After an emotional Week 7 victory over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the Colts might have suffered their biggest loss of the season. In the fourth quarter of that game, All-Pro wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL and meniscus.
Wayne, who has led the Colts in nearly every major receiving category since 2006, hit the 1,000-reception mark in the Colts’ previous game against the San Diego Chargers.
Although Wayne has had a large impact on the Colts this season, he hasn’t been the only reason that they have a 5-2 record and currently sit in first place in the AFC South.
The Colts pass defense has improved dramatically and has been a huge factor for the Colts this year. In addition, Robert Mathis, the savvy 32-year-old veteran who was expected to see a drop in production, has 11.5 sacks though seven games, which already ties his career high.
The Colts will need their unproven group of receivers to step up if they still have hopes to make a deep playoff run.
It starts with second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton was expected to take a large leap in production this year, and through seven games, Hilton has 27 receptions for 412 yards and two touchdowns. He trails only Wayne in every receiving category other than touchdowns, where tight end Coby Fleener leads the team with three. Hilton will need to continue the steady output, and he will also need to develop the skills of an outside receiver, although he is small for the position (5’9”, 178 pounds).
Expect Hilton to take a large leap and solidify himself as one of the Colts' offensive building blocks of the future.
Another player who needs to increase their production is former Raiders first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey. Bey is extremely quick and has the size to play outside, but he has extremely unreliable hands. Bey’s hands have plagued him his entire career, and it has been something that the Colts hoped he would improve on.
If he can’t step up, the Colts will need to sort through their depth chart to find another player to minimize the loss of Wayne.
The Colts signed second-year free agent Griff Whalen to a contract on Monday. Whalen played with Luck at Stanford and has a good understanding of all of the Colts’ play-calls and receiving assignments. Head coach Chuck Pagano said that Whalen is a reliable guy, according to Indy Star’s Mike Chappell.
Whalen has a similar frame to Reggie Wayne, and he showed in the preseason that he has the ability to catch difficult passes. Look for Whalen to have a big impact during the second half of the season.
In the past, I have been somewhat critical of tight end Coby Fleener. Fleener had a few key drops against the Chargers that really hurt the Colts in key situations, and he hasn’t met the expectations placed on him when he was selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Fleener needs to emerge as a reliable threat in the passing game in order to help the Colts stay on the road of success that they have been on this season. Fleener is a big target, and he is also pretty athletic for his size. Look for Fleener’s amount of targets to rise dramatically in the coming weeks.
Replacing Wayne won’t be very easy. There isn’t a player on the Colts’ roster who can fill the shoes of the future Hall-of-Famer, but if the remainder of the receiving corps can all step up their production, they can minimize the loss as much as possible and still make a deep postseason run.