As we count down to the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.
Today’s feature team and question?
Indianapolis Colts – Will Darrius Heyward-Bey finally reach his potential?
Big things were expected from former Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey when he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. Taken seventh overall in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, a lot was placed on his shoulders. Most experts, though, determined that the speedy receiver was modest reach, if not an incredible one. It’s still early in his career, but those experts are looking smarter by the day.
Heyward-Bey has done little to impress in his four seasons in the NFL. Despite getting plenty of playing time out on the west coast, the wideout has failed to produce. He played in 11 games in his rookie year but managed only nine catches. Over four NFL seasons, Heyward-Bey has only 140 career receptions for 2,071 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
That lack of production was enough to get him a ticket out of town. The silver and black released him at the end of the season and he signed with the Indianapolis Colts this year. The question now becomes if a change in scenery will help.
With all due respect to Carson Palmer, Heyward-Bey will likely be playing with the best quarterback he ever has in Andrew Luck. Luck is only in his second year, but if his rookie season was any indication of what he can become, he’s a legitimate star. Starting out of the gate for Indianapolis, Luck threw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. His 18 interceptions proved he has work to do, but nearly every rookie quarterback suffers through too many picks. Luck will cut back on those and Heyward-Bey could be playing alongside one of the best in the league for years to come.
Here’s the thing. While I won’t defend Heyward-Bey’s paltry production, the wide receiver hadn’t exactly been playing with a class of Hall of Fame quarterbacks out in Oakland. That 2009 rookie year was also the final year of one of professional football’s biggest busts in JaMarcus Russell. Russell was the top overall selection by the franchise in 2007 and had three entirely forgettable seasons before being shoved out of the door. In 12 games in 2009, Russell threw for a measly 1,287 yards, and had only three touchdowns to go with a whopping 11 interceptions … all while completing fewer than half of his passes. Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye also got starts – yeah, it was that bad.
The next year got a little better for Heyward-Bey, but not by much. In 2010, the Raiders used both Jason Campbell and Gradkowski at quarterback and neither has lit the world on fire in terms of actual playing ability. Things finally turned around a little in 2011 with the addition of Palmer, but he played only half the year. Still, the results were far more favorable for Heyward-Bey as that was enough to give him career-bests in yardage (975) and receptions (64). Playing with his first real threat at quarterback brought a world of opportunity to him and he responded well.
Another reason why the wide receiver could break out with the Colts? He’s also playing along with one of the league’s best at the position over the past decade in Reggie Wayne. Take a guess at how many 1,000-yard receivers were on Heyward-Bey’s Raiders teams – zero. Part of the problem is that there’s never been anyone good enough to draw attention to free him up. That will change with the Colts as Wayne, even at the age of 34, will still command plenty of attention.
None of that is to suggest that Heyward-Bey will become a star in Indy. The top receivers find ways to make plays even despite lackluster play at quarterback – just ask Larry Fitzgerald about last year. However, a change in scenery and star players such as Luck and Wayne will give him a far greater chance to (finally) succeed.