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Colts 2024 NFL free agency primer: Impending free agents, important dates, what's being said ahead of next week

The NFL's "legal tampering" period begins next Monday at noon, and free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. on March 13. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers before next week:

What's the timeline for NFL free agency?

Between now and Monday at 11:59 a.m., players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2024 may only negotiate new contracts with the team they last played for in 2023. That means, for example, Gardner Minshew II can only negotiate a new contract with the Colts before noon on Monday.

You've probably heard the term "legal tampering," which is colloquial slang for the NFL's negotiation period, which begins at noon on Monday. During the negotiation period, which runs from noon on Monday, March 11 through 3:59 p.m. on March 13, impending unrestricted free agents may enter negotiations and agree to terms on contracts with other teams. However, these deals may not be signed until the beginning of the 2024 league year, which is 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13.

The same goes for trades, which can be agreed to prior to the start of the new league year but not executed until the clock strikes 4 p.m. on March 13.

Essentially, transactions can be agreed to but won't become official until the start of the new league year on Wednesday afternoon.

The vast majority of free agency signings will take place next week. In 2023, the Colts signed seven players between the Monday start of the negotiation period and the end of that week that Friday (LB EJ Speed, WR Ashton Dulin and CB Tony Brown re-signed, while QB Gardner Minshew, K Matt Gay, DT Taven Bryan and DE Samson Ebukam signed as free agents).

After that first week, the Colts signed four players in the next month and a half; only one (WR Isaiah McKenzie) played for the team in 2023. There are exceptions, of course – the Colts made a splash in mid-April of 2022 when they signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore as a free agent – but usually, the free agency frenzy slows after the first week.

And rarely do players sign between about mid-April and the NFL Draft; there's often an uptick in signings after the draft, when player signings are no longer tied to the NFL's compensatory draft pick formula. For example: Three years ago, the Colts signed left tackle Eric Fisher as a free agent after the 2021 NFL Draft. Occasionally, players will wait until just before training camp, or just before the season, to sign as free agents, but that's usually only a handful of veterans every year.

In short: A lot of heavy lifting will happen next week as the Colts build their 2024 roster.

I heard about the salary cap going way up. What does that mean for free agency?

The NFL on Feb. 23 announced a $255.4 million salary cap for the 2024 season, and the $30 million increase from 2023 was greater than plenty around the league expected. But a few days later, at the Indiana Convention Center, you almost universally heard general managers say the cap increase wouldn't impact how they were going to spend in free agency. 

"Yes we did see an increase, and then I think it will be a slower increase going forward," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. "I don't think we're gonna see a $30 million jump every year. So you've gotta plan appropriate for that. It definitely gives you more room to work with. We're in good shape but I think it gave everybody a little bit more of a parachute. So I think it goes both ways. We have the big jump this year, then it kind of levels out going forward over the next four or five years."

Here's what a few other AFC general managers said about the cap going up:

Cleveland Browns GM Andrew Berry: "I wouldn't say that it has a fundamental impact in terms of terms of our planning."

Tennessee Titans GM Ran Carthon, on his team's abundance of cap space: "I know that's what everyone is talking about, and how much we have, but we have to spend wisely. We don't want to just load up and just go spend money. Again, we're trying to build a long-term, consistent thing, and you can't do that spending all $90 million out front. We've got to be patient. We got to position ourselves that there going to be guys that come free in June and July, like when we got D-Hop (DeAndre Hopkins), that we have to have the space for and be able to afford it. Plus, we have to have money for operating costs moving forward throughout the fall, which I think for most of the season, we're in the top five in having space available. So, we plan to be active. But we're going to be patient and let everything come to us."

Houston Texans GM Nick Caserio: "It doesn't necessarily change how we're going to approach this off-season. We were already in a decent position, and I would just say it probably potentially could be more of a one-time thing. Depending on what the number is, maybe it gives you a little flexibility. Could be add a singular player, could be add multiple players at a certain tier level, whether or not to use the money this year or push it to next year and roll it to the next year. I would say the result of what happened the other day doesn't necessarily change our thought process about how we were going to approach free agency."

Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta: "It was nice to see that number. It doesn't mean that we're going to just open up the books and go shopping. That's not really the Ravens' way, but to have that buffer, so to speak, and to give us a little bit more flexibility along the way."

Which Colts players will become unrestricted free agents next week?

As of this writing, the Colts have 12 players slated to become unrestricted free agents next week (if you want more analysis of these guys, click the link for our Free Agency Preview podcasts on the Colts Audio Network)

Wait, where's Michael Pittman Jr. on that list?

The Colts on Tuesday used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Pittman, who in 2023 became the fourth player in franchise history with a 100-catch, 1,000-yard season. If/when Pittman signs the franchise tag, he will be locked into a one-year, fully-guaranteed contract; the Colts and Pittman have until July 15 to negotiate a contract extension. If an extension is not signed before July 15, Pittman will play the 2024 season on the franchise tag.

Because the Colts used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Pittman, his representation can solicit contract offer sheets from other teams. However, if Pittman signs an offer sheet with another team, the Colts would have the right to match it or receive two first-round picks from that team for letting him go. That scenario is incredibly rare, though: The last franchise player to sign an offer sheet and leave for another team was wide receiver Joey Galloway in 2000, with the Seattle Seahawks receiving two first-round picks from the Dallas Cowboys in the process. The vast majority of players who are tagged receive the non-exclusive franchise tag.

Ballard last week at the NFL Combine answered a direct question (will Pittman be on the Colts in 2024) with a direct answer (yes), and the franchise tag is a mechanism to make sure that's the case. Ballard, too, stressed he hopes to come to an agreement on a contract extension with Pittman through this process.

"We've had talks with his agent (David Mulugheta), who is really good," Ballard said. "His agent has been doing it a long time. He's really good at what he does. We'll work hard to get a deal done. ... Hopefully we can come to an agreement and find some compromise on a deal."

On Tuesday, prior to Pittman getting the franchise tag, head coach Shane Steichen discussed the wide receiver's importance to the Colts' offense.

"One thing I do respect about Pitt is that he's going to show up and you know what you're getting every Sunday," Steichen said. "You're going to get a guy that is going to go 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.

"... He was obviously a huge leader in the wide receiver room and not only in the wide receiver room, but in the locker room. I think his leadership abilities showed on the field by the way he played, how tough he is, the competitor like I said – I can't say enough about the competitor that he is. I think when guys are ultimate competitors, you can lead by example and that's what he did every single Sunday. He's reliable and he's always going to be there."

What else is being said about the Colts' free agents?

Free agency always takes two parties to come together – and just because you want a player or a player wants to sign somewhere does not mean it's a lock to happen. But it's worth revisiting a few things with free agency approaching fast here.

Ballard last week answered questions about Gardner Minshew II and Kenny Moore II:

On Minshew: "That's what's so great about Gardner — you're able to pull out more wins than most. When the backup quarterback goes in, usually it's disaster time. So that's not necessarily the same skillset, but a guy your staff feels like you can win with. That to me is the key. I think Gardner did about as well as you could do coming in. And give Shane and his staff credit, and give Gardner a lot of credit for coming in and playing winning football. That's not an easy task.

"... We think the world of Gardner. He is highly competitive. And he sees himself, and I wouldn't want it any other way from Gardner. He bleeds confidence, that's who he is and that's what I love about him."

On Moore: "He's a special human being. He had a really good year. I thought a bounce back year from a year ago. What he does as the nickel, it is valuable. And it's valuable to us. We'll see how it works out. I mean, love to have him back. I think he knows that. But we'll work through it."

And back in January, a few days after the season ended, Ballard also discussed a few other impending free agents.

On Grover Stewart: "I think you know my feelings on Grover. In my first year here, he was one of our first draft picks. He's done nothing but be a great Colt, a great teammate, everything you want. Yeah, Grover is a guy we'd like to have back."

On the safety position: "I thought Julian Blackmon played really good football this year. It sucked when he got hurt, that hurt – it did when we lost him. I thought he played excellent football. Moving (Ronnie) Harrison Jr., we kind of put him at linebacker for a while – he was kind of almost like a dime linebacker for a while and then we kicked him back to safety. I thought like everything, fortunate to have him because I thought he played pretty good football when he went in there. But he just hadn't been playing a lot of safety up to that point, but I thought he played pretty good football. I do think we've got to get more consistency out of the free safety position. That's not quite a knock, because they're both young players. (Rodney) Thomas II had some good moments, (Nick) Cross had some really good moments but we need more consistent moments from that position."

On Rigoberto Sanchez: "I think a lot of Rigo. He had a good year. Things started off a little slow, but once he got going, he was Rigo. ... He's a pretty special guy. A pretty neat guy. I'll never underestimate his ability to hold. It think that's one of the more underrated skills. He's excellent as a holder, excellent."

The Last Word

A week from now,

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