INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts set out to add some explosive playmakers on offense in the 2020 NFL Draft, and they got off to a hot start when they selected USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round with the No. 34-overall pick.
In a draft oozing with wide receiver talent — some have said it could be considered historically deep at the position — the Colts could've gone any number of ways when they went on the clock with the second pick in the second round. But general manager Chris Ballard said it was Pittman Jr. that clearly separated himself from the pack in terms of everything he brings with him.
"I will say this about the receiver draft, I kind of said it the other day, it was about flavor. What flavor did you want? What we saw with Michael was a guy that could win at all three levels," Ballard told reporters after selecting Pittman Jr. "He was big. He's strong to the ball. He competes. He got better every year in college. He's the type of teammate we want. We think he's got a chance to be a heck of a player."
The son of longtime NFL running back Michael Pittman, Junior has taken after his father and worked tirelessly in order to get to the NFL level. At USC, Pittman Jr. was a team captain who was noted not only for his leadership and work ethic, but for his rock-solid personal character.
During his time in Los Angeles, he was recognized with the Pop Warner College Football Award, given to a senior who has made an impact on the field, classroom and community, as well as receiving USC's Community Service Award, the Lifters Award, and he was named USC's MVP in 2019. Pittman Jr. was also a finalist for the Witten Award, which recognizes the college man of the year, and was a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, which is awarded to a player for a blend of performance, leadership, character and resilience.
And that's just off the field. On the field, Pittman Jr. continued to push himself to new levels with each passing season.
"Yeah, just showing up every day. When I say 'showing up,' like showing up; working hard, being there early and studying plays," Pittman Jr. said of his ability to be so productive. "It just leads to more opportunities, and when they happen, you have prepared for them."
All that hard work manifested in success for Pittman Jr., as his numbers improved each season at USC, resulting in a monster senior year.
In 2019, he totaled 101 receptions for 1,275 yards (12.6 avg.) and 11 touchdowns, leading the Pac-12 Conference in receptions, receiving yards, and was second in receiving scores.
Pittman Jr.'s play as a senior earned him a spot as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the top wide receiver in college football. He was also named Second-Team All-American as well as First-Team All-Pac-12 as both a wide receiver and a special teams player.
Yes, that's special teams recognition — something you don't to see much from a star playmaker, outside of being a return specialist. While he does have 11 total kickoff and punt returns to his name (including a touchdown), Pittman Jr. likes being on the blocking and coverage side of things as well. He even has three blocked kicks to his name.
"I think it can attribute to my toughness and want-to, because special teams is football too," he said. "Anytime I can get on the field, I'm going to get out there and try to put somebody on my highlight reel."
The evidence points toward Pittman Jr. being a success in the NFL. He's got the work ethic, collegiate statistical production, size, toughness, athleticism, route running ability and hands to prove that the Colts chose wisely at the top of Round 2.
He stands 6-4 and 223 pounds with 32-1/2" arms and a wingspan of over 6-7, which are all above-average measurements for the receiver position.
To go along with his impressive frame, at the Scouting Combine, Pittman Jr. also put up above-average numbers for his size in the 40-yard dash (4.52), vertical jump (36.5) and broad jump (121).
On the field, Pittman Jr. played almost exclusively on the left side of the formation for three of his four years at USC. As a true X-receiver like the Colts envision him becoming, they may want him to eventually move around a bit and be the guy that opponents have to try and stop.
Pittman Jr. appears to be on his way to being very good when it comes to hand combat with defensive backs. His tape early on showed he could battle a little more in press coverage, but the cornerbacks didn't often appear to try to get physical with him at the line, so it didn't matter then like it will in the NFL. He began using his size and strength more as the 2019 season progressed, making him more dangerous at the point of attack.
"I feel like in press, I'm pretty good at winning at the release. Pretty good at getting hands off me," Pittman Jr. said of his strengths. "In off coverage, it's probably going to be somewhere like the top of the route."
As a route runner, Pittman Jr. makes quick cuts in and out of his breaks, and he's actually got very good agility for a player of his size. In the last 10 years, among receivers who are at least 6-4 and 220 pounds, he was tied for the third-best short shuttle time (4.14) and eighth-best three cone (6.96) at the Combine, which are drills that showcase agility and change-of-direction.
"I just went in my senior year and I didn't just want to be the guy who gets open by pushing people around and throwing people around," Pittman Jr. said at the Combine. "I wanted to show skill and a finesse side."
Although Pittman Jr. is an effective, convincing route runner, he'll likely begin developing a more diverse route tree with the Colts than he had with the Trojans, especially if they further develop him as one of their top receivers.
He has adequate speed and can stretch the field, catching balls downfield as seamlessly as he does in the short to intermediate routes.
He also displays good leaping ability and the ability to high-point the ball, beating the defensive back for the "rebound." Both his vertical (36.5) and broad jumps (121) were among the top 15 receivers with his size over the last 10 years as well. However, it's the blend of his mentality, leaping ability and arm length that really makes his high-point ability work.
With the ball in the air, Pittman Jr. tracks it well downfield and along the sidelines. He shows good concentration and body control, and understands how to use his large frame to shield defenders out of the way. He also knows how to use a defender's momentum against them to better position himself for the ball.
He also has incredibly reliable hands and can make tough, contested catches. In fact, he was only knocked for five drops in his whole four-year college career.
After the catch, it can be a bit of a chore for cornerbacks to bring Pittman Jr. down because of his frame and strength. He keeps his feet moving and tries to drive himself through the tackle. If he catches the ball in space, he's also very much capable of picking up extra yards after the catch.
Adding another layer to being a competitor and teammate, Pittman Jr. is a very effective blocker, which especially accentuates his frame and strength.
"That's basically what my dad talks about. He talks about Keyshawn Johnson being his favorite guy because he would throw the best blocks for him," Pittman Jr. said about being a receiver that likes to block. "It's always good to block."
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Throughout the pre-draft process, Pittman Jr. had a special feeling about the Colts, even wearing a blue shirt of the day he was drafted.
Turns out that special feeling was mutual.
"Just based on the conversations that we had. I felt like we had a good connection and I just felt like it was the right fit," Pittman Jr. said.
"I think that's why it's such a great pick, because I think they brought me in to impact like right now," he continued. "They also have Philip Rivers, who I think is a Hall-of-Famer, and I couldn't be more happy that I get to start with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. So, that's great."
The Colts have one of the top offensive lines in the game, which helps power a top-10 rushing attack, and now they have a potential future Hall-of-Fame quarterback running the unit in Rivers.
The Colts' offense is built to be successful right now, and should be more than capable of welcoming in a player like Pittman Jr. with open arms. They do have some gelling to do with a new quarterback coming in, which now includes incorporating a couple of young guys like Pittman Jr. and second-year receiver Parris Campbell into the mix.
However, players aside, another thing that really works in the Colts' favor — and one of the biggest reasons that they were able to land Rivers — is their coaches; particularly head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
"Yeah, absolutely. You're getting coached by a guy that actually played and actually knows how to play the game, which doesn't happen very often," Pittman Jr. said of the opportunity to play for Reich, who played quarterback in the NFL for 13 years. "So I have a coach now that understands what it's like be a player as well as a coach."
As much as Pittman Jr. is looking forward to teaming up with Reich, the feeling is mutual from his new head coach, who had his eye on the USC product for weeks heading into the draft.
"Yeah, very excited about getting Michael Pittman, now. Like Chris said, this was a team effort but he was a guy who I think there was a really strong consensus on by everyone in the room from Day 1. This was a guy that we had targeted," Reich said.
The third-year Colts head coach then went into the specifics of what he saw that convinced him Pittman Jr. was the right selection for the Colts.
"I always talk about receivers, there are kind of four factors into it. You've got to feel the receiver's power," Reich said. "So we see Michael as being an X-receiver and being the kind of guy you can line up and go one-on-one with. Really, the four factors that go into that are size and strength, and speed and quickness. It is (that) combination of four things that go into receiver. That's what the defensive back feels when he comes off the ball.
"Michael's got size, he's got strength, he's got good speed for his size, and then he has what we call good-body quickness. He is not a jukey receiver like the small slot receivers you're seeing, but when you have a big man who has good body quickness – that presents a problem. Then he has excellent ball skills, really good feet for a big man. Sometimes you get a big man and they win one-on-one matchups just by outmuscling people. Michael has good enough feet and good enough technique and skill that he is a good route runner. So we think that he can develop," Reich continued. "It usually takes receivers a little bit of time, but we think he has the maturity and the skill to develop probably faster than most. But it still will take some time, but we are excited about that. You've got to have guys like a T.Y. Hilton who you know can be your dog – he can be your go-to guy. Michael needs to develop into that for us. That's our hope, that is our vision for him."
Pittman Jr.'s selection was one of those rare instances in which a team need and one of the top players on their board were one in the same early on in the draft.
When we studied potential fits for the Colts throughout the draft process, Pittman Jr. came in as a 100-percent match for the team based on the minimum physical and athletic thresholds of the wide receivers that they'd drafted or signed immediately as undrafted free agents since Ballard arrived as GM in 2017.
Indy's star receiver, T.Y. Hilton, is a big-time playmaker, but turns 31 years old around midway through the 2020 season. Hilton and Campbell were supposed to be the two most-featured receivers in the offense in 2019 before both had their season's heavily disrupted by injuries.
Assuming both return with a clean bill of health in 2020, they'll be joining do-it-all receiver Zach Pascal, who became the main target in the passing game for much of last season. Between Hilton, Campbell, Pascal and Marcus Johnson, they are the only receivers on the roster with real, extensive NFL experience.
It might not be long until Pittman Jr. can add his name to that list, as he has the talent, he displayed the leadership at USC and he does the hard work to make it all come together and be able to contribute right away for the Colts.
"The greatest lesson is you can never hurt yourself by working as hard as possible," Pittman Jr. said. "Even if you work hard and fail, you still know, 'Hey, I did everything possible and it just didn't happen.'"