Second-year running back Jonathan Taylor stole the spotlight a year ago for the Indianapolis Colts. While Taylor's ascension to top tier running back was huge for this Colts' offense, the more important development may have been what Michael Pittman Jr did at wide receiver.
Pittman Jr had himself a solid rookie season in 2020, hauling in 40 passes on 61 targets for 503 yards and a touchdown but he took his game to another level in 2021. He caught 88 of his 129 targets for 1,082 yards and six touchdowns on the year and finished 16th in the NFL in receiving yards. He truly emerged as a bonafide wide receiver one for a team that has desperately been searching for production out of that position.
With Pittman Jr entering his third season in the NFL, the question now is how much better can this young receiver truly get? In today's film article, I talk about why his 2021 season was not a fluke and discuss his potential in this revamped Colts' offense.
Success Against Press Coverage
When looking back at Pittman Jr's 2021 season, it is easy to pick apart some reasons why he may not repeat his success in 2022. However, there are quite a few metrics that point to this breakout season being anything but a fluke.
One of the best indicators of a receiver's worth in the NFL is how they perform against press coverage. Success at the line of scrimmage is something seen in almost every top wide receiver, from Davante Adams to Cooper Kupp. According to Matt Harmon's Reception Perception, Pittman Jr had a 96% success rate against press coverage in 2021:
When looking at the film, it is easy to see why he has so much success in this area of his game. He is a big-bodied receiver that can out-muscle defenders at the point of attack, but he is also extremely sudden and quick off of the line.
Pittman Jr has a well-rounded, diversified plan of attack at the line of scrimmage that allows him to win a majority of his match-ups. A receiver's ability against press coverage is a true marker of talent in the NFL, and Pittman Jr is one of the best in the league in this area.
Pittman Jr was labeled by many as being a dominant deep threat option coming out of college. While I can see where that thought process would come from, the biggest appeal of his game has always been his route running and his ability at the intermediate level.
Pittman Jr is a smooth player that can create separation with ease over the middle of the field. He also grew mightily from year one to year two in terms of being able to find space against zone coverage. Here is a quote from Pro Football Focus on his ability against zone coverage a year ago:
Pittman was one of the 10 most productive wide receivers in the NFL against zone coverage this season. He generated 2.17 yards per route run against zone and finished with the seventh-most yards (458) by finding soft spots.
On targets in the range of 10-19 yards last year, Pittman Jr caught 22 of 32 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Colts' quarterbacks had a passer rating of 132.2 when targeting him at this level of the field.
Pittman Jr was surgical in this area of the field on film. He always knew where to attack zone coverage and he was phenomenal at attacking the ball in the air. He was a major outlet for his quarterbacks in this range, which is why he is (arguably) one of the best intermediate receivers in the league.
Pittman Jr is praised for his contested catch ability, but those plays were a rarity in 2021. Of his 88 receptions last year, only 18 of them were labeled as contested catches by Pro Football Focus. The reason for this? Frank Reich loves to get the ball to his playmakers in space.
Pittman Jr is a running back after the catch, as he constantly looks to barrel over defenders in the open field. Of his 1,675 yards receiving in the NFL, over 40% of them have come after the catch.
Playcaller Frank Reich loves to hide Pittman Jr in bunch sets, just to sneak him underneath on a drag route with plenty of space. He also draws up quick screens and reverse plays to get the ball in the hands of his star receiver.
While the ridiculous 25% target share is unlikely to repeat going forward, Reich will always go out of his way to get the ball in the hands of his star players. That effectively raises any perceived floor for Pittman Jr in 2022.
More Opportunities Are Available
Despite the heavy workload in 2021, Pittman Jr could see even more targets (and more catchable targets) in 2022. According to FantasyPros Advanced Stats, only 95 of Pittman Jr's 128 targets last year were catchable balls. While I think that number might be a tad low (just from the eye test), I do think that there were some missed opportunities in 2021.
This isn't to say that Carson Wentz was a bad fit for Pittman Jr's game by any means. Wentz was able to utilize the entire field and maximize his star receiver in many ways. However, it certainly couldn't hurt Pittman Jr to catch passes from a more consistent and accurate quarterback overall.
According to Pro Football Reference, Matt Ryan ranked ninth in the NFL last year in on target throw percentage (at 78.2%). Wentz ranked 26th in that same metric, with an on target percentage of just 73.7%. This drastic improvement in accuracy and timing at the QB position should do wonders for Pittman Jr in 2022.
The Bottom Line
Michael Pittman Jr emerged as the Colts' number one wide receiver in 2021. When looking at the film and the advanced stats, this breakout campaign was far from a fluke.
Pittman Jr has developed into one of the better young receivers in the NFL, and his statistical output should only improve with more accuracy and consistency at the quarterback position.
Overall, there are a ton of things to be excited about with the Colts, and Pittman Jr's developed is certainly one of them. It is completely in the realm of realistic probabilities that he finishes as a top ten receiver in terms of yards and/or catches in 2022. He has the ability to be that special this upcoming season.
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.