Colts Planning To Keep Michael Pittman Jr., Prepared To Use Franchise Tag

The Colts have not used the franchise tag since the Ryan Grigson regime kept Pat McAfee off the market in 2013. It appears Chris Ballard is prepared to go to that well to ensure Michael Pittman Jr. stays.

Ballard said (via the Indianapolis Star’s Joel Erickson) the team’s top wide receiver will be a Colt one way or another come September. The eighth-year Indianapolis GM did not confirm (via Erickson) he would use the franchise tag on Pittman, but this subsequent proclamation effectively ensures the team is prepared to do so.

[RELATED: 2024 NFL Franchise Tag Candidates]

In talks with Pittman’s agent, the Colts have until 3pm CT on March 5 to apply their franchise tag. If they do not tag the former second-round pick, the team’s exclusive negotiating rights expire at 11am CT on March 11. It does not sound like the Colts are prepared to chance Pittman entering the legal tampering period without a deal. The tag would give the parties until July 15 to hammer out an extension.

Not known for excessive free agency spending, the Ballard-era Colts have done well to keep their homegrown talent off the market. The Colts have extended cornerstone starters Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, Quenton Nelson, Grover Stewart, Shaquille Leonard, Kenny Moore and Jonathan Taylor on Ballard’s watch. The Taylor matter became quite messy, but he indeed was signed before debuting in his fourth season. The Pittman matter has drifted a bit off track, with the 1,000-yard receiver playing out his rookie contract. That opens the door to the tag scenario.

Just after Taylor debuted, Pittman made comments alluding to the team perhaps not being committed to him. Although he was technically auditioning for 31 other teams during his contract year, the second-generation NFL skill player is on track to work with Anthony Richardson in 2024. This does represent a bit of a blow for Pittman. With Tee Higgins being tagged, Pittman could have been the top wide receiver on the market. Given where the salary cap went, a monster second contract would have awaited the 6-foot-4 target. But the Colts’ track record of paying their own does point to a big extension — albeit one that might not come to fruition for a bit this year.

Given Richardson’s status as a raw passer, his season-ending injury may well have benefited Pittman. The USC alum posted career-high numbers with Gardner Minshew targeting him, tallying 109 receptions for 1,152 yards. That was Pittman’s second 1,000-yard year; he got there with Carson Wentz at the controls two seasons ago. Asked to be the Colts’ No. 1 wideout fairly early in his career, as T.Y. Hilton injuries piled up, Pittman has delivered on the No. 34 overall pick — one slot after Higgins — the Colts used in 2020.

With Richardson on a rookie deal, the Colts have some luxuries they have not enjoyed in recent years due to the brigade of veteran QBs to stop through. Pittman, 26, looms as an essential player for the team, which has looked to him as a clear WR1. Though, younger cogs Josh Downs and Alec Pierce held their own in 2023. While the Colts may tinker with their receiving setup on the whole, they want Pittman back to anchor it.

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