Will Colts buck tradition and franchise-tag WR Michael Pittman?

NFL

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL on Friday announced an historic increase in the salary cap, with the figure rising more than $30 million per team to $255.4 million.

It’s likely few players were more thrilled to hear the news than Michael Pittman Jr., the Colts’ top wide receiver.

Approaching free agency for the first time, Pittman is among this year’s most intriguing free agents given his production the past two seasons (208 receptions, 2,077 yards).

But Pittman is also unique among free agents for another reason: his candor.

Few players are as transparent about their approach to free agency as Pittman, who has long been looking forward to the opportunity to learn his value. The 2020 second-round pick has repeatedly referenced his impending free agency in recent months, saying, “I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t explore every option and find the best fit.”

Pittman has never shied away from the business aspect of the NFL. He understands and embraces it, in part because he’s the son of former NFL running back Michael Pittman Sr., giving him greater insight into the industry.

So, while he has maintained that he’d like to stay in Indianapolis, he also has remained realistic about the range of possible outcomes.

“I’ve loved my four years here,” Pittman said, before adding, “right now, until March, I’m still a Colt.”

What impact will Pittman’s outlook and expectations on free agency have on his contract negotiations with the Colts? For one, his disposition increases the potential for Indianapolis using the franchise tag for the first time since 2013. The Colts haven’t used the tag since placing it on former punter and current ESPN personality Pat McAfee 11 years ago.

Here, Pittman’s stated interest in testing the open market will leave the Colts with a difficult decision: Do they roll the dice and simply continue talks if no deal is reached by the March 5 deadline to assign franchise tags? Or, would they be more inclined to tag Pittman and prevent him from reaching unrestricted free agency come March 13? A non-exclusive tag designee can negotiate with other suitors, but the player’s original team retains the right to match any competing offer or receive two first-round picks as compensation if the player departs.

All of the available evidence suggests one likely conclusion: Unless the offer from Indianapolis is far and away better than anything Pittman can realistically expect to garner on the market, he seems determined to shop his talents to other teams.

“I think we want to get a sense of what’s out there,” Pittman said of his camp.

Hence, the likelihood of the franchise tag presumably increases. Pittman has acknowledged as much and seems prepared for it.

“I don’t think anybody would be displeased with $23 million,” Pittman said last month, a reference to the estimated one-year salary for franchise-tagged wide receivers. (It’s actually $21.816 million.) “The franchise tag, it’s almost like a tag of respect. Obviously, you get paid in the top five of your position, but do I necessarily want to play on one? I wouldn’t say necessarily. I do not want to play out a tag, but you can use that to work towards a long-term deal as well.”

Pittman has put many of his proverbial cards on the table. As for the Colts, not so much.

Questions remain. For example: Are they willing to make a wide receiver their highest-paid player given their seeming reluctance in recent years to invest richly in the position? Three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is currently the Colts’ top earner by annual salary, at $21 million. Three-time first-team All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson ranks right behind him at $20 million per year.

Until running back Jonathan Taylor signed a $42 million extension last season, Colts general manager Chris Ballard had never come close to signing a non-quarterback offensive skill player to a top-of-market deal. So, signing Pittman to an extension that puts among the highest-paid players at his position would buck a great deal of history for the Colts.

That’s not to say Pittman is underappreciated. The numbers tell you everything you need to know about his importance to the Indianapolis offense.

More than one in four pass attempts by Colts quarterbacks since 2021 have gone to Pittman. His 26.1% team target share — the percentage of the team’s pass attempts thrown to him — in that span ranks eighth in the NFL. His 425 overall targets rank seventh in leaguewide.

“He’s proven it every single year,” Taylor said.

On that, all parties agree.

“The guy’s competitive, he’s tough, he cares, he wants to win,” Ballard said.

But, as Pittman clearly understands, this is a business. Nothing about the situation seems acrimonious, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be an easy negotiation, either.

“We’re going to work to get him back,” Ballard said. “We’ll work through that. I know we’re going to have a few free agents you’re all going to want to talk about and I’m probably going to give you the same answer: We’d like to have them all back, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s just the nature of what we do.

“But Pitt’s a good football player for us, and hopefully he still remains a Colt.”

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