Hilton hopes to add to Colts legacy with healthy season

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Ryan Grigson was working in Raleigh, North Carolina, the first time he spotted T.Y. Hilton.

He went to dinner after filing the day’s scouting reports and started watching a midweek Sun Belt Conference game on a fall night in 2011. The receiver from Florida International instantly jumped off the small screen and onto Grigson’s radar.

Over the next several months, Grigson went through game tape, researched his surprise find and, in April 2012, as the Indianapolis Colts’ new general manager, moved up five spots to take Hilton in the third round of the NFL draft. It was an absolute steal.

“When he steps on the field, he knows what to do,” said Grigson, now a senior football adviser with Cleveland. “His hand-eye (coordination) is off the charts and he has a knack for making big plays. He’s one of those people who was just born to play the game and if you start talking trash with him, he’ll torch you.”

Defensive backs around the league, past and present, learned that the hard way.

But the moves, the playmaking skills and the passion Grigson discovered remains evident as Hilton embarks on his ninth and perhaps final season with the Colts. At age 30, the Colts’ second-longest tenured player remains the No. 1 receiver — someone Jacksonville will try to take away Sunday.

“My work speaks for itself. But these last two years I’ve been a little banged-up, so this year if they want me to prove it, I’ll prove it,” Hilton said. “I want to be a Colt for life, but it takes two sides.”

Hilton certainly has earned the right to stick around after rising to the top of the 2012 receiver class despite being the 13th selected.

Seven of the 12 receivers taken ahead of Hilton lasted four or fewer seasons. The four first-round picks — Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and A.J. Jenkins — were gone before 2019. Mohamed Sanu’s recent release makes Philadelphia’s Alshon Jeffery and Hilton the last two of the baker’s dozen still on rosters.

Not enough?

Hilton also leads the group in productivity. His four Pro Bowl selections and five 1,000-yard seasons are more than the other 12 combined, and his four 70-catch seasons equal everyone else’s total.

Grigson saw it right from the start.

He took Hilton with the 92nd overall pick and by the middle of his rookie season, it was readily apparent the 5-foot-9, 183-pound Hilton would eventually become Reggie Wayne’s successor.

Hilton didn’t just make impressions inside the organization. In September 2016, Philip Rivers watched Hilton catch six passes for 174 yards, including the 63-yard TD pass with 1:17 left in the game to give the Colts a 26-22 victory over the Chargers. It was one of the reasons Rivers cited for signing with the Colts in free agency.

“As a passer, it’s a little bit like a jump shooter as you get rolling,” Rivers said after hooking up with Hilton for a long touchdown during a simulated game at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I kind of mentioned to him, ‘If we keep going like this, we’re going to be tough to stop.’”

Hilton is motivated, too, after missing 10 games because of injuries the last two seasons. When he doesn’t play, the Colts aren’t the same: Indy is 1-11 without Hilton.

Lately, though, his calming voice in the locker room has become equally important as he mentors a group of mostly young teammates in the receivers room.

“Being able to go out there, ask him questions, him demonstrating how to release or how he looks at (a coverage) and his perspective of a play is pretty cool,” rookie Dezmon Patmon said. “It’s always good having that vet out there, that presence.”

Hilton also continues to chase milestones.

He needs three starts for No. 100, 80 receptions and 677 yards to pass Hall of Famer Raymond Berry (631 catches, 9,275 yards) for third in franchise history, and six TD catches to pass Jimmy Orr (50) for No. 4.

How much longer can Hilton play at an elite level?

Even Hilton has acknowledged his next contract will be his last, regardless of length, and the Colts drafted two more receivers in April — Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round and Patmon in the sixth — after taking Parris Campbell in the second round a year ago.

But Grigson knows better than to bet against Hilton.

“The analytics were not good for a guy his size, from a smaller school,” Grigson said. “But he’s so smart and so competitive and he’s such an interesting guy because he has a sandlot sort of quality about him. He just knows how to produce.”

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