T.Y. Hilton is one of those receiving assets who can slither between defensive backs when running routes and can twist his body into pretzel forms when lunging for the football.
Yet for the first time since Hilton joined the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, there are tiny doubts about whether he can maintain his four-time Pro Bowl status in 2020.
This is not his fault. He caught 45 passes during the 2019 season, but in only 10 games. Hilton ripped a calf muscle then and was sidelined for six games.
He has been rehabbing ever since, following doctor’s advice and getting extra rest during the forced COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The bonus time off could be refreshing heading into the fall season.
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At 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, Hilton is hardly the biggest guy on the field. But lifetime, he has grabbed 552 passes for the Colts, 45 for touchdowns.
As many offensive pieces changed around him with star quarterback Philip Rivers brought in and additional moving parts from free agency and the draft, Hilton stands out as an anchor, as someone, even at 30, who can be a cornerstone.
Hilton seemed to take his injury almost personally.
“It was kind of fluky,” he said in a recent group interview. “I got hurt running a route. I just ran. There’s always risk.”
In football more than in most sports. Football is not for the dainty. Things happen, which is why it seemed odd for Hilton to blame himself for a calf pull.
“I let my teammates down by being injured,” he said.
This was the first really costly injury Hilton experienced. Usually, he has been present for almost all games per season while five times going over 1,000 yards receiving in a campaign.
“My motivation is to get back to where I was,” Hilton said of his offseason goal.
Unable to use team facilities during the pandemic, Hilton said he had workout setups in his house and backyard.
A third-round draft pick out of Florida International, Hilton is in the final year of his Colts contract, due to make $14.5 million this season before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Hilton said cutting a new deal is not foremost in his thoughts. He wants to hurry up and play, and the only NFL team he wants to play for is based in Indianapolis.
“I want to be a Colt for life,” Hilton said.
Hilton may be irked after learning he is not indestructible but seems very determined to have a successful next season.
“I love it when I’ve got the ball,” Hilton said. “Just give me the ball.”
Practicing through Zoom is a new coaching approach out of necessity. It is perhaps more like being in school than being in training.
“It’s different, but it’s like us being in the classroom all day,” Hilton said.
Hilton’s mentor when he first joined the Colts was receiver Reggie Wayne, who has since been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Hilton said he has never forgotten some of Wayne’s tips, and one illustrates why paying close attention in those Zoom meetings is so important. Wayne told him, Hilton said, “’Always know your playbook in and out.’”
For all of Hilton’s allegiance to the Colts, he also realizes pro football is a harsh business, and it is easy to be replaced in the starting lineup or on the roster.
“You can’t miss a beat,” Hilton said.
After a disappointing second half of the season led to a disappointing 7-9 finish that translated into disappointing no playoffs, the Colts have been hugely active this offseason, making deals and adding explosiveness with receiver Michael Pittman, runner Jonathan Taylor and Rivers.
Hilton was working on developing a rapport with Rivers on the telephone before they could throw together. He called Rivers a future Hall of Famer and said because Rivers and Colts head coach Frank Reich worked together with the Chargers, Rivers already knows much of the offense.
Not only does Hilton want a big year for himself, but for the Colts. After that comes a new contract for two, three or four years. However long it turns out to be, though, it will lead to retirement.
“Whatever I sign for in my next contract, that’ll be it for me,” Hilton said.