Michael Pittman Jr. and Josh Downs have been positives for the Indianapolis passing game in 2023. Unfortunately, the same is not true for former second-round pick Alec Pierce. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pierce has shown flashes in his time with the Colts, but his consistency on a week-to-week basis is noticeably lacking.
We can’t pin it all on the Cincinnati product, especially after such a whirlwind rookie season that saw him catching passes from a washed-up Matt Ryan and an in-over-his-head Sam Ehlinger. Oh yeah, and how could we forget the corpse of Nick Foles, too? All joking aside, the quarterback position was a mess for most of the 2023 campaign.
Colts Need Consistent Output From Alec Pierce
This offseason, the Colts made sweeping changes across the board. They used the No. 4 overall selection on Anthony Richardson while also signing journeyman QB Gardner Minshew to serve as the veteran presence in the quarterback room. The fan base has already witnessed the benefit of having both signal-callers in tow, as each has played a crucial role in the team’s 3-2 record.
The changes didn’t stop at quarterback. Perhaps even more exciting was the addition of new head coach Shane Steichen. The former Eagles’ offensive coordinator filled the vacancy left by Frank Reich and then Jeff Saturday. During his time in Philly, Steichen was credited with developing a high-octane attack around a still-developing Jalen Hurts.
Many thought the first-time head coach could do the same with an even more talented Anthony Richardson. And those people were correct. Through five weeks of the year, Richardson has missed time with a slew of injuries. But he has proven to be a difference-maker already in his limited action. From his unprecedented rushing prowess to his otherworldly arm strength, the 21-year-old is a cheat code for Steichen and the Indy offense.
One player who was expected to benefit from the Richardson/Steichen acquisitions is Alec Pierce. In theory, his skillset should mesh perfectly with the traits of Richardson and the play-calling style of Steichen. For whatever reason, the triumvirate hasn’t been able to get things going. Let’s take a deep dive into the analytics in search of an answer as to why Pierce has struggled to make an impact in Year 2.
Pierce Struggles To Separate From Defenders
Via NextGenStats, Pierce creates separation at a bottom-five clip in the entire NFL. Ultimately, the eye test matches the analytics in this category. Too often, Pierce can’t even fit a loose sheet of printer paper between himself and the nearest defender.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Contested catches are a fixture in Pierce’s game, dating all the way back to his time as a Bearcat. I get it; I watched the tape, and he was spectacular in college at coming away with the football. On Sundays? He still has a solid track record of completing these plays, albeit at a lower frequency.
Pierce’s Yards Per Route Run Ranks Woefully Low
Pierce is only compiling 0.70 yards per route run in 2023, far below the league average. Comparatively, the young receiver posted a 1.24 number in that department as a rookie. It is worth mentioning that Pierce’s average depth of target has increased by 5.3 yards, so a dip in efficiency is not alarming in a vacuum.
However, this section highlights two things. Pierce has not earned the trust of Richardson or Minshew — not yet. Also, Steichen doesn’t trust the second-year wideout enough to send him on his trademark deep shots downfield. That is less of an indictment on his talent and more of a knock on his ability to get open at any level of the field.
55.2 Receiving Grade (via PFF)
PFF grades are extremely subjective and should always be used with a grain of salt. That being said, the process of compiling the stats used for grading is typically done in good faith. According to PFF, Pierce ranks woefully low amongst his peers in the NFL.
To his credit, he has yet to drop a pass this season, but with only 16 targets in five games, is that really such an impressive feat? Going further, Pierce’s inability to separate — and his career-low yards per route run — do not mix well with lackluster output.
The Solution For The Colts: More Responsibility For Alec Pierce Or Make A Trade?
Obviously, the first option is the one all Colts fans are rooting for. If Pierce can realize his sky-high potential, the Colts would have both him and Downs tied to the franchise on cheap rookie deals. Maybe all Pierce needs is to have the same quarterback play for multiple weeks in a row. It would be difficult to develop chemistry while alternating between Richardson and Minshew.
But perhaps there is a reason Steichen hasn’t trusted Pierce with his normal workload. He sees and knows far more than us, after all. If that is the case, it would behoove Colts general manager Chris Ballard to seek a trade for a more stable third fiddle in the passing game.
Guys like Davante Adams and hometown product Terry McLaurin garner most of the attention in trade target articles. Both would be potential home run additions for the Colts, though they will cost a considerable amount in return. Jerry Jeudy and Mike Evans present the more likely options due to other factors, including more moveable contracts.
Either way, Michael Pittman Jr. and Josh Downs need help in the passing game. Even with Anthony Richardson slated to miss the next month (or more), the addition of another reliable pass catcher could be the final push needed to transform this Shane Steichen offense into a juggernaut.
But they won’t give up on Alec Pierce, regardless. Here’s to hoping he can become more than a situational jump-ball specialist.
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