National Football League
Does Colts’ investment in their own free agents show team is ready to break out?
National Football League

Does Colts’ investment in their own free agents show team is ready to break out?

Published Mar. 20, 2024 5:08 p.m. ET

You remember that iconic episode of "Oprah" several years ago when she gave everyone in the audience a car? 

In a way, that's similar to how the Colts have treated their own players. 

New deals for wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (three years, $70 million), linebacker Zaire Franklin (three years, $31.26 million), nickelback Kenny Moore II (three years, $30 million) and defensive tackle Grover Stewart (three years, $39 million) highlight the more than $170 million in contract value Indianapolis has awarded in-house free agents and extension-eligible players this offseason. The team has made just two outside free-agent signings: quarterback Joe Flacco and defensive tackle Raekwon Davis, both of whom will be backups. 

The Colts will have essentially the same core in 2024. 


"I'm encouraged in where we're going," general manager Chris Ballard said at his end-of-season press conference in January. 

Ballard has always been the type to reward homegrown talent, even those at non-premium positions (second contracts for running back Jonathan Taylor, linebacker Shaquille Leonard and left guard Quenton Nelson are among the most notable). But that precedent is as justified as ever this offseason. The Colts in 2023 won nine games with a rookie head coach (Shane Steichen) and their starting quarterback (Anthony Richardson) playing just 173 snaps, not to mention multi-game absences for a slew of their best players, including Taylor, Stewart and right tackle Braden Smith

Those are reasons for Indianapolis to believe it's on the ascent, even with just two playoff appearances — one victory — in six seasons and counting with Ballard. 

Pittman is a trusted, No. 1 target to help Richardson continue develop. Franklin has broken the franchise tackle record in back-to-back seasons. Moore, who becomes one of the league's highest-paid nickelbacks, is the best player in the Colts' secondary. 

Indianapolis' run defense last season was significantly worse without Stewart, who missed six games due to a PED suspension. The Colts allowed just 3.5 yards per carry with him on the field, compared to 4.5 without, according to Next Gen Stats. He would've been difficult to replace. 

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If Richardson, who started throwing last month for the first time since his season-ending shoulder injury, can build off the flashes he showed in four games as a rookie, the Colts are well-positioned to be a playoff contender. He and Taylor could be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Missing seven games in 2023, Taylor showed his All-Pro talent in the regular-season finale against the Texans, with 30 carries for 188 yards. 

"Look, we should legitimately be competing for the division and playoffs," Ballard said. "That's our expectation. That's really our expectation every year, but I think that is really possible here going forward."

A gaping hole in the secondary remains, though. The Colts to this point haven't added external reinforcements to a young and inexperienced secondary that was susceptible to explosive plays. They ranked 16th in pass defense last season (226 passing yards allowed per game) and 18th in pass defense DVOA, according to FTN Data. 

Indianapolis appears to be in bad shape at safety, where it could have two new starters. The Colts' best safety from last season, Julian Blackmon (career-high four interceptions last season), remains a free agent. Rodney Thomas II was benched at the end of the season in favor of former third-round pick Nick Cross, who's had an up-and-down tenure in Indianapolis. 

Jaylon Jones, a seventh-round pick last year, is currently slated to start at outside cornerback alongside JuJu Brents, who missed eight games as a second-round rookie. The two top options behind them are former undrafted free agents: Darrell Baker Jr., who was benched early last season, and Dallis Flowers, who's coming off a torn Achilles. 

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Ballard foreshadowed the lack of movement in the cornerback free-agent market during his NFL Combine presser last month. 

"Not necessarily, no," the GM said when asked if having two rookie cornerbacks (Brents, Jones) made signing a veteran corner a priority. "We'll see how it works out in free agency. Look, they're going to live through their lumps and that's part of it. I thought they both advanced really well. Jones, all he did was get out there and battle each and every week. With JuJu, it's about staying healthy."

The Colts' roster, like all others, is fluid this time of the year. Free agency isn't over. The draft is coming up. More roster shuffling will happen between now and September. 

But for Indianapolis, it's not difficult to see the vision. If the team was one game out of the playoffs with all the challenges it had last season, what could happen in 2024 with a healthy Richardson? With Steichen having a year of head coaching under his belt? With continuity? With improvement from returning players?

The arrow appears to be pointed upward overall. 

That's why the Colts opened up the wallet for their own.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


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