Will T.Y. Hilton Copy Cobb or Cash-Out?


Last week, Indianapolis Colts fans drew a collective breath of air, as the team’s star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton made national headlines by this tweet, regarding the Dallas Cowboys Dez Bryant and Denver Broncos Demaryius Thomas‘ newly inked mega-deals:

It’s led many to wonder whether Hilton, who’s entering the last year of his current rookie contract, will chase every last dollar in next year’s free agency to become one of the NFL’s highest paid wide receivers or give the Colts a potential “hometown” discount.

Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) against the Denver Broncos in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Colts defeated the Broncos 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Already faced with the tall task of making their franchise player Andrew Luck the highest paid player in NFL history on a deal that could pay him $25 million annually, the Colts don’t necessarily have ample cap space at their disposal to throw exorbitant cash at Hilton too. Especially, when the team still has long-term extensions to consider for other members of their young core such as Anthony Castonzo, Dwayne Allen, and Coby Fleener.

There’s no question that Hilton at 25 years old is a rising star at wide receiver. He’s coming off a breakout season with the Colts in which he caught 82 receptions for 1,345 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns, all as Luck’s primary go-to target. His exceptional play was rewarded as he was named to his 1st Pro Bowl and was named #35 in the NFL’s Top 100.

However, Hilton may be looking to become of the NFL’s highest paid wide receivers and join the likes of Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, and Demaryius Thomas with an upwards of $40 million guaranteed in his next deal (numbers via Spotrac):

  • Calvin Johnson (2012-19): 7 years, $113.45M (Avg: $16.20M), $53.25M Gtd.
  • Dez Bryant (2015-19): 5 years, $70M (Avg: $14M), $45M Gtd.
  • Demaryius Thomas (2015-19): 5 years, $70M (Avg: $14M), $43.5M Gtd.

While Hilton is a star wideout receiver in his own right, he’s not necessarily a superstar wideout like those other three wideouts armed with mega-deals. Consider what each of those aforementioned wideouts did in the year before signing their most recent mega-contract compared to Hilton this past season:

  • Calvin Johnson (2011): 96 receptions for 1,681 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns
  • Dez Bryant (2014): 88 receptions for 1,320 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns
  • Demaryius Thomas (2014): 111 receptions for 1,619 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns
  • T.Y Hilton (*2014): 82 receptions for 1,345 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns

Make no mistake about it. Hilton is an incredible deep threat and explosive playmaker for the Colts prolific passing offense, but he doesn’t strike me as a wideout who can consistently beat a double team and is open, even though he’s seemingly covered, like those other bigger and stronger superstar wideouts:

  • Calvin Johnson: 6’5″, 236 pounds
  • Dez Bryant: 6’2″, 220 pounds
  • Demaryius Thomas: 6’3″, 229 pounds

At just 5,9″, 178 pounds, Hilton isn’t the best red zone option compared to some of his super-sized wide receiver contemporaries, as he’s more of in the “DeSean Jackson mold” as a big-play wideout than big target.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

While Hilton assuredly extends drives and moves the chains, often in big chunks, he has yet to reach double-digit touchdowns in a single season. A feat that each member of the aforementioned superstar wide receiver trio had accomplished at least 3 times each before inking their new deals respectively.

Dec 7, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) celebrates with guard Jack Mewhort (75) after scoring the game winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns during the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Cots won 25-24. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

That being said, no one can really blame Hilton for potentially maximizing his career earnings and pursuing the biggest NFL contract possible in dollars. Each NFL player comes from their own unique background, some much rougher than others, and it’s really no one’s place except Hilton and his family’s to tell him what he can and can’t do, especially with the typical NFL career seemingly so short.

It’s true that the Colts took a chance on Hilton by selecting him in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of unheralded Florida International, but beyond that, he doesn’t exactly owe them anything extra. Hilton’s set to play on the last year of his rookie contract, which will pay him $1.705M this season, i.e. relative peanuts in today’s NFL for a wideout of #13’s proven ability. At his contract’s end, he’ll have given the Colts presumably four terrific seasons, all at a significant discount.

However, the Colts do have one significant advantage for Hilton that not many other NFL teams can offer, an elite quarterback to play with for the better part of the next decade in Luck. Oftentimes, a wide receiver is only as good as his quarterback play, as it typically takes “two to tango” for a wideout to achieve great success.

For instance, history has shown us how a wide receiver’s production can drastically differ depending on who’s throwing him the football in just one season:

Exhibit A:

  • Randy Moss, Oakland Raiders (2006): QB Andrew Walter (8 gms), Aaron Brooks (8 gms)
    • 42 receptions for 553 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns
  • Randy Moss, New England Patriots (2007): QB Tom Brady (16 gms)
    • 98 receptions for 1,493 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns

Exhibit B:

  • Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts (2011): Curtis Painter (8 gms), Dan Orlovsky (5 gms), Kerry Collins (3 gms)
    • 75 receptions for 940 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns
  • Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts (2012): Andrew Luck (16 gms)
    • 106 receptions for 1,355 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns

Exhibit C: 

  • Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos (2011): QB Tim Tebow (11 gms), Kyle Orton (5 gms)
    • 32 receptions for 551 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns
  • Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos (2012): QB Peyton Manning (16 gms)
    • 94 receptions for 1,434 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns

Exhibit D: 

  • Eric Decker, Denver Broncos (2013): QB Peyton Manning (16 gms)
    • 87 receptions for 1,288 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns
  • Eric Decker, New York Jets (2014): QB Geno Smith (13 gms), Michael Vick (3 gms)
    • 74 receptions for 962 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns

If Hilton wants to pursue literal “greener” pastures elsewhere, more power to him.

Nevertheless, as a cautionary tale, such a decision could come at a serious expense to his potential receiving production going forward. After all, life’s a lot more challenging for wide receivers suffering from middling quarterback play than those catching tight spirals from Luck.

Just ask Andre Johnson.

Hilton doesn’t owe the Colts a “hometown discount” by any means, but he could potentially take less than his potential maximum earnings elsewhere in order to stay with the Colts and most importantly Luck. It’s not an unprecedented move either, as the Green Bay Packers Randall Cobb just turned down more money from the Oakland Raiders to play at a clearly below-market 4-year, $40 million dollar contract and remain with the league’s consensus best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.

No one’s saying that Hilton doesn’t deserve to be fairly compensated as a Top 10 NFL wideout by the Colts, but there’s a difference between that and say a Top 5 NFL wide receiver.

According to Spotrac, given Bryant and Thomas’ new deals, Hilton’s newest market contract projection is as follows:

"Spotrac’s Prediction: 5 years, $60,000,000"

"Average Salary:$12,000,000Guaranteed Money:$31,800,000"

Numbers that appear to be much more in-line with Hilton’s actual production than the benchmark numbers he may be potentially seeking.

The Colts would likely sign Hilton to a similarly proposed contract, but if he’s looking to completely cash-out and chase every last dollar, he may have to do it elsewhere and run the risk with a far inferior quarterback. Indianapolis obviously loves Hilton, but they won’t be put over a barrel in keeping him, especially having just drafted a “Hilton clone” in 1st rounder Phillip Dorsett.

Therefore for Hilton, the possible price of his increased long-term security must be clearly weighed against his future potential production.

Sep 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) and wide receiver T.Y Hilton (13) before the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

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