Can Michael Pittman Jr. or Parris Campbell step up across from TY Hilton to give the Colts and Philip Rivers a true No. 2 receiver?
In the past four seasons, the only Colts wide receiver not named TY Hilton to eclipse 600 yards was Zach Pascal in 2019, and that may have just happened due to Hilton missing six games. Eric Ebron had 750 yards in 2018, the only playoff appearance of the last four years, but no other tight end or running back has accrued 700+ yards besides that.
It should be said that having two 700+ yard receivers is not the only formula for winning. In fact, just last season, playoff teams including the Packers, Eagles, Ravens, and Titans did not have two players reach this threshold. But these teams all had something the Colts do not: an athletic quarterback capable as a threat to run, or just someone who can scramble to extend plays.
To see how Philip Rivers has success, we can look at his four winning seasons this past decade with the Chargers (‘18, ‘17, ‘14, ‘13). In every year except for 2018, the Chargers had at least two players with 700+ yards and four players with at least 500 receiving yards. In the outlier year of 2018, Keenan Allen led the charge with 1,196 yards, complemented by Mike and Tyrell Williams with 664 and 653 yards respectively.
So, the Colts do not NEED a receiver to have over 700 yards aside from Hilton, but there needs to be consistent production somewhere after the WR1. Historically, Rivers likes to spread the ball out to multiple receivers in an offense similar to the Colts glory days with Peyton Manning passing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and others. The question is, do the Colts have someone that can emerge as another option for Rivers aside from Hilton?
Looking at the depth chart, it appears that Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. will get first cracks at the No. 2 starter role, with Zach Pascal mostly occupying the slot and Marcus Johnson looming as a depth option. While Pittman is receiving more of the hype as a second-round pick (34th overall) in this year’s draft, Campbell was a second round selection (59th overall) just last season out of Ohio State.
Slowed by injuries, Campbell only appeared in seven games last season, catching 18 passes for 127 yards.
By the end of the year, Campbell played only the sixth-most snaps at receiver behind players like Deon Cain (current Steeler) and Chester Rogers (current Dolphin). In the only two games the former Ohio State star played over 50% of the offensive snaps, he caught five balls each, albeit for a measly 78 total yards.
While many starter-level receivers play well as rookies, it is not unprecedented for a first year receiver to struggle only to make a big leap in his second season. Just last year, Jaguars receiver DJ Chark had a 1,000-yard season after having 174 yards in his 2018 rookie campaign.
Campbell has already impressed in camp, as we covered here. Head Coach Frank Reich talked about the potential of Campbell just a few months ago in an interview with 107.5 The Fan. In a quote pulled from NFL.com, he said:
"“I’m super pumped about Parris and where the upside is. We didn’t get to see him enough (last year). He was hurt a lot. I’m proud of the way Parris has been handling the offseason. He’s been doing everything possible. He’s working out hard. I’m staying very much in touch with him, and with the trainers and what he’s doing and watching that whole process unfold. He’s really determined.He still has to have things go his way and stay healthy. He missed a lot of practice time, too. It wasn’t just that he missed games. He missed a lot of practice time. He missed most of the (2019 offseason program). We’ve been around him enough, I see things in Parris, I see really good wide receiver skills.”"
If Campbell can show his potential as Reich suggests, it could take some pressure off Pittman, who is likely expected to have a big season after being drafted with the very high second-rounder the Colts got in a 2019 draft trade with Washington. Pittman is regarded as a big and strong outside receiver with reliable hands who may lack separation, but can make up for it with his route running and body control. Perhaps this is a good complement to Hilton’s speed, and a similar player to the failed Devin Funchess experiment of last year.
Many second-round receivers have had success right off the bat in recent years, including AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, and Deebo Samuel (‘19), JuJu Smith-Schuster (‘17), and Michael Thomas (‘16). At the same time, there have been many who struggled, including some who did not turn it around in their second season. Players like Cody Latimer, Justin Hunter, and Brian Quick, among others, either never made it as good NFL players or are barely hanging on.
As discussed earlier with Campbell, a first season does not always predict where a young receiver’s career is going, but Pittman being a reliable starter as soon as he steps on the field would be a huge plus for a Colts passing game that has mostly struggled outside of TY Hilton for the past four or so seasons. As seen in training camp, Pittman is already getting some first team reps.
It should be mentioned that Jack Doyle is a quality starting tight end, and Trey Burton is an intriguing pick-up after a disastrous 2019 but good 2018 with the Bears, but neither player has ever eclipsed 700 yards. Doyle is far from explosive, and Burton cannot be counted on to stay healthy or productive.
After the signing of Rivers, there have been mostly positive expectations for the Colts in 2020. While there were a few major additions to a defense that was ranked 17th by Football Outsiders in DVOA, a lot of the improvement from 2019’s 7-9 record is expected to be due to the transition from Jacoby Brissett to Rivers. If Pittman or Campbell can step up as a threat alongside Hilton and Doyle, this expected improvement has a much larger chance of actually happening.