As he blazed through the heart of the Kansas City Chiefs, leaving an ashen trail of their dreams dragging behind him, T.Y. Hilton burst into the national consciousness and the record books all at the same time.
His 64-yard reception from Andrew Luck vaulted the Colts to an incredible 28-point come-from-behind victory and gave him 224 yards receiving. That’s the most for any Colt ever in a game – a significant record for a franchise that boasts names like Berry, Harrison and Wayne in its history.
It’s a stunning turn of events for a young man who started the season as the third option behind Darius Heyward-Bey in the Colt pecking order. He would frequently come off the field for fullback Stanley Havili, because at one point in time someone involved with the Colts thought that was a good idea.
Once Indianapolis lost Reggie Wayne for the season and Heyward-Bey was benched due to a terminal case of not being good at football, however, it was Hilton’s time to shine. He blossomed after Wayne’s injury, picking up three 100-yard-receiving days and establishing himself as Luck’s best option on any given play.
Indianapolis fans frequently wonder if the slightly-built former third-round pick might not be the next coming of the great Marvin Harrison. After all, the physical similarities are intriguing on the surface. Only Harrison had more catches and touchdowns in his first two seasons with the team, and Hilton even out-paced him in yards.
While Harrison has at least two inches on Hilton and legendary hands, it’s undeniable that their numbers are very similar. In fact, fans too young to remember Harrison before Peyton Manning arrived can look to Hilton and see his virtual clone. Harrison put up almost identical stats, down to the catch rate, over his first two years, albeit in a much more challenging offensive environment and with grossly inferior quarterback play.
It’s unlikely Hilton has that kind of ceiling. After all, Hilton could average 10 scores a year for the next decade and still trail Harrison by 16 career touchdowns, but that doesn’t mean Indianapolis hasn’t found an absolute gem who can be one of the best in the game.
Physically, Hilton is undersized, and it is a factor. Most teams would play Hilton as a slot receiver, a super-fast version of Wes Welker, perhaps. The truth is that Hilton may be more gifted that that. If he can make a living on the outside, he could wind up becoming the next Steve Smith.
Smith stands at 5’9”, 185 lbs. and was taken in the third round of the 2001 draft. With 836 career receptions, and 12,197 yards to go with 67 touchdowns, he has had a fantastic career. Smith is a five-time Pro Bowler and two time All Pro, and at one time was considered one of the two or three best wideouts in the game.
Comparing the two coming out of college, Smith’s Pro Day numbers were eerily similar to Hilton’s, showing an almost imperceptible advantage in quickness, but with Hilton having a slightly faster top gear.
In fact, at age 24, Smith and Hilton were essentially the same player. Smith entered the NFL a year sooner, but spent his first season as a devastating kick returner. Compare his first two years in the league as a receiver to Hilton’s:
It’s possible to talk about Hilton’s ceiling in terms of Pro Bowls and future Hall of Famers in part because he has shown an ability to be versatile. Though largely an outside receiver early in his career, the aforementioned injury to Wayne has moved him into the slot with increasing regularity. From there he’s tortured defenses in a number of ways.
Hilton has shown remarkable ability to beat defenses deep. Luck has looked his way 29 times already this season for 13 catches and four touchdowns on balls thrown 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton efforts to get him the ball short as well, and 82 of targets have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, with 17 such passes occurring on screens behind the line.
In NFL history, only 17 players have started their first two years in the league with at least 1,900 yards, 125 receptions and 10 touchdowns. All but one (Marques Colston) appeared in at least one Pro Bowl, and vast majority wound up with All Pro honors at some point in their career.
It has been said that there is no ceiling for Andrew Luck, and that is true. It’s also clear, however, that there is no ceiling for T.Y. Hilton either.