Pittman open to all options as free agency approaches

Jan. 15—INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Pittman Jr. essentially bet on himself this offseason, and it's about to pay off handsomely.

The 26-year-old wide receiver made something of a verbal agreement with the Indianapolis Colts to wait until the end of the 2023 season to address his expiring contract. He then went out and set career highs with 109 catches and 1,152 receiving yards despite playing with the sixth and seventh starting quarterbacks of his four-year career.

As a result, Pittman is in line for either a big extension with the Colts or a healthy payday elsewhere.

"I loved my four years here, but I wouldn't be doing my due diligence if I didn't explore every option and find the best fit," he said.

The market for wide receivers has skyrocketed in recent years, with an annual average salary above $20 million now the going rate for the upper echelon.

There's been continuous debate throughout Pittman's time in Indianapolis as to whether he qualifies as a true No. 1 option. That could be an argument for outside suitors to entertain, but it should be immaterial inside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

Despite the constant changes at quarterback — and a complete reboot this year under first-year head coach Shane Steichen — Pittman has pulled in 336 passes for 3,662 yards and 15 touchdowns during his four-year career.

But his impact has gone beyond the numbers.

Pittman's displayed an on-field toughness that takes many forms. He's missed just five games to injury and made a number of contested catches while absorbing illegal hits. He's also been utilized significantly as a blocker, helping to free outside running lanes for Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss.

Add it all together with increased off-field leadership this fall, and Pittman's value could be greater to the Colts than any of the other 31 NFL franchises.

"I think you saw it this year. When he's on the field, we're a better offense," quarterback Gardner Minshew II said. "He's a security blanket for us. Any time we needed a big catch, he was the guy to come through for us.

"You can't speak enough about him, his toughness, the different roles that we put him in, making him be a blocker. He's half tight end some of the times and still catching 100 balls. Man, he's incredible and I think will make any team better."

General manager Chris Ballard has made no secret of his affection for Pittman, but he's not been quick to use significant capital at the wide receiver position.

No receiver has been drafted higher than the second round — where Pittman was picked in 2020 — and no free-agent contract at the position has topped Devin Funchess' one-year deal worth up to $13 million in 2019.

That's caused some to wonder whether Ballard will have the stomach to bring Pittman back at market value. But the GM allayed those concerns during his annual state-of-the-franchise address last week.

"The market is what the market is," Ballard said. "You have to have gas in your car, and if it's $4 a gallon, it's $4 a gallon. It is what it is. There are ways to build your team, and if that's one of the ways you need to do it, then you need to do it. You have to have good players at every level.

"It is what it is in terms of market. I wish I had a better answer for you. It's kind of like the quarterback. When you have one, the price tag is up toward $45, $50 million now. The market is what it is. You've got to have wideouts."

That doesn't mean a Pittman extension will come easily.

He has acknowledged he wants to see what are opportunities are out there, and Indianapolis would be remiss not to do the same. Perhaps the big offseason splash is for an outside free agent like Cincinnati's Tee Higgins, should he actually become available.

Or the Colts could look to add a receiver in what's expected to be a deep draft at the position.

Retaining Pittman on the franchise tag also is an option. It's one Ballard said he'd prefer not to use, but it would keep the wide receiver on the roster for another season with a hefty paycheck.

"The franchise tag — I don't think anybody would be displeased with $23 million," Pittman said. "I don't even really know. The franchise tag is — it's almost like a tag of respect, honestly. You get paid in the top five at your position. But do I necessarily want to play on one? I wouldn't say necessarily, 'No, I do not want to play on the tag.' But you can use that to work towards a long-term deal as well."

So all the doors appear to be open as free agency approaches in March.

Pittman enjoyed his lone season under Steichen, and he sees a bright future ahead with young quarterback Anthony Richardson at the controls. So there are factors that could lead him back to Indianapolis.

And the team would prefer to keep him in the fold.

"I care deeply about (Pittman)," Ballard said. "We have a really good relationship. It's an honest one — almost too honest I think sometimes. But that's what I love about him. The guy is competitive. He's tough. He cares. He wants to win. We're going to work to get him back. We'll work through that. ... Pitt is a good football player for us, and hopefully he still remains a Colt."