Aug 162012
 

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2012 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Indianapolis Colts, that player is wide receiver Austin Collie.

Austin Collie was one of my favorite breakout candidates and fantasy sleepers heading into 2011. In 2010, he caught 58 passes for 649 yards and 8 touchdowns in only 9 games because of injuries. Injuries also knocked him out of several games, so he didn’t play 9 full games. In fact, Collie managed just 286 routes run in 2010 because of injuries and yet still had good production. Collie ranked 9th in the NFL in yards per route run with 2.27. Teammate Reggie Wayne, meanwhile, ranked 20th with 1.97 yards per route run.

Collie also led the league in QB rating when thrown to as Peyton Manning had a whopping 143.4 QB rating when throwing to Collie, completing 58 of 70 passes (82.9%) for 649 yards (9.3 YPA), and 8 touchdowns to 0 interceptions. The Colts had 679 passing attempts in 2010. Had Collie run that many routes and maintained his rates, he would have had 138 catches for 1541 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Now, obviously, those numbers are pretty impossible. No one does that. Not even teammate Reggie Wayne, who caught 111 passes for 1355 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2010. The Colts probably wouldn’t pass quite as much as they did in 2010 and eventually defenses would catch on to Collie and start giving him some extra attention. However, Collie appeared healthy going in 2011 and looked poised to win the starting job full time from Pierre Garcon and, at the very least, he would have been a heavily relied on slot receiver. Something like 85 catches for 1000 yards and 9 scores was totally reasonable a projection for him with upside.

However, then Peyton Manning got hurt. Manning wasn’t there in Training Camp and Collie didn’t have the same chemistry with any of the replacements that he had with Manning, who likes a particular type of receiver that Collie’s skill set fit to a tee. Collie lost his starting job to Pierre Garcon and had to play just on the slot. When Manning didn’t come back all season, Collie, all of a sudden, was the #3 receiver on a terrible passing team and his numbers suggested that, as he caught just 54 passes for 514 yards and a touchdown on 98 targets.

He ended up ranking 85th out of 95 eligible receivers in QB rating when thrown to, 55.3, as Colts’ quarterbacks completed just 54 of 98 passes (55.1%) for 5.2 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions. He also ranked 77th in yards per route run, 1.17. The only positive of the 2011 season for Collie was that he managed to play all 16 games, proving his injury prone 2010 season was just a fluke. He’s played all 16 games in 2 of his 3 seasons in the NFL and the 2010 4th round pick doesn’t have a history of injuries dating back to his time in college at Brigham Young University.

They say fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Well, I’m willing to endure the shame on me, if fooled again, and I’m predicting a breakout year from Austin Collie again. Obviously, Peyton Manning is gone, but Andrew Luck is obviously an upgrade over the crap they had at quarterback last season and he’s a very similar style quarterback to Manning. He’s always preferred sure handed possession receivers who are strong route runners and that’s what Collie is. He’s showed good chemistry with Collie in the Preseason, as he was his leading target and receiver in their first Preseason game (3 catches for 45 yards on 5 targets), and in Training Camp.

And, while Peyton Manning is gone, so is Pierre Garcon, so the starting job is essentially all his. The only players “competing” with him for his starting job are two rookies, 3rd round pick TY Hilton and 6th round pick LaVon Brazill, and Donnie Avery, an injury prone player with 3 catches in the last 2 seasons. Avery was making a push for his job before a recent hip injury, so it looks like the starting job is all Collie’s. He’s also earned lots of praise from his coaching staff and members of the local media. The Anderson Herald Bulletin reported that he was getting a legitimate chance to be an every down receiver, a report seconded by ESPN.com and by the Colts’ coaching staff.

As a starting receiver, Collie could definitely lead the team in receiving. He doesn’t have much to contend with. I already detailed the receivers below him on the wide receiver depth chart. Meanwhile, at tight end, the Colts have two rookies, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. They’ll have an impact, but they’re just rookie tight ends so they’ll probably just be their 3rd and 4th leading receivers, at best.

The opposite starting receiver is Reggie Wayne. Wayne has had an amazing career and even had a strong year last year, all things considered, catching 75 passes for 960 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, he’s heading into his age 34 season, which is right around when receivers’ abilities fall off a cliff.

11 of the top-20 all-time in receivers yards have played in the last decade (when passing and receiving totals have exploded). Of the 11, 9 had a 1000 yard season at age 33 or older, 8 had a 1000 yard season at age 34 or older, 6 had a 1000 yard season at age 35 or older, 2 had a 1000 yard season at age 36 or older, and only Jerry Rice had a 1000 yard season after age 37. The average age of a final 1000 yard season is 34.5.

In 21 total combined seasons after their last 1000 yard season, they combined for 1003 catches (47.8 per season) for 12476 yards (594.1 per season) and 70 touchdowns (3.3 per season). Of the 11, 9 played at age 34 or older, 8 played at age 36 or older, 6 played at age 37 or older, 2 played at age 38 or older, and only Jerry Rice played after age 38. The average age of a final season is 36.5

The point, even great receivers don’t play well into their mid 30s. Even the average top 20 receiver has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Wayne is heading into his age 34 season and ranks 22nd all-time with 11,708 yards, which means he’ll probably finish his career right in the middle of that top-20 group (10th all-time is Torry Holt, who had 13,328 yards, about 1620 more than Wayne).

If history holds, Wayne will see a steep drop off in production in either 2012 or 2013 and be out of the league by 2014 or 2015. Collie would seem to be the obvious beneficiary if Wayne’s decline comes this season and even if it doesn’t, Collie should still have a strong year and finish as the team’s 2nd leading receiver. He could also lead the team in receiving and have his first 1000 yard season in 2012, his 4th year in the league.

If you’re interested in doing a fantasy football league with me, here’s the link (no draft date set yet, currently standard, with the option to become PPR with group vote). http://msn.foxsports.com/fantasy/football/commissioner/Registration/Private.aspx?league=55086&password=FanSpot2

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