By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Pagano had a little fun with the media during his Monday news conference at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
Asked who the Colts' third wide receiver will be Sunday night against the Houston Texans, Indianapolis' head coach turned the question back on his interrogator.
"I don't know. Who would you classify as our third receiver?" Pagano asked. "Shake them up, pull them out of a hat. Someone has got to emerge in the next three days."
This is but one of the challenges in the wake of Reggie Wayne's season-ending knee injury. The star receiver underwent surgery Friday and will rejoin the team as a sort of assistant wide receivers coach as soon as doctors clear him for travel.
Replacing him on the field, however, will be a complicated and multi-tiered process.
One of the first steps will be identifying the player who will take the field in the Colts' three-wide receiver sets. Barring another move from general manager Ryan Grigson — and the active roster stood at 52 Monday evening, leaving one space open for an addition — the list of candidates includes LaVon Brazill, David Reed and the recently recalled Griff Whalen.
"Again, I feel great about all those guys," Pagano said. "Any one of those guys can go in there and be productive for us. So we'll see how things shake out this week."
Strictly speaking, Darrius Heyward-Bey will get the first crack at replacing Wayne. The sixth-year receiver signed in the offseason after being released in Oakland has 18 catches for 190 yards and one touchdown this year.
He's battled with dropped passes, missing key opportunities in a loss three weeks ago at San Diego and again in the win two weeks ago against Denver. But he's also carried the load of being a quarterback's primary target in the past, and his 6-foot-2 frame and elite speed give him the tools to be successful.
"That's what every player wants," Heyward-Bey said of the opportunity to become Andrew Luck's No. 1 guy. "You want the opportunity to make plays out there on the field. I'm going to go out there — me, T.Y. (Hilton), LaVon, Griff — we're just going to try to go out there and make plays."
Hilton has been doing just that all season, with 27 catches for 412 yards and two scores. He should get even more chances as the team's No. 2 receiver, increasing his time on the field and the energy defensive coordinators must expend preparing to stop him.
Tight end Coby Fleener (22 catches, 235 yards, three touchdowns) also figures to see more targets.
But Whalen is the wild card.
Luck's former roommate at Stanford has looked good in each of the past two preseasons. A foot injury sidelined him for his rookie campaign in 2012, and he's spent the past four game weeks on the practice squad.
But he clearly understands the offense after playing under coordinator Pep Hamilton with the Cardinal, and he's shown he can be trusted to catch the ball. He also has the confidence of his quarterback.
"Very excited for Griff," Luck said after the receiver was activated Monday. "Good chance for him. He's always been ready and ready to roll."
Whalen made two catches for a total of 28 yards in a cameo appearance during the season's first three weeks. He's never spent extensive time of the active roster in the NFL, and he'll have to beat out Brazill — who was suspended for the first games this season — and Reed just to make it onto the field.
Whalen has picked out one area for improvement every day, and he said his playing speed has improved since the foot injury last season. He shares his quarterback's quiet confidence, and he understands the challenge ahead.
"None of us are going to be able to replace one of the greatest to ever play the game," Whalen said. "So we're just going to have to pick it up individually, each one of us, and collectively as a group, kind of come together and everybody just step their game up."
Pagano said the receivers have no choice but to do just that.
The Colts play a key divisional game on the road Sunday, and there's no time to get a new player up to speed. Each of the receivers on the roster understands the offense and his role in it.
They've had plenty of time to study and soak up knowledge from Wayne. Now they'll get the chance to show the football world what they've learned.
"They've all been in a room with one of the very best in the National Football League," Pagano said. "So they understand what it takes, process and preparation. I feel good about the group."