Is History Repeating with Colts Receivers?

After being decimated by injuries at the position last season, the Indianapolis Colts have already lost wide receivers Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. to injuries in three games.
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INDIANAPOLIS — When the news quickly spread on Monday that Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. underwent calf surgery, did anyone else a familiar afterthought?

Here we go again.

Three games, two key wide receivers lost, and the rest of the position group is starting to resemble what happened last year. The one difference, at least so far, is that wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is still healthy as the Colts (2-1) prepare for a Sunday game at the Chicago Bears (3-0).

But we don’t need to be reminded of how the position became razor-thin after Hilton missed six games with a calf injury and put up the worst numbers of his career last season. It was Zach Pascal and a bunch of other unproven guys.

That’s why the confirmation that Pittman, a second-round selection in April, needed surgery Sunday night to relieve pressure in his right calf due to compartment leg syndrome seemed rather ominous.

The week before, second-year wide receiver Parris Campbell suffered a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve. The Colts haven’t ruled out a return, but he was scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure today, which suggests he might be lost of the season.

That leaves Hilton, Pascal, and, well, a bunch of other unproven guys. The list consists of Ashton Dulin, Daurice Fountain, and sixth-round pick Dezmon Patmon on the active roster. Marcus Johnson was recently re-signed to the practice squad. Rookie DeMichael Harris and Krishawn Hogan (added today) are also on the practice squad.

If something happens to Hilton — as much as nobody wants to think that — the Colts are in the same spot as a year ago. Lest anyone forget, too, that since Hilton was drafted in 2012, the Colts are 1-9 when he doesn’t play.

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Zach Pascal (14) is congratulated by T.Y. Hilton (13) and Ryan Kelly (78) are catching a TD pass in Sunday's 36-7 home win over the New York Jets.

Zach Pascal (14) is congratulated after a touchdown catch on Sunday by Colts teammates T.Y. Hilton (13) and Ryan Kelly (78).

Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was asked on Tuesday if he worries about the position group. While he acknowledged the impact of losing Campbell and Pittman, Sirianni gave the expected answer about being optimistic that the Colts have enough pass-catchers to take advantage of the opportunity in playing more and getting the job done.

“When you lose playmakers like we’ve lost with Parris and Michael for this week, you have to think about it, right?” Sirianni said. “I think I said this last week when someone asked a question about Parris like how do you replace his production? It’s not just one guy who replaces Parris’ production. It’s not just going to be one guy that replaces Michael’s production. It’s going to be by committee of what these guys do the best.

“So something that T.Y. does really well, then he takes that. Something that Zach does really well, he takes that. If it’s ‘Reece’ (Daurice Fountain), then he takes that. We’re thinking about it a lot because that’s just what we do as coaches. We try to put our guys in the best positions they can be in to make football plays.”

Hilton, for what it’s worth, has yet to put up the kind of numbers that made him a four-time Pro Bowl star. He showed signs of coming out of his slow start with three receptions for 52 yards, including a long of 25 yards.

But what should be a surprise is the fact that reserve running back Nyheim Hines leads the Colts with 13 receptions and reserve tight end Mo Alie-Cox has a team-high 181 receiving yards. Hilton has 10 catches for 133 yards. Hines and Alie-Cox each have a TD. Hilton does not.

Fountain, it should be reminded, was drafted in the fifth round in 2018 and spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad. He was then lost in 2019 preseason to an ankle injury that eventually required three surgeries. He was among final cuts this preseason, but was re-signed and elevated to the active roster for Sunday’s 36-7 home win over Minnesota, in which Fountain caught his first two NFL passes for 23 yards.

Perhaps Johnson will be promoted to the active roster again. He filled in capably toward the end of last season, when he had 17 receptions for 277 yards and two TDs in eight games. He won a Super Bowl ring with Colts head coach Frank Reich when in Philadelphia, and Johnson knows this system well.

So for now, no worries, right? Well, if you’re Sirianni, perhaps not. But for worrywarts who can’t help but think about injuries, how can we not?

“Do we worry about (it)? I don’t think we can,” Sirianni said. “We definitely think about it because again, we have to but worrying about it – we’re ready. These guys are ready. The guys that (general manager) Chris Ballard and his staff have given us as backups are good talents that would play at a lot of places. I’m excited about their opportunity because I know they’ll be successful when they go out there because they are ready to go.

(Wide receivers coach) Mike Groh does a great job of coaching them. Chris Ballard and his staff did a great job of getting these players in here. We practice really hard. I feel like I say that every week. We practice really hard and guys know that. They have no choice but to get better. So, they’re going to be ready and I’m excited for their opportunities.”

Sirianni added that he told Campbell last week, “We’re going to miss you. There is no doubt about it. You’re a great playmaker. We’re going to miss you."

Depending upon how soon Pittman can return — the Colts haven’t given a timetable but an initial media report suggested after the bye in Week 8 on Nov. 1 — it’s fair to say the position is worth keeping an eye on.

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(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is phillipbwilson24@yahoo.com.)