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How the Colts are setting up strong competition for whoever they pick in 2024 NFL Draft

The Colts' emphasis on continuity this offseason will foster strong competition for the players the team selects in next week's NFL Draft. 

The Colts capped a month-long stretch of turning cash into continuity on Monday, when defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was signed to a contract extension.

Buckner and linebacker Zaire Franklin received contract extensions a year before they were due to hit free agency. Defensive tackle Grover Stewart, cornerback Kenny Moore II and safety Julian Blackmon were all brought back to reprise their roles as starters – roles they've held for years prior to 2024. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis was retained as a significant member of the Colts' defensive line.

On offense, wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. received the franchise tag and then a contract extension. Across the board on both offense and defense, the team's starters and several key depth pieces from 2023 are back for 2024.

So when the Colts' 2024 NFL Draft class arrives in Indianapolis, that means every starting spot, every role, every place on this team will have to be earned.

That's the case every year, sure. But in 2024, those draft picks – whether they're selected on Day 1, 2 or 3 – will have to earn it against players who started for the Colts in 2023. Those players already have equity within the locker room and experience with Shane Steichen's coaching staff, which largely remained intact from last year to this year.

This situation will be different than even the one the Colts' high draft picks walked into in 2023, when Richardson and Downs competed against outside free agents (Gardner Minshew II, Isaiah McKenzie) who were signed to one-year deals.

Those players were veterans and provided competition, but neither were in Indianapolis before last year. In 2024, every player who will compete to start on the Colts will compete against someone who started for the Colts in 2023, if not for longer.

When coaches and general managers talk about fostering competition in the offseason and training camp, this – what the Colts have – seems to be about as competitive a situation as you'll find for a young player.

So this is the landscape the Colts' 2024 draft picks will see after hearing their name called next week:


2023 starters: Anthony Richardson, Gardner Minshew II

Minshew signed with the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency, but Richardson was always going to be the Colts' QB1 in 2024. Veteran Joe Flacco was brought in as a free agent, and Sam Ehlinger is entering his fourth year with the Colts.

Running back

2023 primary starters: Zack Moss, Jonathan Taylor

With Moss joining the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason, the guys behind Taylor on the roster right now include three players who saw time in 2023: Trey Sermon (108 snaps), Tyler Goodson (51 snaps) and 2023 fifth-round pick Evan Hull (eight snaps). Hull sustained a season-ending injury in Week 1 of his rookie year.

Wide receiver

2023 primary starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Josh Downs

The Colts were thrilled to keep Pittman paired with Richardson, and were pleased with Downs' production and mentality during his rookie year. While Pierce's production dropped in Year 2 (nine fewer catches, 81 fewer yards than his rookie season), general manager Chris Ballard praised his team-first attitude through a challenging season – and the Colts believe he still has plenty of upside, especially in a passing offense that will look to push the ball downfield more with the strong-armed Richardson behind center again.

Behind this starting trio is Ashton Dulin, a prototypical and valuable No. 4 receiver who can play all three positions (X, Z, slot) and contribute heavily on special teams. Dulin sustained a torn ACL during training camp in 2023 and missed the entire season.

"The one that we missed most was Ashton Dulin just because he did so much," Ballard said at the NFL Annual Meeting in March. "He can play multiple spots. He does the dirty work. And then if you have to start him you can still play winning football. Losing Ashton during camp last year, that sucked."

Tight end

2023 primary starters: Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson, Drew Ogletree*

While Granson led Colts tight ends with 30 receptions and 368 yards, that group collectively ranked in the top half of NFL tight end rooms in several offensive categories:

  • 883 yards (13th)
  • 6 touchdowns (13th)
  • 47 first downs (11th)
  • 23 explosive (15+ yards) receptions (8th)
  • 12.6 yards/reception (3rd)
  • 103.9 passer rating when targeted (12th)

The Colts are also high on 2023 fifth-round pick Will Mallory (18 receptions, 207 yards) and are intrigued by the return of 2022 third-round pick Jelani Woods, who spent the entire 2023 season on injured reserve. Woods as a rookie caught 25 passes for 312 yards with three touchdowns.

*On commissioner's exempt list

Offensive line

2023 primary starters: Bernhard Raimann, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Will Fries, Braden Smith

All five starters are back in 2024, as are several reserves with starting experience: Swing tackle Blake Freeland started nine games as a rookie in 2023; center Wesley French tagged in for three starts; guard/center Danny Pinter, who missed the 2023 season on injured reserve, re-signed this spring and has seven games of starting experience with the Colts.

Defensive line

2023 primary starters: Samson Ebukam, Kwity Paye, DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart

Behind that returning group of four starters are the versatile Lewis (four sacks, 13 QB hits in 2023) and Dayo Odeyingbo (eight sacks, 17 QB hits), while the Colts signed big man Raekwon Davis to back up Buckner and Stewart alongside Taven Bryan, Eric Johnson II and Adetomiwa Adebawore, all of whom saw time for the Colts in 2023. And Ballard has a few times mentioned the upside of second-year defensive end Isaiah Land, who the Colts claimed off waivers after roster cuts last August.


2023 primary starters: Zaire Franklin, EJ Speed

The Colts waived Shaquille Leonard after their bye week to clear the deck for Speed, who stuffed box scores throughout the season (102 tackles, 12 TFLs, 3 forced fumbles, 4 pass break-ups). Franklin and Speed are entrenched starters, while reserve Segun Olubi started the first two games of his career in 2023.


2023 primary starters: Kenny Moore II, Jaylon Jones, JuJu Brents, Dallis Flowers

Flowers gets included here because he was a Week 1 starter, and his season was trending in the right direction when he sustained an Achilles injury in Week 4 that sidelined him for the rest of the year. Brents, a 2023 second-round pick, started eight games and is focusing his offseason on staying healthy; Jones started 10 games and allowed the NFL's fourth-lowest yards per coverage snap (0.72) behind only the Jets' Sauce Gardner, the Steelers' Joey Porter Jr. and the Raiders' Nate Hobbs.


2023 primary starters: Julian Blackmon, Rodney Thomas II

The Colts will have competition at free safety, with Blackmon returning after a career year in his first season as a strong safety. Nick Cross, a 2022 third-round pick, competed his way into playing time and ultimately a pair of starts to end the 2023 season, while veteran Ronnie Harrison (three starts in 2023) was re-signed, too. The Colts, too, remain high on 2023 fifth-round safety Daniel Scott, who tore his ACL during OTAs last year and missed his rookie season.

The final numbers

Let's quantify the Colts' year-to-year consistency to close this out. Of the 374 games Colts players combined to start in 2023, the Colts return 340 starts in 2024 (91 percent).

On offense, the Colts return 163 of 187 starts (87 percent), with the majority of those starts lost owned by Minshew (13 starts) and Moss (eight starts).

On defense, the Colts return 177 of 187 starts (95 percent), with nine of those 2023 starts coming from Leonard, who was waived last November.

This does not mean the Colts don't have areas of their roster they'd like to improve, or rookies coming into this team have no shot to earn starting roles. For the Colts to grow as a team, though, they'll lean on competition in the coming months, with the 2024 rookie class an important part of those efforts.

But when that rookie class arrives at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, they won't just be competing against guys with starting experience in the NFL. They'll be competing against guys with starting experience in the NFL for the Colts.

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