Colts mailbag: How to get Alec Pierce going? Do Colts have to draft a QB no matter what?

It's that time of the year to find something to be thankful for. I know the Colts haven't offered what you've wanted in that regard, and it hasn't been the happiest building to work in this season either. But let's remember it's not life and death, just a game that can connect families and bring people together.

OK, you probably won't, but I tried.

The Colts have a long weekend of waiting until their first Monday Night Football game of the year, against the Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium. So, let's get to some of your questions about a team that is 4-6-1 with just as weird of a path as that tie indicates:

Alec Pierce has had an up-and-down rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts that included a game-winning touchdown catch to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Alec Pierce has had an up-and-down rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts that included a game-winning touchdown catch to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Question: "Are the Colts trying to improve Alec Pierce’s route tree? Since they can’t go deep, his effectiveness has been minimal." -- Sammy Yagar via Twitter

Answer: Alec Pierce has had an up-and-down rookie season, which is not only natural for rookies but especially at the receiver position, where coverages and game flow dictate where the ball goes. He started with the zero-catch day in Houston in which he suffered a brain injury and missed the next week in Jacksonville. Then he caught some fire, with 24 catches for 373 yards and a game-winning touchdown over the next six games.

In the three weeks since, he has just four catches for 51 yards. The volume is down to four targets a game, but he's also only catching a third of those targets, down from 56% on the year.

A few factors are in play here: The Colts have given up on attempting to go down the field, which is where his best two routes are, the fade and the deep comeback, both outside the numbers. They used to dial up specific shock plays to Pierce and others. That changed when Ryan took a hit that separated his shoulder against the Titans. They don't feel he has the pass protection to be consistently effective in this part of the game if he can't step up and fire throws, and they know their passing game will fall off a cliff if he's not available.

The de-emphasis has taken Pierce out of the connection with Ryan that had him feeling so good after the game-winner against the Jaguars. This is what a change at quarterback can do to young receivers, too, as it creates a start-and-stop to their momentum, and it's something the franchise didn't calculate enough in deciding to switch to Sam Ehlinger.

What's also happened is Parris Campbell has risen to take the volume that was going Pierce's way as the No. 2 receiver. Campbell caught just 11 passes for 115 yards in the first five games, and he's tripled those numbers in the six games since then. He's gained the trust of Ryan and of the offensive coaching staff, and he's ahead of Pierce because of his experience, diversity of routes and short depth of routes in an offense that doesn't want the quarterback hit.

The Colts are in a tough spot with Pierce for as long as this is the case. They can run some more hitches and shallow crosses, but Michael Pittman Jr. is the more developed option in those situations for now. As the team falls out of contention, perhaps force feeding Pierce to accelerate the growth will become more of a part of the plan. For now, he's going to need to cash in on the couple targets he gets a game until his route tree develops better.

INSIDER: Parris Campbell's comeback season is a Dwayne Haskins story, too

Florida's Anthony Richardson is one of the quarterback prospects who could appeal to the Indianapolis Colts in next year's NFL Draft.
Florida's Anthony Richardson is one of the quarterback prospects who could appeal to the Indianapolis Colts in next year's NFL Draft.

Question: "I know Chris Ballard always says, 'I won’t draft a guy just to draft a guy.' Do you think his hands are tied and we draft a QB no matter what spot we’re at? If it’s Ballard or a new GM." -- Logan via Twitter

Answer: This is a somewhat tricky question to answer until we know A) Who is running the front office for the Colts and B) Where the Colts are picking.

Ballard has been reluctant to trust the process to wait until the draft to find his quarterback when the pick isn't a high one to start. He was high on Justin Fields in the 2021 draft but didn't believe he could trade up to get to him and settled instead for Carson Wentz, only to see the Bears pull off a similar trade for Fields to what the Colts would have tried. This year, while the Colts will be picking higher, will leave some of the same trepidation. The teams at the top -- think Houston and Carolina -- are not passing on quarterbacks. The route to landing a Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud is already looking bleak, so it's about how many of those options the Colts are comfortable with taking.

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It's not as all-or-nothing of a decision as it can seem, though. The Chiefs, Bills and Ravens all found superstar quarterbacks without top-10 picks, and they did so by building up the infrastructure, staying patient and moving whatever they needed to move up and getting their guy. You can say they were lucky to land Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson where they did, and perhaps they were. But they also made all three work with the stability at head coach and offensive coordinator to create a development path, with bridge options like Alex Smith and Joe Flacco to buy them time and with good supporting casts to lessen how much they had to carry while they were young and developing. Great franchises figure this out without tanking.

Indianapolis does have Matt Ryan under contract for next season, as well as Nick Foles. both total pros who can offer lots of knowledge and training for a young quarterback who needs time to sit and develop, like Florida's Anthony Richardson or Tennessee's Hendon Hooker, who just tore his ACL.

The Colts will have their highest draft pick in some time this spring and will have an extra Day 2 draft pick from the Wentz trade to Washington. It's time to have the conviction to find the future in the draft and do whatever it takes to get him and to make him work along the way. I sense that owner Jim Irsay is thinking this way, and I think this is the year things change.

Question: "No one ever seems to bring it up. Any plans for getting or drafting the kicker for the future. It cannot be who they have now." -- Roman Griffen via Twitter

Answer: I wouldn't say *no one* brings it up.

I have been (half jokingly) pounding the table on Twitter since the draft for the Colts to take Cameron Dicker. It started as I was searching for anything I liked on draftable kickers and found his versatility as a kicker and punter fun. It has just so turned out that he's won the Special Teams Player of the Week with the Eagles and the Chargers already, so maybe it wasn't that bad of an idea.

The Colts absolutely need a kicker still. Chase McLaughlin has built a nice career as a fill-in for when teams cut theirs, and he's been solid enough this year, making 19 of 23 kicks, with 12 of those over 40 yards. But his track record suggests he's a different guy when the weather turns cold, and it's a significant track record at this point. Indianapolis should be chasing upside at this position, or at least competition.

This is a bone I have to pick with general managers across the NFL. They value third-string guards more than they do kickers who can decide playoff games. We're to a point where drafting one seems so out of the culture, but it's really a smart way to maximize draft picks and not have to cut one due to the incoming roster crunch. The Bengals took Evan McPherson in the fifth round out of Florida last year, and he made clutch kick after clutch kick (14 of 14 on postseason field goals) to send them to the Super Bowl. That makes him one of the best fifth-round picks imaginable.

The Colts had extra Day 3 picks this year, and they decided to spend two of them on the defensive line. Come September, they were cutting sixth-round Cincinnati defensive tackle Curtis Brooks. Meanwhile, it took only one game for Blankenship to cost the team and lose his job. The Colts aren't hurting at defensive tackle, but they are at kicker.

Not many kickers wind up being great in the NFL. I get that. But I'd still rather take a stab on one in the sixth round than a player who will wind up on the practice squad anyway.

Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: NFL news: Do the Indianapolis Colts have to draft a QB no matter what?