The Indianapolis Colts selected Michael Pittman Jr with the 34th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. While receiver has never been a position that Chris Ballard has targeted early in the draft, this was fairly significant capital to invest in the position.
Pittman may not have met the lofty expectations that come with being drafted as early as he was, but it is hard to not be intrigued by his first year of action. In 14 games played (including the playoffs), Pittman had 45 catches for 593 yards and one touchdown in 2020.
With a big year two upcoming for the young receiver, I decided to take an in-depth look at just how Pittman won as a rookie. So, today I will look at the three routes that he was most successful with last year and his strengths and weaknesses as a player.
Charting Pittman's Receptions
For a little bit of background into this project, I went back and watched every single target that Pittman had as a rookie. I charted each target by route run and with each route run, I charted how many catches, yards, and catchable passes (passes that hit both of his hands to keep all things fair) he received.
Based off of this research, his three most productive and efficient routes on the year were a drag, crosser, and slant. On these three routes alone, Pittman had 21 catches on 24 targets for 346 yards and a touchdown. On just three routes, Pittman had 59% of his season receiving yardage. Let's go one by one with each of these routes now.
By far and away Pittman's most productive route as a rookie. Despite being a route that usually has a depth of target under ten yards, Pittman had 19.5 yards per catch on this route alone.
On the year, he totaled nine catches on 10 targets (10 catchable targets) for 176 yards on drag routes. The crazier stat is that all of this production came after week 10. The Colts did an excellent job of using stacked sets and switch releases to create space on these plays. Pittman was also excellent after the catch, as he ran through contact with ease and showcased some impressive acceleration.
While Pittman had fewer of these routes drawn up for him as a rookie, he was able to produce when called upon. On just three targets, Pittman had three receptions for 84 yards (28 yards per catch) on crossing routes.
While these were more schemed shot plays for Pittman, he did a great job of getting proper depth and finding space in the secondary for big chunk plays. It may be easy to say that anyone could run these open routes but his acceleration and speed for a player his size made him perfect for these schemed shots.
While not the flashiest route out there, Pittman excelled on quick slants in true X wide receiver fashion. On 11 targets (10 catchable passes), Pittman had nine receptions for 86 yards on slant routes in 2020.
This was actually a massive add to the Colts' offense in 2020. The team truly lacked a big bodied receiver who could win off the line and catch through contact over the middle. In Pittman, they had a player who was fearless on these dangerous routes and could beat his man in press on key third downs.
Strengths and Weaknesses After Year One
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it was a promising rookie season for Pittman, especially after suffering a nearly serious leg injury early in the year. That being said, he isn't infallible and there are still some things to work on as he goes forward. Starting with his strengths, here is where he excelled as a rookie.
- Releases off the line: As the Colts' X receiver, Pittman did an excellent job of creating separation against press. Whether it was his strength or quickness, he typically beat his man off the line of scrimmage.
- Run after catch ability: The most exciting and surprising aspect of Pittman's game was how well he looked with the ball in his hands. He had a low average depth of target in 2020 but still made big plays.
- Reliability: Overall, Pittman was an exceptionally reliable receiver underneath. Excluding his lone poor game of the year (week 12 against the Titans), he caught 45 of his 55 catchable targets as a rookie.
Now let's take a look at some weaknesses or areas that need improvement going forward.
- Vertical Consistency: Pittman was built up as this dominant deep ball receiver coming out of college. As a rookie, that didn't seem to be the case. He caught zero of his five targets last year on post or go routes. While some of the blame does go to Philip Rivers, the lack of vertical targets overall does show that Pittman needs to do a better job of uncovering down the field on vertical plays.
- Cut Down the Penalties: Pittman was the most penalized wide receiver in the NFL as a rookie, as he accumulated eight on the year. While I am not too concerned about this going forward, it is something to watch going into year two.
Pittman is a solid wide receiver who has the potential to be the Colts' long time starting X receiver. While he may not be the big, vertical threat player that we expected out of college, his ability to fill the void at X receiver was huge for this offense in 2020.
Going into his second season with Carson Wentz now as the quarterback, I do expect Pittman's role to change slightly. Wentz has never been a fan of throwing drag routes and that is where Pittman excelled as a rookie. I think we will see more of Pittman in the quick RPO game with Wentz and maybe on a few more schemed downfield shots.
Overall, Pittman has a chance to be a good receiver in this offense for the short and long term future. If he can clean up a few problem areas, I like his potential going forward.
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.