The Colts' magical 2012 season was impressive considering where they'd come from in 2011, but it's especially noteworthy when you consider the contributions the Colts received from rookie or second-year players.
Offensively, the vast majority of skill players were rookies or second-year players, such as QB Andrew Luck, RBs Vick Ballard and Delone Carter and WRs T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill. Add in fellow rookie tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, and you have an incredibly young and inexperienced offense that still managed to be effective.
On the offensive line, Anthony Castonzo and A.Q. Shipley were the most consistent blockers all season.
On defense, rookie linebacker Jerrell Freeman was arguably the most valuable defensive player at inside linebacker, while Joe Lefeged (second year) came in at free safety and played much better than Tom Zbikowski. Numerous depth and rotational players in the defensive backfield and defensive line got extensive playing time as injuries piled up.
Andrew Luck, of course, has received the lion's share of the praise for his rookie debut, and deservedly so.
However, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was one of the most impressive rookies this past year, and has an incredibly bright future in Indianapolis.
Hilton was Indianapolis' sole wide receiver to have a positive DVOA, and ranked 26th out of 86 qualifying receivers. He also was among the league leaders in yards per target, as Nate Dunlevy pointed out earlier this week.
Without his production, especially his game-changing big-play ability, the Colts' season would have looked much different.
Hilton figures into the Colts' plans for their long-term future, due to those abilities, but he's not perfect.
There are several ways that the speedy wideout can improve in 2013 to become a viable starting wide receiver.
The biggest problem with Hilton in 2012 was his propensity for drops.
According to ProFootballFocus, Hilton dropped 10 balls on 60 "catchable" passes this season, a rate of 16.67 percent, tied for third worst in the league.
Hilton's drops were apparent in the wild-card round as he had three drops, each one that cost the Colts a first down or 30-plus yards on the play.
While Hilton did a lot for the team in that game and throughout the season, those drops did cost the Colts. It cost them chances at points, it cost them field position, etc.
Fortunately for the Colts, drops and consistent catching are something that can improve. Hilton's speed and natural elusiveness is something that can't be taught.
Even staying within the Colts, there is a precedent for improvement. Reggie Wayne, the Colts' reliable veteran receiver, saw a consistent improvement in his hands during his first four years in the league. As a rookie, Wayne's drop percentage was 12.9 percent, but that would drop to 7.5 percent during his sophomore campaign, then 4.2 percent and 2.5 percent in the following years.
If Hilton could achieve anywhere near that kind of improvement, the Colts would be ecstatic.
The other area that Hilton needs to improve is his consistency.
Basically, Hilton showed up every other game. He had more than three catches in seven of the 16 games, more than 40 yards in just seven games, and a big play (30-plus yards) in just seven games.
Hilton is never going to be a possession receiver. He likely never will be a 100-catch kind of receiver.
If Hilton wants to be a starter, even just as a solid No. 2 receiver, he needs to be able to show up every week. Part of that is on the hands of the offensive coordinator and Colts' coaches, who need to do what it takes to get Hilton involved.
That should happen under Pep Hamilton's offense, which should emphasize getting the ball to players who can run with it and make something happen after the catch. Hilton is exactly that guy.
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