INDIANAPOLIS — In the NFL, guys who check the "height, weight, speed" boxes are always coveted. However, the league is not lacking in top-level players who may have to compensate for their lack of size with other exceptional areas of their game.
Recently, Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit recently came up with a high-quality NFL team strategically constructed using only undersized players:
"We decided to find out, constructing a team of players who are notably lighter and shorter than the average height and weight of players at his position. This is not an All-Star team of small guys, per se, but rather the best all-around team one can construct—this exercise also factored how players fit together and into a scheme. We're building this team the way a smart NFL GM would."
Making the team at wide receiver is T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts.
Unlike Skee-Lo in 1995, the guys on Benoit's All-Small Team don't have to wish they were a little bit taller. And according to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Hilton is a baller.
Many of the undersized players on the Colts roster that general manager Chris Ballard inherited in 2017 are no longer with the team, but Hilton is an institution within the Colts' facility. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in grit, heart and playmaking ability.
Here is what Benoit had to say about Hilton and his other All-Small receivers:
- "T.Y. Hilton, Colts (5' 10", 183 pounds)
- Brandin Cooks, Rams (5' 10", 183 pounds)
- Tyler Lockett, Seahawks (5' 10", 182 pounds)
- Jamison Crowder, Redskins (5' 9", 177 pounds)
- Danny Amendola, Lions (5' 11", 190 pounds)
It's hard to leave DeSean Jackson off this roster, but Hilton and Cooks are just as fast and have more left in the tank. Last year Lockett had one of the most proficient downfield receiving seasons in history, and he can probably work the deep-intermediate levels in the right system. With pure vertical weapons like Hilton and Cooks, the third and fourth receivers must be viable underneath. Crowder, who is shifty on shallow routes, gets the nod, with the understanding that some of his snaps might go to the less talented, but more schematically expansive, Amendola, who can play inside or outside."
Hilton has been performing at an exceptional level for his entire career, but his gutsy performance throughout the 2018 season is a microcosm of how his career has developed to this point.
In Week 4 at home against the Houston Texans, Hilton suffered chest and hamstring injuries that cost him roughly 2 1/2 games. Upon his return, his clean bill of health would only last a handful more games, as he then suffered a dual low and high ankle sprain on the same leg against the Texans again in Week 14.
From there and into the Colts' improbable playoff run into January, Hilton chose to tough it out for the good of the team. You can count on one hand the amount of times he was able to practice over the final five games of the season.
"It was a lot of pain, but I'm a team guy. My teammates needed me," Hilton told reporters during the team's offseason program. "So I was able to just miss practice and go out there on Sunday and just go out there, play and give it everything I had. Coach Frank (Reich) allowed me to do that, him and Chris (Ballard). As long as I was out there I was helping the team no matter what."
He was far from a detriment to the team despite the fact he was operating on one healthy leg. Hilton led the entire NFL in receiving yards over the final half of the season, averaging 114.6 receiving yards per game since Week 10. That's not too bad for a guy with an injury that team doctors told him would take a few months to get totally healed.
As mentioned, the tall, fast guys like Mike Evans, A.J. Green and Julio Jones will always be something teams are looking for, but Hilton has carved out a career tormenting defenses with a different skillset.
Obviously his slight stature means he's not going to win many jump-ball situations, but Hilton wins with his smarts, speed, quickness and route running. He also has excellent hands despite them measuring just 8 ½ inches at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2012, which ranks in just the sixth percentile of wide receivers.
Hilton has helped buck the trend of small, fast guys like him just being deep ball receivers. He'll torch a defense downfield, yes — how do you think he got the nickname "The Ghost?" — but he also wins the short and intermediate routes also. Seeing the things Luck and him do as a pair is sometimes astounding.
Hilton has been named to the Pro Bowl four times. He was also an alternate for the 2018 season and may have been able to attend his fifth all-star game if not for his ankle injury.
The Colts have a rich history of elite receiver play, and Hilton has carved his way into those history books.
This last season, he broke Marvin Harrison's franchise record for career 150-yard receiving games (11) when he went for 199 against the Texans in that same game in which he suffered the ankle injuries.
Seven completed seasons into his career, Hilton stands in history with only the cream of the crop. Within a player's first seven years, he has compared favorably to Harrison and Reggie Wayne, matching, exceeding or slightly trailing many of their marks at this point of their careers
When it comes to Colts' career franchise numbers, Hilton is fourth in receiving yards (8,097) behind only Harrison (14,580), Wayne (14,345) and Raymond Berry (9,275). Two of the three are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Wayne will hopefully get in at some point. Hilton is just 1,179 yards from passing Berry for third, and he's surpassed that season total three times in his career.
Hilton is also fourth in career receptions (507), again behind Harrison (1,102), Wayne (1,070) and Berry (631), and he is seventh in receiving touchdowns (40).
Transitioning into 2019, Hilton is healthy, feels good and is ready to go in the team's second season in Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni's offense.
"Just a matter of resting – just let it get healthy and let it heal up. I'd been doing a lot of running on it since the Texans game and I never got the chance to actually let it heal because every game meant something so I had to go out there and play," Hilton said. "It was fun just to get back (and) just getting healthy. I've still got a little bit more to go, but I'm going to be alright."
Because the Colts are taking precautions with some of their players (especially veterans) who may be rehabbing previous injuries, it was uncertain if Hilton would be present when the Colts began official practices for OTAs.
But Hilton was right there in the mix with his teammates, fresh and ready to go.
"Yeah, no he did look good," Reich said. "Yeah, I mean he looked good and as far as I know everything is full speed ahead."