INDIANAPOLIS — The 2020 NFL Draft had historical depth at the wide receiver position, from the top to the bottom.
However, in a draft class that saw six receivers selected in the first round, could the eighth receiver to come off the board be the one that actually landed in the best situation?
Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner certainly thinks so.
The Indianapolis Colts selected Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round with the 34th-overall pick in this year's draft, and Renner thinks the match is an excellent one, placing the USC product in the best overall rookie wide receiver position in the league. Renner writes:
1. MICHAEL PITTMAN JR., INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Look at every receiver who has had success with Philip Rivers over his career and the body types he targets most:
- Keenan Allen (6-foot-2, 211 pounds)
- Tyrell Williams (6-foot-4, 205 pounds)
- Malcom Floyd (6-foot-5, 225 pounds)
- Vincent Jackson (6-foot-5, 230 pounds)
- Michael Pittman Jr.* (6-foot-4, 223 pounds)
While it could very well be a coincidence, the fact remains that Rivers has had a ton of success with bigger-bodied wideouts. The Colts didn't have anything resembling Pittman's skillset on the roster before drafting him, so he slides immediately into the possession role that Rivers covets.
Earlier this offseason, Renner also considered the pairing of the Colts and 41st-overall pick Jonathan Taylor as the best match between a rookie running back and their new team, and now the Colts have landed a receiver in the perfect situation as well in Pittman Jr..
There are several factors that lend credence to this argument.
For starters, Pittman Jr. isn't really a second-round receiver. In a less-decorated class of receivers, he likely would've heard his name called in Round 1. After all, throughout the draft process, he has been compared to the likes of current NFL star receivers Michael Thomas, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Courtland Sutton and Kenny Golladay, and in the recent past, Vincent Jackson and Dwayne Bowe.
"Size, speed, body-quickness, good feet, good route runner for a big man," is how Colts head coach Frank Reich described Pittman Jr.'s game to reporters after the draft. "A lot of times big guys win with size and strength, but I saw he is a good technician. I saw him running routes in college and winning on routes that we run in our offense so it was easy to translate. Short to intermediate routes that we like to throw to that type of receiver – big, strong receiver that we haven't been able to do as much of, but that we've done in our past. We just haven't had the right body type for that.
"So a lot of those showed up on tape," Reich continued. "But also the plays down the field. We all know one of the goals for us is to get our yards per attempt up higher where it needs to be. That takes everybody and I think he can help add to that as well."
There should be plenty of opportunity for Pittman Jr. to carve out a nice role with the Colts as a rookie, as T.Y. Hilton and Zach Pascal are the only established players in the team's receiving corps near the top of the depth chart, and Parris Campbell, a second-round pick in last year's NFL Draft, is working his way back from an injury-plagued rookie season in 2019.
The Colts have a specific vision for Pittman Jr., and it doesn't sound like there will be much of a wait for it to be enacted, either.
"The way we do our receivers – we envision Michael as being the 'X' receiver and believe he can develop into that pretty quickly," Reich said. "He is obviously going to have to prove that but we are optimistic that he will. The 'X' receiver is – for a lack of a better way to say it – the guy that you want to put when you're in a trips right and he is singled into the boundary and you can throw one-on-one to him. There are a handful or routes that you want to throw to him. So yeah, you think about those things when you pick a guy. You think, 'Okay, we can throw these five things to him.' Those things come to you right away. But it is not just about that, it is about how the receivers complement each other.
"I think the offensive staff does a really good job – we work really hard at moving guys around," Reich said, advising that the Colts will continue to use their receivers in multiple roles, but that they see a clear role for Pittman Jr. right away. "So he will be the 'X' receiver. We are going to continue to always do that, but we do envision Michael as that 'X' receiver that every now and then you can just say, 'Hey, they are playing a lot of man-coverage. Let's put him into the boundary and throw on-on-one and expect him to win.'"
Understanding that he's yet to play a down of NFL football, on paper Pittman Jr. is the type of pass-catcher that new Colts quarterback Philip Rivers has loved throughout his career.
In 16 previous seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, Rivers has been drawn to the taller, big-bodied pass-catchers like Pittman Jr., with guys like the aforementioned Jackson, Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd, Hunter Henry and Mike Williams all thriving with Rivers throwing them the ball. Pittman Jr.'s 6-4, 223-pound frame should draw his new QB's attention.
With that said, a passer like Rivers who has finished in the NFL's top 10 in pass attempts six times over the last 10 years is willing to fling it around the field, but does not yet have a favorite target on the Colts, so Pittman Jr. could feasibly become his go-to guy.
There are several examples of rookie receivers earning veteran quarterbacks' trust over the last several years, notably Allen's 105 targets with Rivers himself in 2013.
Yet, a player can have all the size and athletic talent in the world, but it still wouldn't matter in the long run if they don't have the high character, and you won't find many guys with a work ethic and "want to" like Pittman Jr.'s.
"Yeah, just showing up every day. When I say showing up like showing up, working hard, being there early and studying plays," Pittman Jr. told reporters as to the keys to his collegiate success. "It just leads to more opportunities and when they happen, you have prepared for them."
That hard work and the little things that Pittman Jr. does when the ball isn't in his hands is something that endeared him to the Colts' coaching staff early in the evaluation process.
"Coach (Mike) Groh and I spent a lot of time in his workroom and in my basement talking through these receivers. We've watched everything you can imagine. Not only the target tapes but the blocking tapes and the press tapes where it's not always going to him. I think that's where we fell in love with this guy," Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said evaluating Pittman Jr. with wide receiver coach Mike Groh before the draft.
"Not only did he (Pittman Jr.) impress on his target tape – obviously 110 catches his senior year was very impressive, but it's the other stuff he does," Sirianni continued. "It's the 'Zach Pascal, Jack Doyle' stuff he does – the toughness, the consistency. That was what was exciting. Obviously, a great phenomenal football player with the ball in his hands and when the ball is coming to him, but a lot of special qualities that he had that separated him from other wideouts that we evaluated when the ball wasn't going to him."