NFL Nation: Darrius Heyward-Bey

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed seven players from other teams and they have been active in free agency despite limited room under the salary cap.

They have been able to add to their roster by taking advantage of a rule that allows teams to sign players to veteran’s minimum contacts and get a discount with such deals in regard to the cap.

The rule was instituted so veteran players did not get left out in free agency because of what they command as far as a minimum base salary, per the collective bargaining agreement, and the Steelers have signed three players under those provisions.

The maximum signing bonuses allowed in veteran minimum contracts is $65,000 and that is the only guaranteed money the Steelers gave to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, linebacker Arthur Moats and cornerback Brice McCain.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsMike Mitchell was the Steelers' biggest signing, but even he makes a modest base salary for his first two seasons with the team.
Take that with the guaranteed money -- almost exclusively given in signing bonuses -- the Steelers doled out to the four other outside free agents they signed and they are on the hook for only $8.04 million for those seven players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Of course, the money paid to those players should be much higher assuming the Steelers properly evaluated the free agents they signed and don’t cut ties with a number of them prematurely.

But guaranteeing just over $8 million to seven outside free agents shows how the Steelers have been able to reshape their roster despite the constraints of the salary cap.

Here is a review of the contacts, according to ESPN Stats & Info, signed by the seven outside free agents who have joined the Steelers since March 11:

  • Safety Mike Mitchell: The Steelers made their biggest signing on the first day of free agency when they landed Mitchell with a five-year, $25 million contract. They also protected themselves if Mitchell, who will take over at free safety for Ryan Clark, does not work out. The fifth-year veteran received a $4.75 million signing bonus and has already earned a $500,000 roster bonus. Mitchell has modest base salaries his first two seasons ($750,000 and $2 million) and base salaries of $5 million per season in each of the final three seasons of his deal. The Steelers could cut ties with Mitchell after two seasons if he is not a good fit in Pittsburgh and not absorb too much of a hit in regard to the salary cap.
  • Running back LeGarrette Blount: The Steelers signed the player who emerged as the Patriots’ best running back in the latter part of 2013 to a two-year, $3.85 million contract. Only the signing bonus ($950,000) is guaranteed with Blount scheduled to make base salaries of $900,000 and $2 million in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The Steelers have some protection in the event that they want to part ways with Blount after one season since more than half of his money comes from the 2015 base salary that is not guaranteed.
  • Wide receiver Lance Moore: The Steelers signed Moore shortly after losing Jerricho Cotchery to the Carolina Panthers, landing the ninth-year veteran with a two-year, $3 million contract. Only a signing bonus of $645,000 is guaranteed and Moore will make base salaries of $855,000 and $1.5 million. Half of the money in Moore’s contract is in the second season giving the Steelers another escape hatch if they want to cut ties with the former Saint after one season.
  • Defensive lineman Cam Thomas: The Steelers badly needed bodies along their defensive line when they signed Thomas to a two-year, $4 million contract. The player known as “Baby Zilla” because of his size received a $1 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1 million and $2 million. Again, even in shorter contracts given out by the Steelers they left themselves an out by putting half of the money in Thomas’ deal in the second year of his contract.
  • Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey: It’s easy to see why the Steelers took a chance on a player who has an excellent blend of size and speed but has inconsistent hands. Heyward-Bey agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract and the only guaranteed money is the $65,000 the fifth-year veteran received as a signing bonus. This is a classic low-risk, potentially high-reward proposition for the Steelers.
  • Linebacker Arthur Moats: The former Bill signed the same deal as Heyward-Bey, and Moats will provide great value for the Steelers if he can handle the role of No. 3 outside linebacker as well as contribute on special teams. Moats really becomes a bargain is he also provides depth at inside linebacker, something the fourth-year veteran said he will be able to do.
  • Cornerback Brice McCain: Like Heyward-Bey and Moats, McCain signed a one-year, $795,000 deal that includes a mere $65,000 signing bonus. As with Heyward-Bey and Moats, McCain will count only $635,000 against the cap this year because of the veteran’s minimum deal he signed.

PITTSBURGH -- The signing of Darrius Heyward-Bey, once the fastest wide receiver in a draft class that included Mike Wallace, does not make the position any less of a priority for the Steelers in this year’s draft.

The Steelers will still take a wide receiver with one of their first three picks as the addition of Heyward-Bey should be taken as what it is at face value: a flier on a player who should provide depth at wide receiver in 2014 but is probably not part of the team’s long-term plans.

Maybe Heyward-Bey will prove to be otherwise.

Maybe his blend of size and speed will prove to be more than the fool’s gold the Raiders concluded it was when they cut the seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft after just four seasons.

But five years into a career in which he has only once come close to a 1,000-yard season, it is not realistic to think that Heyward-Bey will suddenly put everything together for the Steelers, who are now his third team by the age of 27.

And that’s fine considering the Steelers likely signed the 6-foot-2, 219-pounder to a veteran’s minimum contract or at least a one-year deal laden with incentives.

With almost no room under the salary cap the Steelers were looking for depth at wide receiver, not a starter.

If Heyward-Bey somehow emerges as the latter it means that second-year man Markus Wheaton faltered or the former first-round pick started catching the ball with the consistency that eluded him in Oakland and Indianapolis.

Heyward-Bey, along with Lance Moore, gives the Steelers another veteran wide receiver to offset the losses of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. His signing does not mean the Steelers will wait until later in the draft to add another wide receiver to their roster.

A deep draft is brimming with talent at wide receiver, and the Steelers still have a long-term need at the position even though they have fortified their depth there.

They were likely to use their first-round pick on a cornerback before Heyward-Bey joined the Steelers. His addition simply makes it easier for the Steelers to address their biggest need and wait until the second or third round to draft a wide receiver.
PITTSBURGH -- A day after adding depth at cornerback with the signing of Brice McCain the Steelers could do the same at wide receiver.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft, will visit the Steelers on Wednesday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

According to the NFL Players Association, the Steelers are only $171,934 under the cap, but hovering near the spending ceiling hasn’t stopped them from filling holes on their roster, and Heyward-Bey has emerged as their latest target.

Heyward-Bey never lived up to enormous expectations in Oakland after the Raiders fell in love with his speed and made him the first wide receiver drafted in 2009. The 6-2, 219-pounder spent four seasons in Oakland before signing with Indianapolis.

Heyward-Bey played in all 16 games last season for the Colts -- he started 11 of them -- and caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown. In five NFL seasons Heyward-Bey has 169 catches for 2,380 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Steelers are expected to take a wide receiver early in the draft but they apparently are interested in adding another veteran to the position as well.

Markus Wheaton is expected to get the first crack at replacing Emmanuel Sanders opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown, but he played just 153 snaps his rookie season and caught six passes for 64 yards.

The Steelers signed Lance Moore to take over as their No. 3 wide receiver following the loss of Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers and the only other wide receiver on the roster with any NFL experience is Derek Moye.

The 6-5 Moye played 52 snaps last season and caught two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season. Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

Hakeem Nicks to meet with Colts

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
INDIANAPOLIS - Could the Indianapolis Colts be closing in on a veteran receiver to go with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton?

If things go as planned, they could have it taken care of sometime Friday.

ESPN's Josina Anderson reported Thursday that free-agent receiver Hakeem Nicks is scheduled to fly to Indianapolis and meet Friday with the Colts.

The visit with the Colts isn't surprising for Nicks. He said earlier this week that he had interest in catching passes from Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

The 26-year-old Nicks had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the New York Giants in 2010 and 2011 but dealt with injuries in 2012 and had 896 yards receiving with no touchdowns in 2013.

Nicks wouldn't have to carry the receiving load with Colts. Indianapolis has a number of offensive weapons, which include tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, Luck can turn to. It would be a matter of simply fitting in for Nicks.

The Colts thought they solved their depth concerns at receiver when they signed Darrius Heyward-Bey to a one-year contract last season. Heyward-Bey's highlight in Indianapolis was that he could be one of the first players down field to pin a punt insider the 20-yard line.

Here's what I wrote about Nicks on Thursday morning in a post about the free-agent receiver market:

The issue could be that Nicks wants a multiyear deal. A one-year contract would be more ideal as some have alluded to because it could be a win-win situation for Nicks and the Colts. It'll allow Nicks to prove it was injuries that slowed him down the past two seasons and not simply lack of production. The Colts get another option for Luck to throw to for at least a year.
The wide receiver position has become an even greater priority for the New Orleans Saints now that they are parting ways with both receiver Lance Moore and pass-catching running back Darren Sproles.

The draft is probably the Saints’ best bet for finding a dynamic young athlete who could develop into a future starter -- and ideally help stretch the field in the short term as part of the rotation. This is a deep class for wide receiver talent, so the Saints could have ample options in Round 1 or the middle rounds of the draft.

But the Saints always prefer to fill their pressing needs in free agency. So I could see them adding a No. 3-type receiver with speed or shiftiness. And an ability to return kicks would be a major plus.

[+] EnlargeMcCluster
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelVersatile Dexter McCluster could fit with the Saints as a replacement for Darren Sproles.
I picked ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson's brain for a few suggestions that could fit that mold. And I particularly loved his suggestion of Kansas City Chiefs receiver/runner/returner Dexter McCluster -- a guy who could help fill both voids by himself.

McCluster has taken turns as a running back, receiver, kick returner and punt returner at different times in his first four NFL seasons. Last season he made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. And he could be a dangerous weapon in the hands of Saints coach Sean Payton.

“I think he would be a good fit,” Williamson said. “Most teams, he might turn into nothing. But I think Payton and (Drew) Brees would use him properly.”

Williamson also thinks Carolina Panthers receiver/return man Ted Ginn Jr. could be an interesting fit in New Orleans, especially after Ginn had a bounceback season last year after underachieving for most of his seven-year career.

“He was a bust for a ninth pick in the draft (for the Miami Dolphins in 2007). But he played pretty well for Carolina. And he can fly,” Williamson said.

If the Saints want to spend a little more money on a receiver/punt returner, they might be interested in the Seattle Seahawks’ Golden Tate, a yards-after-the-catch threat who could be a lot more dangerous in New Orleans’ passing offense.

Maybe they would consider slot receiver/punt returner Julian Edelman from the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ big-play threat Emmanuel Sanders, who has some kick-returning experience. And New Orleans native Jacoby Jones is a speedster who has been better so far as a kick returner than a receiver with the Baltimore Ravens -- but he could certainly provide that deep threat as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver.

The Minnesota Vikings’ Jerome Simpson is another deep threat who could fill that No. 3 role. And Williamson mentioned a deep wild-card possibility in another former first-round underachiever -- the Indianapolis Colts' Darrius Heyward-Bey.

“Everybody hates the guy, and he isn’t a great player. But Darrius Heyward-Bey can still run,” Williamson said. “He wasn’t that big of a bust. And you could get him streaking down the sideline. And you can get him for nothing.”

There aren’t many big-name receivers available in free agency this year. The Denver Broncos' Eric Decker could command the biggest deal, and he might be too costly for the Saints. The New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks could also be costly, though he’s been plagued by injury issues.

Other receivers in the next tier or two include the Green Bay Packers' James Jones, the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts, the Seahawks' Sidney Rice and the Panthers' Brandon LaFell -- plus Lance Moore, of course.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Indianapolis Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian has grades for each player scheduled to hit the free agent market on March 11.

Here’s are the grades Polian gave for each of the Colts’ key free agents:

Antoine Bethea: A

Donald Brown: B+

Pat McAfee: B

Vontae Davis: B-

Adam Vinatieri: C

Here's a breakdown of what each letter grade is worth financially.

A: $6+ million AAV (annual average value), 3+ years guaranteed money

B: $2-6 million AAV, 2 years or fewer guaranteed money

C: $2 million or less AAV, 2 years or fewer guaranteed money

D: Minimum salary, 1 year contract

I was a little surprised Polian had Bethea graded higher than Davis, and I was surprised Davis was also graded lower than McAfee and Brown.

One other noted free agent is offensive lineman Mike McGlynn. Polian gave McGlynn a D. He lost his starting job at guard momentarily but was still a better center than Samson Satele. This should help you put into perspective how low McGlynn graded out, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was given a C. Yes, Heyward-Bey, who went from starting the season as the Colts’ No. 2 receiver to ending the season on special teams, graded out higher than McGlynn.

Click here for an explanation of the grading system.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The scouting combine is less than a week away at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. talked about how the Indianapolis Colts should be able to draft an interior lineman (guard or center) when they select in the second round during a recent conference call.

Receiver is another position Kiper Jr. is excited about. He believes there could be up to eight receivers going in the first round if they test well. There are 19 underclassmen receivers entering in the draft, so there is a chance the Colts could have an opportunity to get one in the later rounds.

“A lot these kids are underclassmen, so you have to be conservative,” Kiper said. “They have to test well to be a legitimate first-round pick.”

The Colts entered last season with depth issues at receiver. The depth became even more-dire when Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL and Darrius Heyward-Bey struggled.

There is still concern at receiver because Wayne has to prove he can regain his form following surgery, and young receivers like Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen and LaVon Brazill continue to develop. T.Y. Hilton is currently the only sure thing at receiver for the Colts.

Colts tight end Dwayne Allen will be happy because Kiper Jr. has Clemson’s Sammy Watkins as the top receiver in his list of the top 10 at that position in a pre-combine breakdown.

Click here Insider to see Kiper’s top-10 receivers heading into next week’s combine.

Indianapolis Colts season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: The questions were valid. Was linebacker Robert Mathis' production a product of having sack-machine Dwight Freeney playing on the other side? Could Mathis still be an impact player without Freeney? Mathis silenced the naysayers when he led the league in sacks with 19.5, including seven strip sacks. Mathis didn't hide the fact that he wanted to quiet the doubters. What made his season even more special is that he did it without much help elsewhere, as the Colts had only 42 sacks as a team. Mathis is one of the front-runners to be the league's defensive player of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Safety LaRon Landry was supposed to have the same kind of impact Bob Sanders had when he played for the Colts. That's why general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to four-year, $24 million contract. Landry was good when he was able to come up with the big hits or touchdown-saving tackles, but it was too often that he ended up whiffing on a play. The plays on which he missed running back Jamaal Charles on a touchdown run in the regular-season game against Kansas City and New England's LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run last weekend are two examples that quickly come to mind. It also doesn't help that Landry missed four games because of injury this season.

Biggest need: Help on both lines -- offensive and defensive -- should be at the top of Grigson's list during the offseason. The Colts are set at offensive tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus. Donald Thomas will be back to take one of the guard spots after he missed most of the season with a quad injury, but the other guard spot and center could use upgrades. The Colts need a defensive tackle who can clog the middle of the line.

Team MVP: This is a no-brainer. Quarterback Andrew Luck was mentioned as a league MVP candidate at one point in the season. The second-year quarterback overcame injuries to five key offensive starters -- including future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne -- to cut his interceptions in half, increase his completion percentage and throw the same number of touchdown passes despite 52 fewer attempts. Take Luck out of the lineup and the Colts would have won maybe six games this season.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Darrius Heyward-Bey will be best remembered as a former top-10 pick who started the season as the Indianapolis Colts’ No. 2 receiver, was demoted, became a special-teams ace and missed the team’s last game of the season -- unless the Colts beat the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff game Saturday.

Heyward-Bey has been ruled out of the game against the Patriots because of a hamstring injury, which happened in the wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Don’t get me wrong, Heyward-Bey is a nice guy. It’s hard not to like him. He’s very polite and he has some clever riddles that always seem to stump you. Those were supposed to be added bonuses Heyward-Bey brought to the Colts this season. But his play on the field was the focal point.

Unfortunately his niceness overshadowed his on-the-field production.

Heyward-Bey hasn’t caught a pass since the Cincinnati game on Dec. 8. That was four games ago. He caught his lone touchdown against Denver on Oct. 20. Reggie Wayne was still playing then.

I’m sure Heyward-Bey wants his teammates to beat the Patriots for more than one reason: to advance to the AFC Championship Game and so that he can play another game with the Colts -- if his hamstring improves -- as the two sides will likely part ways once the season ends.
INDIANPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts receiver Deion Branch will catch 10 passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns against his former team, the New England Patriots, in Saturday's AFC divisional round playoff game.

Come on now, that's probably one of the first things you thought about when you heard the news of the Colts signing Branch late Monday afternoon.

Sorry, I don't see that happening. In fact, I'd be surprised if Branch has much of a presence on the field against New England.

[+] EnlargeDeion Branch
Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesDeion Branch, who has not played since last season's AFC Championship Game, has 39 career touchdowns in 11 seasons with the Seahawks and Patriots.
He has only three days to learn the Colts' system and try to develop some timing with quarterback Andrew Luck.

“I think it'll be a seamless transition for him,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Again, time will tell with that. [We'll find out] when we get him in here, when we get him in meetings and get him out [on the practice field]. It's probably a matter from a terminology standpoint. I'm sure he's run all the concepts that we've run. It's just a matter of becoming familiar with the play calls and terminology, which I don't think he will have a problem with.”

The Colts didn't sign Branch to suddenly become T.Y. Hilton's sidekick as the No. 2 receiver. Branch, a former Super Bowl MVP, hasn't played in a game since having two catches for 16 yards against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 20, 2013, while he was with the Patriots. He has 518 receptions for 6,644 yards and 39 touchdowns in his career.

Pagano mentioned signing Branch because of injury concerns at receiver. Darrius Heyward-Bey will miss Saturday's game with a hamstring injury, prompting the Colts to elevate wide receiver Josh Lenz from the practice squad Monday.

Heyward-Bey had been relegated to mainly special teams the past few weeks. The Colts are set at the top four receiver spots with Hilton, Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen and LaVon Brazill. There would be a reason to have more optimism about Branch passing those guys on the depth chart if he had actually played during the 2013 season.

Branch, 34, will provide any information he can about the Patriots and he'll also help the receiving group prepare for the biggest game of their young NFL careers. Anything he provides on the field will be a bonus.

There's nothing wrong with the Colts signing Branch. Just don't expect an out-of-this-world performance by him against the Patriots on Saturday.

“If you look at as far as bringing in a veteran guy that's played at a level he's played at for such a long period of time, I don't see how it could hurt you,” Pagano said. “Again, we'll see how fast he picks up the terminology in the offense. We all know he's more than capable of making plays. Again with DHB being out for a period of time, all those types of things, just adding him to the mix, it can't hurt.”

That’s the number of receptions the Indianapolis Colts’ receivers have in their playoff career. Take starting receiver T.Y. Hilton out of the mix and that number goes down to one.

The Colts will head into Saturday’s wild-card playoff matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs with an inexperienced receiving group.

[+] EnlargeT.Y. Hilton
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsColts receiver T.Y. Hilton gained valuable experience during last season's trip to the playoffs.
Hilton and veteran receiver Reggie Wayne plan to talk to receivers Griff Whalen, Da’Rick Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who will be making their playoff debuts, about what to expect Saturday.

The coverage will be tighter. It’ll be harder to get off jams at the line of scrimmage. Defenses will be quicker.

“It’s very different from the regular season,” Hilton said. “It’s one and done, so guys are playing extra hard, going 1,000 miles faster than the regular season. All in all it’s about who is better that day.”

Hilton had eight catches for 66 yards in the Colts’ playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last season. LaVon Brazill had one catch for 17 yards.

Two of the receivers – Whalen and Rogers – spent a significant amount of time on the practice squad this season. Whalen at least played in bowl games while at Stanford, so he has something he can sort of compare the playoffs to. Rogers doesn’t have that luxury.

“I personally prepare like it’s any other game, but with emphasis that it is the playoffs and you have to find that extra gear to get the game won,” Rogers said. “I’ve been on the practice squad most of the season. I’m more excited to get out there. So I’ll be revved up on adrenaline.”

Whalen, Rogers and Brazill have made significant strides since Wayne was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 7.

The three combined for 50 catches for 612 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season.

Whalen had an advantage because he was Luck’s teammate at Stanford and their offensive coordinator there, Pep Hamilton, is the Colts' offensive coordinator and he’s using the same passing plays he used while coaching them in college.

“The quarterback-receiver dynamic is all about trust and the quarterback has to trust that the receiver is going to get to the spot and or beat man coverage,” Hamilton said. “That was one of the things that Reggie, of course, afforded for the offense. Once Reggie went down we had to recallabrate, if you would, and just find a way to mix and match guys with certain concepts and certain situations. Try to put guys in position to do what they do best and we feel like we picked the right time to identify the niche of different guys.”
INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts had their top cornerbacks on the practice field Wednesday, a day after only having three available in Tuesday's practice.

Cornerbacks Vontae Davis (groin), Darius Butler (quad) and Greg Toler (groin) were full participants in practice, giving an indication that the Colts could have a healthy group for Saturday’s wild-card playoff matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. Davis injured his groin in last weekend’s victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“They still have to get their feet under them,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “They looked pretty good [at practice Wednesday]. Still evaluating and see how it goes come Saturday.”

The Colts are becoming healthy at the right time.

Defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and defensive end Fili Moala (knee) were the only two players not to practice Wednesday. Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) was limited in practice.

Luck adjusts, has a better second season

December, 31, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- Andrew Luck stood barefoot with his hands gently locked in front of him in the hallway outside the locker room at the team’s facility more than two months ago.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaAndrew Luck bounced back from the loss of his No. 1 receiver.
The Indianapolis Colts’ franchise quarterback, with some frustration in his voice, threw around the phrases “sick to my stomach” and “loss in a sense.”

Luck was about to step into unfamiliar territory for the first time in his young NFL career. He no longer would have his security blanket, the player who led in the locker room and on the field and the one who could make up for a bad throw by making an incredible catch.

Future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne was done for the season with a torn ACL. Enter a group of receivers in which doing a Google search to learn about their playing background wasn't considered embarrassing.

As much as it may hurt Colts fans to hear this, Luck had to follow New England quarterback Tom Brady's blueprint. There's no better quarterback in the league than Brady when it comes to getting the most out of his receivers.

It was Luck’s turn to do the same if the Colts expected to win the AFC South.

And just as he did at Stratford High School in Houston and during his All-American career at Stanford, Luck, the methodical perfectionist, put in the time, never showed any frustration and stayed committed to his young receivers. The result was a better second half of the season for Luck.

“It’s never easy to lose your go-to guy,” Colts veteran backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I really think the setup we had here was healthy. Other guys had to step up and fill the void."

Luck’s passing yards are down from his rookie season because the Colts put more of an emphasis on the running game. But the decision-making skills he displayed during the season give validation on why he was a better quarterback this season. Luck improved his completion percentage from 54.1 to 60.2, and threw 23 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Peyton Manning has had only one season in his 16-year career where he had less than 10 interceptions.

“Regardless of who is out there, he’s going to find a way to get the job done,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s not going to walk in here because we lost this guy, that guy and whatever. He’s just one of those guys that has a great attitude and it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. He’s going to find a way to win the football game and he wills his team to win games. He’s a great competitor that way. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”

The transition wasn’t easy at first because Luck had completed only 23.8 percent of his pass attempts when Wayne wasn’t on the field before the injury, and the future Hall of Fame receiver had accounted for 101 of Luck's 288 first-down completions.

The Colts went from having Wayne as the No. 1 receiver to moving second-year player T.Y. Hilton into his spot. Darrius Heyward-Bey still lacked the mental focus to catch the ball. LaVon Brazill was suspended the first four games of the season, and Griff Whalen was on the practice squad for the three games before Wayne’s injury.

Quarterback coach Clyde Christensen spoke up after Wayne's injury and said Luck had to maintain a "steady temperature," according to Hasselbeck, and simply reminded him what the focus needed to be.

“Really didn’t have to [talk a lot about it] because we’ve been through so much adversity and injuries,” Pagano said. “I think Reggie was the last of the five starters on the offensive side of the ball that we lost. And so there was really no need for a discussion.”

The first two games without Wayne weren’t bad because Hilton had 14 catches for 251 yards. Wayne's absence became noticeable when teams found a way to slow Hilton down by giving help over the top, forcing Luck to go elsewhere with the ball.

That didn’t turn out too well.

He completed only 50.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the first five games without Wayne.

Luck, who would rather compliment than ridicule a teammate, didn’t get discouraged. Drop a pass and he had no problem going back to that receiver the next time the opportunity presented itself.

The continuity started to show against Cincinnati on Dec. 8, when Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers, who was brought up from the practice squad, combined for 160 yards and four touchdowns.

The sudden maturity at receiver allowed the Colts to use a no-huddle offense with Luck in the shotgun. He completed 67 percent of his attempts for six touchdowns and only one interception in the final four games of the regular season.

It's a perfect time, too, because the Colts will need Luck's arm and mental toughness in order to win their first playoff game since 2009 when they host the Chiefs on Saturday.

“I think there’s a bit of a rhythm that we’ve found,” Luck said. “And it’s good. I’m glad we’re playing decent football going into the postseason. We know the postseason’s a whole different ballgame and one-and-done, and we’re excited about that.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- The first two games without Reggie Wayne lined up opposite of him were pretty easy for Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton.

A 121-yard, three-touchdown game was followed by a 130-yard game for Hilton. Then came double-teams by the opponents to slow the second-year speedster down. The 100-yard receiving games became non-existent for Hilton for six straight weeks for Hilton. He had a game with only 7 yards receiving during that stretch.

[+] EnlargeT.Y. Hilton
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesT.Y. Hilton had a career-high 11 catches for 155 yards in Sunday's win over Jacksonville.
Frustrated? No. It was just difficult for Hilton because he was in the position of having to be the go-to receiver a lot sooner than he or many others expected this early in his career.

A sign of change happened for Hilton against Houston on Dec. 15 when he caught a career-high eight passes.

His career day in receptions and yards happened against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Hilton had a career-high 11 catches for 155 yards -- also a career high -- in the Colts' 30-10 victory over the Jaguars.

“For me, I know the ball is going to come to me,” Hilton said. “It’s just about being patient. They were doubling me. They did that a little, but I’m adjusting to the double-teams and finding a way to get open and finding the spot [quarterback] Andrew [Luck] expects me to be at.”

Hilton was Luck’s primary target early in the game. He caught three passes for 26 yards on the Colts’ opening drive that ended with a Donald Brown touchdown. Hilton had already surpassed his previous career high of eight catches by halftime when he had nine receptions for 95 yards. Luck was 11-of-15 when he targeted Hilton.

Hilton surpassed 1,000-yards receiving for the first time in his career in the first half. Hilton said that was a goal of his coming into the season and even joked that he accomplished the feat quicker than Wayne. It took Wayne four years to record his first 1,000-yard season. When told of Hilton’s comments, Wayne joked back, “Let me know when you get to 11,000 [yards].”

Hilton was easy to defend earlier because he didn’t have much help at receiver. Darrius Heyward-Bey wasn’t cutting it. LaVon Brazill still hadn’t found a rhythm. David Reed was so bad that he ended up getting released. But things have opened up some for Hilton recently because Luck has developed continuity with Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen, which will help Hilton and the rest of the offense in the playoffs.

“We know how dynamic he is and we talk a lot about how much of a playmaker he is,” Luck said. “So if we can get the ball in his hands, good things happen. ... [The other receivers are] opening him up, and the tight ends and the running backs. We know the more you can spread the ball around, the better for T.Y. because the more he opens up I think.”




Sunday, 2/2