Indianapolis Colts hope Michael Pittman Jr., rookie Alec Pierce can be next great WR duo

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts' search for a lethal pass-catching duo has been going on for years.

Thirteen, to be exact.

You have to go all the way back to 2009 for the last time the Colts had two players (receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark) reach at least 1,000 yards receiving in a season.

You have to go back to 2006 for the last time the team had two wide receivers (Wayne and Marvin Harrison) accomplish that feat.

The Colts had a 1,000-yard receiver in Michael Pittman Jr. in 2021. Now second-round pick Alec Pierce will seek to join him in that category, and he’ll have every opportunity to be the team’s No. 2 wide receiver next season.

“He’s a great receiver,” Pierce said about Pittman, who was also a second-round pick (No. 34 overall in 2020). “I love watching him. I saw he had a great year last year in his second year. I think he broke 1,000 yards. So yeah, he’s a great player, a great receiver, and I’d love to learn from him.”

Pierce’s numbers during his final season at Cincinnati don’t scream automatic success. He finished with 52 receptions for 884 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021. The reason behind that is the Bearcats run the ball quite a bit. The number that impressed Colts general manager Chris Ballard was the 17.0 yards per catch he averaged.

“The one thing you notice about Pierce is he gets behind people,” Ballard said. “I mean, this kid can really, really run and really adjust to the football."

Pierce was the 11th receiver selected in a draft class that was deep at the position. The Colts didn’t have a first-round pick because they sent it to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2021 for quarterback Carson Wentz, but Pierce has first-round skills, according to some scouts.

“I didn’t know why he wasn’t getting talked about in that way, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out,” Ballard said. “But could Alec Pierce have played at Ohio State? Absolutely.”

Receiver was high on the list of needs for the Colts during the offseason. It became even more of a need as free agency went on and the Colts sat back as Zach Pascal signed with Philadelphia. Veteran T.Y. Hilton is still on the market, and the Colts haven’t shut the door on his possible return, but the 32-year-old likely wouldn't have the same kind of role that he had throughout his career in Indianapolis.

That’s why opportunities will be there for Pierce to immediately step in and have an impact.

His toughest competition for the No. 2 receiver spot is Parris Campbell, another second-rounder (No. 59 in 2019) for the Colts. The issue with Campbell, though, is his durability. It’s hard to be counted on as a reliable receiver if you can’t stay on the field. Campbell has played in only 15 out of a possible 49 regular-season games.

The returning receivers besides Pittman combined for just 28 receptions and four touchdowns last season.

“It’s going to be very competitive,” coach Frank Reich said. “It’s the same every year. We were talking about this as an offensive staff the other day before the draft even started. This much as any year, there is no depth chart. We are just competing. We’re rolling. We’re going to roll guys through. It’s the NFL. In a sense, everybody knows that what's great about all these guys is they know we are going to put the best guys on the field. We’ll roll through, everybody will have a chance to compete.”

One of the first people Pierce heard from after being drafted by the Colts was new starting quarterback Matt Ryan. The quarterback sent his new receiver a text on draft night congratulating him even though Pierce initially wasn’t sure it was him because the text simply said, "Matt."

What Pierce does know is that he was a fan of the relationship between Ryan and Julio Jones, who was Ryan’s primary receiver during their time together with the Atlanta Falcons.

“I loved watching Julio Jones as a kid, so that was really awesome to watch Matt Ryan with him," Pierce said, "and hopefully I can be like a new Julio for him."

Pierce spent the majority of his time at Cincinnati playing on the outside, but he has the ability to line up in the slot. Having that type of versatility is vital in Reich's offense because it relies on a lot of motion, underneath route running and will feature even more play-action calls with Ryan as the starter.

Ballard said Pierce has to improve his route running and ability to get off the line of scrimmage. He'll have a chance to learn from one of the best in Wayne, the Colts' new receivers coach, who had 1,070 receptions for 14,345 yards and 82 touchdowns during his career (2001-14, all with the Colts).

"I think I’m a guy you can put to the boundary, and I’m able to beat coverage one-on-one with speed and size, being able to go get the ball, being able to stretch the field vertically and hopefully make them have to play safeties over the top and open up the run game," Pierce said.