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Colts Mailbag: T.Y. Hilton's Start, Julian Blackmon In A Larger Role, What's Next For Mo Alie-Cox?

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and his start to the 2020 season, whether Julian Blackmon is the next man up to start at free safety, if Mo Alie-Cox can continue his ascension with Jack Doyle returning and much more.


INDIANAPOLIS — Each week, readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out on the party this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here.

Let's jump right into this week's questions:

@doug_d_brown on Twitter: "What's TY's place in this year's system? In your opinion, has he "lost a step?""

Walker: T.Y. Hilton is still the No. 1 receiver in this offense. Period. The moment opposing defenses stop worrying about and gameplanning for Hilton is the moment he torches somebody for 150 yards and a couple scores. He's still that guy. Has he had three rough moments in the first two games? Yes. But I truly — truly — believe Hilton is on the cusp of breaking out and having a big game. And the reason I laugh at the notion of Hilton losing a step is because all you have to do is look at the dropped touchdown from last Sunday's win against the Vikings to get your answer; he ran right by Harrison Smith, one of the best safeties in the league, to get open over the top. Hilton is just fine, and I'm confident that will show very soon.


@LiveLoveLupe on Twitter: "DeFo dominated, at one time looking like Reggie Whote reborn! Is he that good, or was the Vikings OLine that bad?"

Walker: DeForest Buckner is that good. And, really, his last six quarters of play have been absolutely fantastic. I think the biggest thing for Buckner is taking advantage of the one-on-one opportunities he does get (like the one you're referring to), because this guy is going to get more than his fair share of double teams on a weekly basis. Buckner has said it's important to go into every snap expecting not to be double teamed, so he isn't caught off guard when just one blocker is thrown his way. It's been just two games, but Buckner has, as expected, stayed at the All-Pro pace he showed in his first few seasons with the San Francisco 49ers; his 79.4 overall defensive grade from Pro Football Focus is higher than both 2018 (79.3), when he earned his first Pro Bowl selection, as well as higher than last year (78.8), when he was named Second Team All-Pro.


Ozzurip on Colts Reddit: "Which version of the team should we believe between these two games?"

Walker: What's the saying? The truth always lies somewhere in the middle? Offensively, I'd say that's the case for the Colts through two weeks. You've seen two drastically different gameplans, both of which, I think, were altered at least somewhat by early injuries to running back Marlon Mack Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and wide receiver Parris Campbell Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings. Philip Rivers threw it 46 times Week 1, and then the Colts ran it 40 times in Week 2, and I think there is a happy medium there that this offense will eventually find, especially once the numbers start to improve on third down and in the red zone. Defensively, I think you're encouraged by the adjustments made from Week 1 to Week 2, especially in the back end. If the defensive line can keep humming like it did the second half of the Jaguars game and the entire Vikings game, then I think that unit will be just fine.


Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "Did Julian Blackmon earn the start at safety against the Jets? Or will Odum get the start because Blackmon is still on a pitch count?"

Walker: Every indication to me is that Julian Blackmon will be the starter at free safety moving forward, but there are a couple factors at play. First, I wanted to see what Blackmon's participation was this week in practice, and then his status for the game. He was limited all three practices last week and ruled questionable for the Vikings game, but ended up playing 34 defensive snaps in his NFL debut. This week, he was once again limited all three days of practice, but has no status for Sunday's game, which means he's good to go. So that's encouraging. But let's not forget: Blackmon is still not even 10 months out from his early-December ACL surgery, so you've got to imagine the Colts' staff will be paying close attention to how he's feeling, especially if he's going to be playing an extended role moving forward. But because Tavon Wilson and George Odum have played a combined three defensive snaps the first two games, I think all signs point to Blackmon being the starter at safety alongside Khari Willis.


uplyfting on Colts Reddit: "It was great seeing Mo Alie-Cox being utilized as a playmaker against the Vikings. He really stepped up to the plate in Doyle's absence. Do you think Rivers will continue to target him as the season progresses, or do you foresee him returning to his role primarily as a blocking TE when JD returns?"

Walker: We'll likely get our first look at this very development Sunday against the New York Jets. Jack Doyle (knee) was able to progress from not practicing on Wednesday, to limited on Thursday to full participant on Friday, and he's questionable heading into the game, but certainly trending in the right direction. So if Doyle plays, I think he'll still play a huge role as that dependable target at the sticks for Philip Rivers to throw to, but what I think Mo Alie-Cox showed you last week against the Minnesota Vikings is that he can be a vertical threat in the passing game that I don't think you can really get anywhere else. I wouldn't be surprised to even see some more 11 personnel calls (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) than usual on Sunday in which Alie-Cox is the lone tight end, just to try to feature some of those special abilities he has. So I think Doyle's return — and Trey Burton's eventual return — might cut into what you'd get out of Alie-Cox if he was the main tight end, but last Sunday's performance, in my mind, showed just how important it will be to feed No. 81 much more often moving forward.


bodiepartlow on Colts Reddit: "Is Ballard a soothsayer? Drafting Pittman, Taylor, and Blackmon with the injuries we've seen so far this year seems like he had some kind of premonition."

Walker: I think I need to ask Chris Ballard for his six favorite numbers and then use those to buy a Powerball ticket. It is a very odd coincidence that the Colts selected a wide receiver, running back and a safety in their first three picks of this year's NFL Draft, all of whom weren't needed to be immediate starters heading into the season, and then you see key injuries to veterans at all three positions. But I think that's why you hear Ballard say each and every year that, for the most part, the team is going with the best player available in the draft, and not selecting based off positional needs. It's the NFL; you just never know what's going to happen at any given position, so you draft based off your board (for the most part), and let the depth chart play out from there. But Michael Pittman Jr., Jonathan Taylor and Julian Blackmon are definitely going to be needed to play huge roles moving forward, and, honestly, I think all three are ready for the opportunity.


ineedschleep on Colts Reddit: "With Campbell out and good camps by multiple players, who do you expect to be the next man up for WR4?"

Walker: I don't necessarily look at it as who's the next WR4, but who's going to play Parris Campbell's role as the Colts' primary slot receiver? Both Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni have said it won't be just one guy that will be expected to fill in that spot; that it'll be multiple players at wide receiver, tight end and even running back who will line up in the slot from time to time. I'd say right now Zach Pascal is by default probably the No. 1 slot receiver option, but T.Y. Hilton has a ton of experience making plays out of that spot, Nyheim Hines is nearing 100 career snaps lined up in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and pretty much any tight end can be an option in the slot, but especially Trey Burton when he's able to return from IR (which will be as soon as next Sunday against the Chicago Bears).


Four2itus on Forums: "How is Togiai fitting in with the team?"

Walker: One of the more impressive aspects of last Sunday's win over the Minnesota Vikings that I don't think people really realized was how Noah Togiai was not only able to make his NFL debut, but as an undrafted rookie who had signed just a couple weeks prior and had no offseason program or preseason games, he was counted on to play a huge role at tight end for the Colts, logging 37 offensive snaps and providing solid run blocking. I asked offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni about this very subject this week. "Yeah, that was really impressive," Sirianni said. "We're not going to put a guy in the game unless we're confident that he knows what he's doing and he has shown that he can do that early. As soon as he walked in the door and we had a meeting with him, we're like, 'This guy is sharp.' Then we practiced with him. 'He has a lot of talent, too.' Great job to Chris Ballard and his staff of getting him on this roster. We said it today in our meeting – we put up a play and said, 'Hey Noah, great first play here.' First play in the NFL and he had a phenomenal block on the edge and got up to the second level for an explosive run for Jonathan (Taylor). Man, that doesn't happen with a lot of guys. So, impressed by Noah and his first outing. I know he'll continue to get better because of the type of player he is and the way we practice. His arrow is going to be moving up for a while."


Myles on Forums: "Why wasn't Hines used much against the Vikings? He went from 15 touches week 1 to 1 touch against the Vikings. He fielded 4 punts, so he must not have been hurt. Just thought it was odd."

Walker: I just chalk it up to a very specific gameplan. The Colts wanted to attack the Minnesota Vikings' weakness up front along the defensive line by running it down their throats over and over and over, and their best options to do that at running back are Jonathan Taylor and Jordan Wilkins. But I was also pretty surprised that Nyheim Hines, who had all those touches in the run game and as a receiver Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, had just one offensive touch — a four-yard reception — against the Vikings. I just don't see that being a theme moving forward; he's too important to this offense and the way Philip Rivers likes to operate to have that little of an impact on a weekly basis.


danlhart87 on Forums: "Is there a reason all the Colts castaways go to the Jets? They have around 8 former Colts. Are the Colts planning on following the recipe they had Sunday on O where Rivers keeps it under 30 attempts? Do you believe the Colts have a good OL or do you think Q makes them better than they are? and finally Do you think the emergence of MAC will effect how we move the ball especially when Doyle comes back?"

Walker: Woah, woah, woah. Firing from all angles here.

» I think the connection to the New York Jets is pretty clear: Rex Hogan, who was the Colts' Vice President of Player Personnel under Chris Ballard in 2017 and 2018, is now the Jets' Assistant General Manager under GM Joe Douglas. When you're Hogan and you already have so much intel and information on these players from your time in Indy, it really cuts down on the background work needed for players from outside organizations.

» I'm not sure I'd put a limit of passing attempts on Philip Rivers at 30 for this game, but that does seem about to be a sweet spot. The Jets have a ton of injuries in their secondary, though, so one would imagine Rivers won't be shy about testing out their depth. Another factor: the Jets' run defense is usually pretty tough under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, even though they didn't quite show that last week when they allowed 184 rushing yards on 27 carries against the San Francisco 49ers. So I'd expect a few more pass attempts in this one compared to last week.

» The Colts' offensive line is outstanding as a group. Anthony Castonzo is a top-five to top-10 left tackle in the NFL, the aforementioned Quenton Nelson is the best guard in the league, Ryan Kelly is probably a top-five center, Mark Glowinski has been one of the better run-blocking right guards in the league the last couple seasons, and is off to a wonderful start so far this year, and Braden Smith is undoubtedly one of the top young tackles in the game. Nelson gets the pub, and rightfully so, but the rest of the group is very good.

» And I addressed the Mo Alie-Cox/Jack Doyle dynamic above. If Doyle plays, I don't think Mo Alie-Cox gets quite as many looks every game, but he proved he needs more targets in general with the way he played last week.

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