In newly signed receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck are getting a low-risk, high-ceiling pass-catcher who can seamlessly replace the departed Donnie Avery.
According to Mike Garafolo of USA Today, the Colts and Heyward-Bey agreed to a one-year deal worth just $3 million, with $1.5 million in guarantees.
Heyward-Bey, 26, made the decision to sign in Indianapolis after visits with both the Colts and Detroit Lions. A one-year, prove-it deal provides all the evidence needed for just how limited his overall market was after being released by the Oakland Raiders on the first league day of 2013.
Yet while the monetary commitment and risk was a win for the Colts, the fit for Heyward-Bey in Indianapolis could also be a big victory.
In a press release announcing the signing (via Garafolo above), Colts general manager Ryan Grigson explained his own excitement surrounding Heyward-Bey's arrival.
We feel great about acquiring a talented player in Darrius Heyward-Bey. He's big, strong and shows toughness in traffic and after the catch. He's got elite finishing speed that's as good as there is in the NFL.
Grigson makes a compelling case for what his new receiver can provide the Colts offense.
Heyward-Bey is certainly big (6'2", 215 lbs) and strong (16 reps at 225 lbs at the NFL combine) enough to play a defined role in the NFL. Indianapolis lacked an outside receiver with his size dimensions last season since the six-foot, 200-pound Reggie Wayne previously possessed the team's best physical combination.
And while Heyward-Bey has struggled over his career with consistently catching the football (24 drops in four seasons), he does have the rare ability to make difficult catches in traffic and run after the catch.
Take this reception in 2011 for example.
In the second quarter of a Week 15 game against the Detroit Lions, Heyward-Bey extends for a pass between a pack of defenders. Instead of short-arming the football, Heyward-Bey goes into a full-stretch, secures the catch and absorbs the defender's looming blow.
The well-built Heyward-Bey bounces off the tackle attempt, and then splits the two other defenders with his 4.3 speed for a 43-yard touchdown.
Heyward-Bey made a similar catch in Week Nine of last season, when he hauled in a high throw against the Baltimore Ravens, deflected off of Ed Reed's knockout attempt and then outran the rest of the defense for a 55-yard score.
Of course, Heyward-Bey's speed remains his best asset.
In 2011, he made a living off eight and 12-yard comeback routes, where the cornerback would respect his downfield speed by lining up several yards off the ball.
But it first took a few hits vertically for defenses to worry about Heyward-Bey beating them deep.
In the example below, we see one of those hits. During a 2011 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Heyward-Bey runs a double-move versus cornerback Rashean Mathis.
As you can see in the first screenshot, Mathis bites hard on the fake inside, even without a convincing sell-job from Heyward-Bey. The Raiders receiver then turns on the jets to the outside and is beyond Mathis' coverage in the blink of an eye.
The result was an easy pitch-and-catch down the sidelines, and a 59-yard reception for Heyward-Bey.
As Grigson mentioned, Heyward-Bey has the kind of straight-line speed few can match at any position, much less receiver.
During the 2009 NFL Combine, Heyward-Bey's 4.30 40-yard-dash made him the fastest player in Indianapolis. The eye-catching run certainly helped him become the seventh overall pick in the ensuing NFL draft.
For the Colts, Heyward-Bey's speed was likely one of his most attractive attributes.
Even with new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton likely to take the Colts offense in a more horizontal direction, such elite speed can be asset. Luck thrived last season in an offense predicated on stretching the defense vertically.
But maybe more so for Luck, Heyward-Bey represents an easy transition (and potential upgrade) over Avery, who signed a three-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. In 2012, Avery played over 1,000 snaps and caught 60 passes for 781 yards and three scores in his most productive NFL season.
Below, we show how Heyward-Bey can be a seamless replacement for the departed Avery.
Last season, Avery caught a relatively high percentage of his passes behind the line of scrimmage, usually in the form of bubble screens such as the one below.
Heyward-Bey is plenty capable of doing the same.
In fact, the Raiders likely didn't give Heyward-Bey enough opportunities to catch the ball in space and make plays after the catch. His speed and strong frame give him dangerous potential in this role.
Here is one example where Oakland did give him a chance. It went for a first down after Heyward-Bey made a defender miss in the open field.
For whatever reason, the Colts ran Avery on reverses and jet sweeps just a handful of times last season. In fact, he ran only four times in 2012.
Here's two of them:
On the first play, Avery takes a reverse and picks up seven yards after Vikings defensive end Jared Allen crashes down hard on the fake.
The very next play, the Colts give Avery a jet sweep to the same side. The result is a first down on second-and-three.
In Oakland, Heyward-Bey carried eight times for 83 yards. The Colts can likely expand their reverse package with such a dangerous open-field runner like Heyward-Bey on board.
Of course, deep passing was one of Avery's most vital roles last season.
His nine receptions over 20 yards could be a number that Heyward-Bey can build on, if given the right opportunity.
And for Heyward-Bey, such an opportunity with the Colts is worth its weight in gold. Like Avery, he now has a chance in Indianapolis to turn around a bust NFL career.
Taken in the second round of the 2008 draft by the St. Louis Rams, Avery failed to develop into an impact player in St. Louis and was released before the 2011 season. After a year with the Tennessee Titans, Avery landed in Indianapolis and produced a career year.
Grade the Colts signing of WR Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Now, Avery is in Kansas City on a three-year deal worth almost $9 million.
The Colts can only hope Heyward-Bey embraces the "prove-it" opportunity as well as Avery did last season.
But even if he doesn't, the Colts do not have a large financial risk tied into the relationship.
If Heyward-Bey blossoms while playing alongside Luck, Wayne and second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton, then the Colts should have the first crack to retaining him long term.
If not, the two sides go separate ways and Indianapolis will be none the worse.
But if it all pans out right, Heyward-Bey will take over Avery's role as an outside receiver in three-receiver packages. Some of the Colts more explosive plays last season came with Avery and Hilton outside and Wayne in the slot.
With Luck, Wayne, Hilton, LaVon Brazill, two emerging tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and now Heyward-Bey, the Colts could very well possess one of the game's most explosive and versatile passing games in football next season.