Colts bring back their own to kick off free agency

Mar. 11—INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts are taking care of their own.

On the first day of the NFL's two-day "legal tampering" period, the Colts completed a long-term deal with wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., handed out a well-deserved extension to linebacker Zaire Franklin and kept defensive linemen Grover Stewart and Tyquan Lewis off the open market.

Monday was an unusually busy day this early for general manager Chris Ballard, and it portends the start of a busy offseason.

A record $30 million one-year bump in the salary cap opened some checkbooks across the league, and the market already is frenetic with free agency not officially slated to begin until Wednesday.

"It definitely gives you more room to work with — everybody in the league," Ballard said during the NFL Scouting Combine last month. "We're in good shape (with the salary cap), but I think it gave everybody a little bit more of a parachute. I think it goes both ways.

"We have the big jump this year, and then it kind of levels out going forward over the next four of five years."

While big deals like the Atlanta Falcons' addition of former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins will grab the headlines, Ballard stayed true to his own philosophy by first looking to reward his own players.

The biggest move was for Pittman, who had been placed on the franchise tag last week. The 26-year-old reportedly will sign a three-year deal worth up to $71.5 million with $46 million in guarantees, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

Pittman's average annual salary of a little more than $23 million will place him just above the Washington Commanders' Terry McLaurin as the eighth-highest paid wide receiver in the NFL. The three-year length of the deal also allows Pittman to re-enter free agency before his 30th birthday.

He has 336 catches for 3,662 yards and 15 touchdowns over four seasons with Indianapolis, despite playing with seven different starting quarterbacks.

The new contract will allow Pittman to grow alongside Anthony Richardson, whom the Colts hope will soon become the franchise quarterback.

"The one thing I do respect about Pitt is that he's going to show up and you know what you're getting every Sunday," Indianapolis head coach Shane Steichen said last week. "You're going to get a guy that is going to make plays, and you're going to get the same guy on the practice field that you're going to get in the meeting rooms, that you're going to get on game day on Sunday.

"To have that type of guy on our football team is huge going forward."

Franklin has one year remaining on a three-year, $10 million contract he signed in 2022. That deal was done at a time the 27-year-old was a special teams captain, and he was paid accordingly.

Franklin set a franchise single-season record for tackles during each of the first two years of the contract and has emerged as one of the faces of the Colts' defense.

Ballard rewarded him with a reported three-year, $31.26 million extension that better reflects his current role with the franchise.

Franklin has recorded 346 tackles over the past two seasons with 4,5 sacks, 12 pass breakups and four forced fumbles.

Stewart was part of Ballard's initial draft class in 2017 and has created a formidable bond with fellow defensive tackle DeForest Buckner on the interior of Indianapolis' defensive line.

He'll be back in 2024 and beyond with a reported three-year deal worth $39 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

The Colts defense struggled to stop the run during Stewart's six-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy last season, and he finished with 41 total stops and five tackles for loss in 11 games.

Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Lewis will ink a two-year contract worth $12 million with $7.7 million in guarantees, according to Bleacher Report's Jordan Schultz.

It's the third straight offseason during which Lewis has re-signed with the team. Torn ACLs cut short his 2021 and 2022 seasons, but the versatile defensive lineman played in all 17 games last year.

He tied a career high with four sacks and set new career marks with 25 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hits.

Cornerback Kenny Moore II, safety Julian Blackmon and punter Rigoberto Sanchez are among the remaining in-house free agents for the Colts.