022 and Josh Downs played in the slot 89% of the time. Campbell’s Average Depth of Target was 8.6, Downs’ was 8.8. Being used as an underneath slot weapon in an Offense that uses short passes 68% of the time could turn into a high-volume rookie season.
Want to help your new rookie QB who has to work on accuracy?
Get him a player like Josh Downs. He plays well above his size on contested catches. Had a 72.2% win rate on contested catches. And only a 3.1% drop rate. Just get the ball near him!
— Landon Oliver (@Landon3MR) April 29, 2023
Downs himself is one of the more polished WRs coming out in the 2023 draft. He might not have the same top speed as Parris Campbell (4.48 speed vs 4.31 speed) Downs possesses elite quickness and agility. This aided by his polished route running and smooth hands, Downs emerged as one of the most reliable WRs of the NCAA over the last 2 years. His ability to win vs the press despite his size, and against both man and zone coverage gives him a high floor. He might not be the most creative runner after the catch, but Downs is an expert and creating separation and securing the ball. This skill set should give him an excellent opportunity to make an immediate impact for the Colts in 2023.
WR4: Isaiah McKenzie VS. Breshad Perriman
The Colts added two new WRs this offseason in Free Agency: Isaiah McKenzie from the Bills and Breshad Perriman from the Bucs. Both are speedsters who can stretch the field vertically and horizontally with their elite speed. But both also struggle with consistency, especially with their hands.
#Colts adding depth to their WR room.
Isaiah McKenzie totaled career highs of 42 catches for 423 yards last year. He caught four touchdowns and scored one more on the ground.
The 5-foot 8, 27-year-old brings an element of speed and playmaking to Indy. https://t.co/ByQSRUW35D
— James Boyd (@RomeovilleKid) March 21, 2023
McKenzie has 4.42 speed but is undersized at 5’7 173 lbs. He has played in the slot 71.4% of his 6-year career and will likely be the top backup slot behind Josh Downs. Downs is currently dealing with a minor knee injury from OTAs but should be healthy for Camp. Should Downs miss any time during the season, McKenzie will be in for a major role increase. However his difficulties in catching could limit his impact. he has a career drop rate of 6.7%, including 5 drops (10.2%) in 2022.
Perriman, on the other hand, has one of the freakiest athletic profiles you will see. Boasting a 9.95 RAS score with 4.26 speed on a 6’2 213lb frame, it’s not hard to see what the Ravens were enticed by with the 26th pick in the 2015 Draft. However, despite his physical gifts, Perriman has yet to break out in his 7-year career. Journeying from Ravens, Browns, Bucs, Jets, and back to the Bucs again, Perriman hasn’t stuck around long-term on a team for a reason. His hands are some of the worst in the NFL. A career drop rate of 10.4% is egregious. His separation in his career is because of his athletic gifts than route running, so he is best as a go route runner. Predominantly an outside receiver (69% of his career), he should provide depth behind Alec Pierce in particular for his deep ball skillset.
Ashton Dulin: Special Teams Ace
The final WR spot has to go to one of the best special teams gunners in the NFL. Ashton Dulin was re-signed this offseason on a 2-year deal worth $7.2m. The team clearly values his skills on Special Teams. But with the subsequent arrivals of McKenzie, Downs, and Perriman, Steichen has made it a priority to add more depth at WR to fit his scheme.
Dulin could potentially push Perriman or McKenzie for the WR4-5 roles, and I see him as a safe bet to make the roster. However, Dulin might have his work cut out for him against the highly athletic vet WRs.
|Colts 2023 TE Receiving Projection|
|Jelani Woods||Kylen Granson||Mo-Alie Cox||Will Mallory||TOTAL|
|Yards Per Catch||12.6||9.3||11||8||11.2|
Jelani Woods Takes Top TE Spot
One of the most athletic TEs in NFL testing history, Jelani Woods has an opportunity to rise to the TE1 spot in year 2. The 2022 3rd-round pick has a new coaching staff in town, which means fresh eyes on Woods. Steichen loves athletic freaks and could see Woods as his next Dallas Goedert at some point.
If any Colts tight end has the ability to play the starring role Dallas Goedert played in Philadelphia, it’s probably Jelani Woods. https://t.co/UEBzLFMJkX
— IndyStar (@indystar) June 13, 2023
The Virginia product showed flashes as a rookie, but his role was limited at times. The former QB turned TE had a steep development curve, but emerged as the best blocking TE for the Colts in 2022. He still needs to hone his craft in route running and more consistent hands. However, he offers a huge catch radius, phenomenal deep speed, and strong acceleration to be used in a variety of ways for the Colts Offense.
If you ever wondered what it would look like if humanity trained a pissed off moose to catch a football, I give you Virginia TE Jelani Woods. pic.twitter.com/HPHpdW2RPT
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) March 10, 2022
His biggest issue is there might be a ceiling on TE targets in 2023. Anthony Richardson threw only 30 targets in 330 attempts to TEs in 2022 (9.09%). Steichen’s Eagles O did target TEs 21.3% of the time from 2021-2022, but that was with a proven Dallas Goedert at TE1. The Colts TEs earn 20.3% of the target share in the 2023 projections, but Richardson’s inexperience targeting TEs and the intermediate areas of the field could hurt the TEs in general. Woods could be the TE1 in snap counts but will have competition in targets with the Colts most polished receiving TE.
Kylen Granson Keeps TE2 Role
Kylen Granson is entering the vaunted Year 3 for TEs. Typically it takes 3 years for TEs to become “fantasy football viable”. Will the 3rd year TE out of SMU make that year 3 leap?
Sadly due to the lower volume and target share of TEs in Year 1 with Richardson, Granson likely won’t get that leap. Woods’ development could hurt his starting role and push him back to TE2 as the year goes on. His lack of blocking skills also hurts his total snap count viability. Adding Downs and McKenzie as slot receivers also could cut down on his “big slot snaps”. The Eagles under Steichen didn’t run as many 2TE sets as the Colts previous coaching staff. Empty theory sets could help him, but how much he will be in those sets remains to be seen.
Kylen Granson should be a nice weapon for the Colts’ next HC/QB in 2023. Just gotta get him the ball in space and let him go to work. pic.twitter.com/SYVSLMbPCj
— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 29, 2023
Kylen will still show himself to be a reliable receiving option when called upon. He is easily the best separator and route runner of the TE room. His hands are fairly reliable and he generates solid YAC. His limitations in the red zone due to his smaller size and his lack of blocking ability ultimately curb his upside in a lower-volume passing attack.
The End Of The MAC?
Amongst the offensive starters of 2022, perhaps no one is on a hotter seat more than Mo Alie-Cox. The veteran TE hasn’t stepped up as a blocking TE post-Jack Doyle. Nor has he developed his routes as a receiver to become a consistent threat in the middle.
One year into his 3-year, $17.2m extension, Mo Alie-Cox is in danger of a roster cut. After drafting 4 TEs in the last 3 years, the pressure is on. The Colts also added several blocking TEs as well: Kaden Smith & Pharaoh Brown in Free Agency. The competition is fierce for roster spots in Indy.
Woods & Granson are the safest bets to stay on the roster… outside of that it depends on how much you think Tom Manning still loves MAC
— Jay Robins 🧾mark (@RobinsLucas) May 24, 2023
With Shane Steichen now as the Head Coach, the Colts will have fresh eyes on the TE room. This could open the door for big changes to the depth chart. I project Mo Alie-Cox retains a role as a blocking TE but gets passed by Woods in the starting lineup. He still has enough high-end, athletic upside and has shown to be an effective blocker prior to 2022. He also has a big fan in TE coach Tom Manning backing him. His role might diminish, but his roster spot could still be secured for now.
Will Mallory Wins TE4 Battle
Behind the 3 returning TEs from 2022, the TE4 is a big question mark. As of now, it is anyone’s guess between the two aforementioned Free Agent blocking TEs, 2022 draft pick Andrew Ogletree coming off of injury, or rookie Will Mallory.
Colts rookie TE Will Mallory is an upper percentile athletic move tight end.
He’s great at adjusting to throws, a burner in the open field, and has a nose for finding soft spots vs zone.
Mallory’s route tree: fades, seams, digs, crossers, drags, hitch, screens, and sweeps. pic.twitter.com/uSpTbBGa0M
— Zareh Kantzabedian (@ZKantzFF) May 14, 2023
As of now, I have Mallory winning the job. They liked him enough to draft him in Round 5 even with such a crowded room already. The fastest TE in the 2023 Draft is an electric playmaker in space. Steichen loves plus athletes, so there is a good chance for Mallory to make the roster. His role might be small in year 1 but he could be due for a bigger role later on in his career.
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