Second-Year Leap: Michael Pittman, WR IND

Tyler Justin Karp

In this series, I want to highlight some rookies I expect to take a massive step forward in year two. I’ll look at various rookies, from those who had solid rookie years to those who did almost nothing in year one. To completely break down each player, I’ll split these pieces into five sections: college career and NFL Draft profile, rookie statistics, dynasty ADP analysis, future situation, and final recommendation. If you want to read my previous entries, I’ve included the full list at the bottom of this article.

This time, I want to write about a player on whom I’ve gone back and forth all off-season. Unlike some of these players, I wasn’t particularly in on Michael Pittman as a college prospect. I also didn’t get excited during his rookie season, and I strongly dislike his new quarterback, Carson Wentz. However, all signs currently point to a significant second-year leap for Pittman. Let’s jump into why.

College Career and NFL Draft Profile

Pittman played college football at USC, where he had a relatively successful four-year career. However, he was far from a perfect prospect.

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Chart courtesy of Sports Reference CFB.

He essentially did nothing as a freshman in 2016 before seeing some involvement in 2017. But his 2017 was far from impressive, considering USC had future third overall pick Sam Darnold as its starting quarterback. Pittman only managed to be the team’s fourth receiving weapon, behind uninspiring players like Deontay Burnett, Tyler Vaughns, and Steven Mitchell.

Of course, Darnold declared for the NFL Draft after 2017, leaving JT Daniels as the Trojans’ starting quarterback. Unfortunately, Pittman still failed truly to break out. He finished first on the team in receiving yards and tied with Vaughns for the most receiving touchdowns. However, he only had the third-most receptions behind Vaughns and true freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Finally, though, Pittman had a monster year as a senior in 2019. He led the team in all receiving categories, well ahead of St. Brown and Vaughns. But it’s certainly concerning that Pittman turned 22 years old in October 2019, so he needed to be far older than his competition to have a massive breakout.

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Chart courtesy of DLF College Market Share App.

As you can see, Pittman’s market share of receiving yards never exceeded the baseline for successful NFL wide receiver prospects. He fell far below the mark in his 18 and 19-year-old seasons before producing decent results at 20 and 21 years old. But remember that Pittman has an October birthday, so he’s on the older side for all these values. With that in mind, his prospect profile is even less impressive, especially considering that he would turn 23 years old early in his rookie year.

The Colts didn’t seem to care about any of these issues. They selected Pittman with the 34th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, ahead of their other second-round choice, Jonathan Taylor. At the time, the Colts needed a secondary pass-catcher behind aging veteran TY Hilton. Given their investment in Pittman, they clearly saw him as an immediate contributor and a possible successor to Hilton as their long-term top receiver.

Rookie Statistics

Unfortunately, Pittman had a somewhat rocky rookie year.

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Chart courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

He immediately saw a high snap share early on, reaching 92% snap share in week two. He caught four of six targets for 37 yards in that contest, earning his first official start in week three due to Parris Campbell’s season-ending injury. However, he suffered an ankle injury in that game, which eventually required surgery to repair compartment leg syndrome.

The Colts eased Pittman into the offense once he returned to the lineup in week eight. But in week nine, he began a solid stretch to close out the season. From that point forward, he totaled 30 receptions and 424 yards in the final nine games, averaging 3.3 receptions and 47.1 yards per game. Those numbers would pace to 53 catches and 754 yards over a 16-game season.

Of course, those statistics wouldn’t make Pittman fantasy-relevant, but he had a successful season for a second-round rookie once he became fully healthy. Dynasty managers should never forget that not every rookie receiver is Justin Jefferson. Most wide receiver breakouts occur in year two, and I only like to see positive signs in year one, which Pittman showed.

Future Situation

Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t convinced about Pittman after his rookie season. However, the Colts’ off-season moves brought me all-in. Yes, I don’t love his new quarterback Wentz, but it’s not as if Philip Rivers was a long-term solution or a superstar. Even if Wentz suffers as a real-life option, I believe he’s better for the Colts’ fantasy options. If Wentz continues to turn the ball over, the Colts will need to throw the ball more, and their offense will run more plays, similar to Jameis Winston’s 2019 fantasy season.

Additionally, the Colts failed to bring in any significant pass-catchers throughout the 2021 off-season. Instead, they re-signed aging veteran Hilton, and they placed a second-round tender on depth receiver Zach Pascal. Outside of Hilton and Pascal, they only have 2019 second-rounder Parris Campbell, who’s struggled with injuries, and seventh-round rookie Mike Strachan.

It’s hard to rely on Campbell, and Strachan is an intriguing flier, but neither represents any significant threat to Pittman’s WR1 status on the team. In addition, Hilton will miss the first three games with an injury, removing Pittman’s final obstacle to consolidating his target share on this offense. The Colts have a trio of interesting tight ends in Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, and Kylen Granson, plus scatback Nyheim Hines, but those are all secondary options. None of them could challenge Pittman’s position as this team’s alpha weapon.

The Colts’ off-season moves only make sense if they plan to rely on Pittman as their WR1. If they didn’t truly believe in Pittman, they would have spent a high draft pick on another receiver like the Eagles did with DeVonta Smith or signed a high-profile free agent like Corey Davis. Therefore, Pittman finds himself in an ideal future situation, especially from a volume perspective.

Dynasty ADP Analysis

Right now, Pittman is the WR45 in DLF’s August 1QB ADP and 96.50 overall. To me, that seems like a massive steal. In my 1QB rankings, I have Pittman at WR36 and 74th overall, almost two full rounds higher. Pittman is lower than aging, no-upside veterans like Julio Jones and Adam Thielen, both of whom I rank far lower. I also prefer Pittman to some other younger options ranked ahead of him, such as DJ Chark, Deebo Samuel, Michael Gallup, and Terrace Marshall.

I believe Pittman has similar talent to all players, but he has the greatest upside to becoming a difference-maker at wide receiver. The current dynasty market has an oversaturation of wide receivers, so true high-end players stand out above the right. I want to take a shot on players like Pittman, who can make a true leap, over lower upside options. If I did dynasty startup drafts based on that ADP data, I would likely leave with Pittman in more than half of them.

Trade Options and Final Recommendation

As always, let’s look at the DLF Trade Finder to examine trade options for Pittman.

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This trade is my ideal option for acquiring Pittman. I hate older running backs like Mike Davis, and Pittman should carry far more enduring dynasty value. I would smash accept the Pittman side here, no matter the state of my dynasty team.

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Once again, this trade seems like a steal. Larry Rountree is a pure flier, and a 2022 second-round pick is not exciting compared to Pittman’s upside. Give me the Pittman side here, easily.

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Now, we reach a more fair trade. I rank Tyler Lockett slightly ahead of Pittman in dynasty formats, but I prefer Pittman on a rebuilding team. Lockett turns 29 years old in September, while Pittman turns 24 in October. Therefore, acquiring Pittman buys back five years on the age curve. Even if it’s a slight value loss, Lockett is a purely declining asset, so I’m okay making this deal in a rebuilding situation. However, I would, of course, be greedy and try to get something back with Pittman if this were my dynasty team.

Overall, I find Pittman to be an exciting young receiver that’s relatively easy to acquire. I suggest buying him now before dynasty managers realize his actual value. Once they see his target share and role on the field, those same trades won’t be possible anymore.

Previous Entries: D’Andre Swift, Cole Kmet, Chase Claypool, Harrison Bryant, Gabriel Davis, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Lynn Bowden, Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darnell Mooney, Bryan Edwards, Jerry Jeudy, Marquez Callaway

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Second-Year Leap: Michael Pittman, WR IND