“He’s a running back playing receiver,” says quarterback Robert Griffin III of his No. 1 target, Pierre Garcon. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The skill set suggested great potential despite his limited résumé. The payday reflected his new team’s great expectations. And following a promising debut, an injury left lingering questions after his first season with his new team.

But now fully healed, Pierre Garcon has demonstrated in his second season with the Washington Redskins why he is worth the five-year, $42 million contract they gave him.

One of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for Washington, Garcon has shown he can be That Guy for Robert Griffin III. Despite Griffin’s uneven play, Garcon has put up career numbers through 12 games with 84 catches for 980 yards and three touchdowns. He is third in the league in receptions. His 133 targets are second in the NFL. And he ranks fourth with 491 yards after the catch.

Garcon is on pace to break Art Monk’s 29-year-old franchise season record of 106 catches, and his projected total of 1,307 receiving yards would rank seventh in team history.

After being nagged by a toe injury most of last season, the 6-foot, 212-pound Garcon has delivered with his versatility, unique physicality and strong competitive fire.

“I’m not surprised that he would develop into the go-to guy in Washington,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, who has worked with Garcon in past offseasons. “When they signed him there, that’s what they wanted, and that’s what they’re getting.”

Garcon’s career has evolved from special teams contributor in Indianapolis as a sixth-round pick out of Division III’s Mount Union College in 2008 to Peyton Manning’s No. 2 receiver behind Reggie Wayne.

Garcon saw himself as a potential No. 1 option, but outsiders had doubts. He had never shouldered that load; he basically ran three simple pass routes over and over. He had caught passes from a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and there was some question how much of Garcon’s production stemmed from Manning’s wizardry and how much spoke to the receiver’s abilities.

The Redskins did their homework, however, and concluded Garcon had what it took.

“You really don’t know for sure if someone’s going to be able to do that, because he did line up on one side, just ran a few basic routes,” Coach Mike Shanahan recalled. “But you could see that when he did run routes, he could make cuts at full speed. You could see his speed and his ability to go up for the ball and make plays once the ball was in his hands. . . . But I did call Peyton on him and asked him if he thought he’d be able to fit into a system like ours, and he said, ‘Definitely.’ ”

Still, Garcon had much to learn when he arrived. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan described Garcon’s education and process as “just understanding a lot of different things that we’ve asked him to do. At Indy, they don’t do many formations. . . . So he’s really grown, and he’s always tried to do it, but I feel like you never can be great at it until you really understand why you’re doing it.”

Garcon remained undaunted, however, and embraced the challenge of the new role.

“There is no pressure when you’re out there on the field,” he said. “If they throw you the ball, you’re the number one receiver. If you’re out there, you’re still an option since you’re out there. There’s no pressure there. It’s whatever pressure you put on yourself. We’ve all been doing this a long time. We’ve been running routes and catching the ball. Pressure is what you’re not used to. This is football. It’s not having a baby or anything out of the ordinary.”

Playing with a temper

As Garcon has moved around all over the field, many of his catches have come in the short to intermediate range. The rest is on him to generate gains. But that has set him up to take more of a pounding. Often times he makes catches coming back to the ball and draws contact before he can even fully change direction. But using deceptive strength and a physical running style, Garcon frequently breaks tackles and picks up additional yards.

His most impressive play of the season came in Week 10 at Minnesota, where he caught a screen pass behind the line and weaved through traffic, picking up 10 yards before drawing his first contact. Garcon lowered his shoulder and plowed through safety Andrew Sendejo, then broke a tackle attempt of linebacker Chad Greenway and picked up another 12 yards for a 32-yard gain.

“He’s a running back playing receiver,” Griffin said. “Everybody saw him truck that safety against Minnesota, so he does some freakish things. He’s got a really — I say it’s a good attitude, but he’s a temper guy out there on the field, and he plays that way at receiver, which you don’t see very often. If you get the ball in his hands, he can do some damage with it.”

Carter agreed.

“Once he gets the football in his hands, and you have to really put a good lick on him to bring him down,” he said, “and I think that’s one thing that separates him from other receivers is his ability to break tackles, too.”

Teammates attribute Garcon’s production after the catch to determined running style fueled by his fiery on-field persona, which differs greatly from his quiet off-field demeanor. Many of them say he plays angry and believe that emotion is what helps Garcon compensate for a lack of elite size and elevates his game to another level.

Asked about his fiery on-field personality, Garcon laughed and explained it as a flip of a switch. He called it a display of passion for the game and an appreciation both for the road he traveled to get to the NFL and those supporting him.

“You’ve got a lot of guys who’d like to be in my position, especially where I come from — in D-III, from [his family’s native] Haiti, from Florida, [where he grew up], where a lot of guys are sitting at home watching on TV and wishing they were doing it,” Garcon said. “I’m 100 percent doing it for them and for the guys I went to college with, trying to do it for them. So it’s easy to get up for a football game.”

‘Always more you can do’

At times, Garcon’s emotions have gotten the best of him.

Earlier this season in a frustrated postgame rant, Garcon gave a blunt assessment of his team’s struggles, with comments that rubbed some teammates the wrong way. Last week, when Washington got the ball at the New York 12-yard line and failed to score a touchdown when a Griffin pass intended for Garcon in the end zone missed its mark and nearly got picked off, Garcon kicked the ball across the width of the end zone and into the stands.

“Because we didn’t score the touchdown,” Garcon said after the game, explaining his actions. “If we had spotted it 75 yards and we hadn’t scored a touchdown, I would’ve punted it harder.”

Although he said he could “guarantee” Garcon would never make such a mistake again, Mike Shanahan understood Garcon’s frustration and his source of motivation.

“He’s one of the most fierce competitors I’ve been around,” Shanahan said. “If I get everybody playing like him, you won’t need coaches.”

After four years of playing for a perennial contender in Indianapolis and then serving as a key contributor in last season’s 7-0 season-ending march to the playoffs, Garcon admits this season’s mounting losses have been draining.

“It’s just never the greatest feeling, because you always play to win the game,” Garcon explained. “Indianapolis, those were some good times. You would’ve thought we all were making 100-yard games. The team was happy. The locker room was happy. Everybody felt good. But if you’re not doing well as a team, you can’t walk around with joy on your face, because winning is the ultimate goal.”

Garcon has hope that things will improve in the future, however.

“We’re sad we haven’t scored more touchdowns. We’re mad we haven’t won more games,” he said. “But you keep working. You know there’s always more you can do — more you can get better at.”

For every couple of connections he and Griffin have made, miscues have followed: a poor throw here, dropped ball there, miscommunication on a pass route. Garcon and his team also could benefit from other contributors stepping up. No other wide receiver has more than 30 catches. But with such an impressive body of work, the results seem likely to catch up.

“The one weakness they have now is just continuity,” Carter said. “That’s the only weakness I see is having that belief from getting those reps on your quarterback that make you get on another level, and that’s what you see in those rare combinations. I think just more offseasons of spending time with RGIII and the other receivers but moreso RGIII. Those are the things that will take your game to another level. You’ve got a guy with an elite arm and a guy with Pierre’s ability. They’ve got what it takes.”