INDIANAPOLIS – It started with a simple text: “Hey, let’s throw.”
Michael Pittman Jr. wasn’t waiting for training camp to begin. He knew fellow rookies Jacob Eason and Dezmon Patmon were training near him in southern California, and he saw a chance to get a head start.
So he made the text and set up a workout. As part of the Indianapolis Colts’ socially-distanced offseason, players were asked to send videos of their training sessions to their position coaches, and through that process the rookies’ intermittent workouts began to more closely resemble portions of an NFL practice.
“I was able to give (Eason) some routes to throw to those guys, and they were able to go out there, send me videos,” quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady said. “I’m able to coach him up, his drop, things of that nature. So we’ve been making do with what we can do virtually.”
Now that work is finally starting to ramp up.
It was a big couple of weeks for the Colts’ rookies and Pittman in particular. He flew into Indianapolis on June 15, passed his physical and signed his first professional contract.
Then he took part in the first unofficial team workouts of the offseason. Players congregated in central Indiana under the leadership of veteran quarterback Philip Rivers and began the on-field bonding process for the 2020 season.
Coaches still aren’t allowed to participate in the workouts, and the entire 90-man roster has yet to come together at the same time. But there are more throwing sessions planned throughout the summer before training camp begins in late July at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
And the early work has helped Pittman get more comfortable in his new home.
“So the first day I was feeling kind of homesick, and then after that practice I felt good,” he said. “I felt like I was home. I felt like all of my teammates were very welcoming, and it just made everything easier because everybody is so cool. I think that we have a real family-style team, and I can’t wait.”
There are high expectations for the 22-year-old who was selected with the 34th overall draft pick in April.
The Colts haven’t had a true No. 2 wide receiver since Reggie Wayne retired in 2014 and T.Y. Hilton became the undisputed top target. At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, Pittman also has the size the franchise has coveted for years.
He had a breakout senior season for Southern Cal, catching 101 passes for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns and being named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best college wide receiver. Despite being asked to make his fair share of contested catches – as is typical for big, physical receivers – he had just two drops on 140 targets last season, according to draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic.
Those consistent hands prompted Colts owner Jim Irsay to draw comparisons to Wayne shortly after Pittman was drafted.
“When Mr. Irsay said that, that was probably one of the biggest compliments that I have ever got from a coach or owner,” Pittman said.
Comments like Irsay’s reveal the deep well of potential Indianapolis sees in the rookie wide receiver. But Pittman’s own words add to that perspective.
He mentioned Mike Evans, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Larry Fitzgerald as players with similar traits he likes to study and borrow from. And he showed terrific versatility during his dominant final season at USC.
Pro Football Focus defines deep receptions as passes that travel 20 or more yards in the air. Pittman led all Pac-12 receivers with 12 such catches in 2019 and had a conference-high 493 total yards off those receptions.
On the physical front, he also finished with 716 yards after the catch – the fourth-highest single-season total for a Pac-12 receiver since 2012, according to Pro Football Focus.
Those numbers are representative of a unique skill set Pittman believes can help him blaze his own trail in the NFL.
“I don’t really model (my game) after anybody because I don’t want to try to be somebody else,” he said. “I have to be the best Michael Pittman.”
That includes a relentless off-field work ethic and the kind of maturity that allows a rookie to organize safe offseason workouts in the midst of a global pandemic.
None of which comes as a surprise to the Colts.
Each of the team’s first three picks this spring – Pittman, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and Utah safety Julian Blackmon – was a team captain and respected locker-room leader. That’s no coincidence.
Indianapolis wants a roster filled with players who will not be afraid to hold themselves and others accountable when the going gets tough.
“Look, you just don’t start leading when you get into the NFL,” general manager Chris Ballard said in April. “I tell our locker room all the time, I mean, I need to be held accountable by them, too. I want our locker room to know that we are going to bring in the right type of guys that want to win, that want to do the right things.
“That’s important, and when that doesn’t happen that falls on my shoulders. It doesn’t fall on the locker room.”
There will be plenty of responsibility on Pittman’s shoulders as he enters his first professional season.
His father played 11 NFL seasons as a running back from 1998-2008, and that gives him some insight for the task ahead.
Rookies must walk a thin line between respecting their elders and being assertive when needed. It’s a process Pittman already is familiar with.
“I say you have to be confidently quiet,” he said. “You have to be confident enough to make the plays, but when a vet says something, you have to be confident enough to take that constructive criticism, and you have to know your place. That’s something that my dad taught me. It’s something that makes sense to me.
“I don’t really take it as, ‘He’s trying to embarrass me.’ I just take it like, ‘He’s treating me like he treats every other rookie.’ Don’t get in your feelings and be quietly confident.”