Josh Downs did on-field work with his veteran teammates for the first time as a member of the Colts last week, and for wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne, seeing him in that setting brought into focus the kind of weapon the 2023 third-round pick could be as soon as this fall.
Adding the 5-foot-10 Downs to a wide receiver room that returns the 6-foot-4 Michael Pittman Jr., the 6-foot-3 Alec Pierce and the 6-foot-1 Ashton Dulin brings another dimension – quite literally – to the group of guys at Wayne's disposal.
"He's not necessarily plug and play, but I do think he can complement those guys," Wayne said. "I think he has a skillset that we didn't have in the room."
It's not just Downs' height, of course. His short-area quickness is an asset for a guy who primarily has played in the slot in his career – Downs' 6.75-second three-cone drill (used to measure quickness, agility and acceleration) at North Carolina pro day would've been the second-fastest at this year's NFL Combine.
Downs used that short-area quickness to become one of college football's most productive wide receivers while at North Carolina (195 receptions, 2,634 yards, 19 touchdowns over the last two seasons). He'll still have to compete to earn playing time this fall, just like every rookie, but Wayne sees Downs' athletic traits translating to his responsibilities in the NFL.
"He's the player that I think we were missing," Wayne said. "A guy who's agile, versatile — a guy who can win on option routes, different things of that sort. I think it was the right fit for us."
Downs in 2022 was targeted 118 times and caught 94 passes for 1,029 yards with 11 touchdowns. His production primarily came when lined up in the slot, per Pro Football Focus:
- 99 targets
- 78 receptions
- 864 yards
- 11 touchdowns
- 44 first downs
- 20 explosive receptions (15+ yards)
If Downs can bring his ability to win from the slot to the NFL, it'll pair well with the outside duo of Pittman and Pierce. About one-third of Pittman's 2022 production came from the slot, while Pierce played only 33 snaps in the slot as a rookie. Along with free agent signing Isaiah McKenzie Jr. (73 percent of his snaps came from the slot in 2022 with the Buffalo Bills), the Colts have will have options to find creative ways to spread the ball around to their receivers in all parts of the field, from all parts of the field, in 2023.
But the Colts also don't view Downs as a slot-only guy long-term. Wayne sees Downs as someone who could play the "Z" receiver (an outside receiver who often does not line up on the line of scrimmage) and do some things in motion depending on how he develops in the NFL. Downs' smooth route-running ability and natural feel for how to attack defenses in space give him some versatile upside.
And stuff like this is why Wayne thought Downs was the best receiver at this year's NFL Combine, and was a strong supporter of him during pre-draft meetings.
"What jumped out was he's pretty smart," Wayne said. "He was brought up with football in his life — his dad is a coach, he understands all the ins and outs. That's what you're looking for — you're trying to get a guy that can not only play and be successful, you're looking for a guy that can catch on quick and go out and do it."