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Breakout Radar: Austin Collie

There has been a great deal of discussion and debate regarding the future of the Indianapolis Colts’ wide receiver position.  Anthony Gonzalez is returning from injury and was previously the second receiver on the depth chart, lining up opposite Reggie Wayne on the right side of the field.  After he went down to injury, he was replaced by Pierre Garçon, who went on to impress with his strength and speed, giving the Colts a deep threat option which it has lacked since Marvin Harrison was healthy.

To make the issue more complicated, fourth round draft pick Austin Collie was extremely successful as a rookie, collecting 60 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns in the 2009 regular season.  In the playoffs he was even more deadly when hauled in 17 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns.  Needless to say, Collie developed a great deal as a player in his rookie season and established himself as one of Peyton Manning’s trusted targets.

Darron Cummings | AP Photo

What Collie has playing in his favor is that Gonzalez and Garçon both technically have only started as wideouts, as typically the Colts list two tight ends as starters.  Many have also noted that Gonzalez was better on the outside than he was on the inside.  Collie, on the other hand, projects very much as a slot receiver, his size, speed, and skillset lends itself to success inside.

As a result, it seems unlikely that Collie will move from his slot position and relatively unlikely that Gonzalez or Garçon would be permanently moved to the inside.  There is a chance that the Colts will have flexibility to change the wide receiver packages to give defenses a new look, rotate Gonzalez inside from time to time, and it is also possible that with the proven depth on the roster more rotating could take place in order to keep fresh legs on the field.  Still, Collie is in the driver’s seat at the slot receiver position to keep his job and take a majority of snaps at the position.

Collie, maybe more than any other receiver on the team, will benefit from Gonzalez’s return because one thing that makes the slot receiver so dangerous and effective is the mismatches the position can create if the player in the position is talented enough to exploit defensive schemes, formations, or thin depth.  Imagine a situation where Clark, Gonzalez, and Wayne are all also on the field.  Clark himself is enough of a mismatch concern that opponents typically have to bring a safety up, an additional corner in, or rely on a rare specimen at linebacker to cover him.  On the outside, Wayne typically demands the attention of two defenders, one primary corner to cover him and another player over the top.

Now imagine Gonzalez or the now proven Garçon on the outside.  Either receiver should demand at least one defender leaving what is left over on Collie.  This is extremely dangerous for a couple of reasons.  First, Collie could very well establish himself as the second best receiver on the team as he has now developed in the offense, earned Manning’s trust, was one of the primary third down targets in 2009, and has acclimated himself to the speed of the NFL.  Second, the leftover defensive focus will almost have to be either a safety or a linebacker, either of which will individually struggle to cover Collie.

A safety will struggle because bringing two safeties up on the Colts will open up the long pass for Manning and because if the safety plays back and waits for Collie to get to him, Collie will be able to exploit what he does best, which is to find a spot in the defense and sit in it awaiting Manning’s pass.  A linebacker will struggle because Collie is too fast and athletic for a linebacker to single cover and because if two linebackers pay attention to Colts’ receiving options, the defense will be opening itself up to being gashed by runs or short passes to Joseph Addai or Donald Brown, who have been and certainly will be one of Peyton’s first looks in this kind of blanket coverage.

Ultimately, it is fair to believe that Collie, despite his success, despite his work ethic, and despite a relatively strong likelihood that he will improve as a receiver from a season ago, Collie is the most easily overlooked component of the Colts offense.  No player will likely pull more favorable matchups as consistently as he in the Colts offense.

If you couple player development, a high degree of success as a rookie, a relatively strong hold on getting the majority of snaps at a position, with being possibly the most overlooked weapon on the offense and a breakout season could be on the horizon.  No player works harder.  No player is more of a perfectionist in his craft in the Colts offense than Collie, save Manning.  All recipes for a very positive outlook in 2010, and reason to believe that Austin Collie may very well establish himself as one of the most reliable and dangerous receiver options in the NFL this season.

It seems that head coach Jim Caldwell agrees.  On Tuesday Caldwell held a press conference discussing the development of players at the Colts organized team activities and commented on Collie’s work ethic, “He’s got the kind of work habits, and he is really diligent about everything that he does that would lead you to believe that you are going to see some improvement.  There is no question about it.  He is in early.  He stays late.  He works extremely hard.”

As for how far Collie could go in his jump in 2010, Caldwell comments, “The sky is the limit.”  I agree, Collie is the kind of hard worker, the kind of meticulous preparer, and the kind of success in his young career that is suggestive of a very bright future.  Keep an eye on his development this year.