After earning an extension with the Colts in March, linebacker Zaire Franklin reflected on his journey to signing a second contract – which is hardly a given for someone, like Franklin, who was a seventh-round pick.
"To be in this moment now," Franklin said, "it's validation of everything I put in and all the hard work I put in, and the blood, sweat and tears."
But Franklin, inspired by teammates like Shaquille Leonard, Kenny Moore II and DeForest Buckner, was not satisfied with earning a second contract and the payday that comes with it. Fast-forward to seven months later, and the NFL's tackle leaderboard looks like this heading into Week 6:
T-1. Jordyn Brooks (54)
_T-1. Zaire Franklin (54)
_T-1. Roquan Smith (54)
"He's probably a top-five linebacker in the league right now," fellow linebacker Bobby Okereke said. "Elite production, leading the league in tackles and he's the emotional leader of our defense. That speaks good for the culture of the team where young guys can look up and aspire to be that."
As Franklin has lifted himself up – he's excelled as the Mike linebacker in Gus Bradley's defense with Leonard sidelined for much of the season – he's lifted up his teammates, too.
Part of that is by example: It's impossible to not reflect on Franklin's path to this point, from being the 235th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to being benched as a rookie to becoming a core special teamer to now leading the NFL in tackles. Week 1 of the 2022 season was the first time Franklin played 100 percent of the Colts' defensive snaps in a game since Week 5 of his rookie year; he went 18 consecutive games without playing a defensive snap from 2019-2020.
For Franklin, taking personal accountability for why he wasn't starting was the first step of the process to get him to where he is today.
"First I wanted to blame the coaches and blame other situations, but I had to really be honest with myself about why are you not where you want to be in the league, because there's other guys that are," Franklin said. "And then at that point, it's just, where are you right now and what can you do to change it? And then trusting in myself, trusting the process no matter what, always believing in who I could be in this league, doing whatever the team needed me to do, being whoever the team needed me to be to stick around and help them improve.
"And just understanding the NFL, you're going to get your shot, so you got to be ready when it comes. I just wanted to make sure that the next time I had an opportunity to really play, improve myself so that I wasn't going to miss."
That's something Buckner noticed immediately upon arriving in Indianapolis in 2020 – Franklin always prepared like he was going to start, even if his playing time was sporadic. In 2021, Franklin was nominally a starter, but as the Sam linebacker in Matt Eberflus' 4-3 scheme, he usually only maxed out at playing about a third of the Colts' defensive snaps with the team taking him off the field for a third cornerback in frequently-used nickel personnel.
But Franklin was always ready for his shot, and established himself as a special teams ace and a team leader.
"For a guy to work as hard as he's done and to never really see it all play into his hands, but continue to give guys around him props — he never fell short of believing in himself," Moore said. "In the midst of it, he never showed any type of bad energy to the guys that were in front of him or making plays. Just a guy that was positive in the midst of things not going his way, that shows great perseverance and just to see his work ethic and his dedication prosper now — and I know he's not done yet, he has a long way to go. But it's been great to see and I tell him that I'm proud of him as a brother."
Franklin is a natural at the Mike linebacker spot, where he's filled in for Leonard. He played there in college, and has the communication skills, understanding of Bradley's defense and general football IQ to be the sort of quarterback of the defense.
"He's a naturally smart guy," Moore said.
"He's a good speaker in general, so when it comes to the field, we all trust him and we all are able to listen to that guy," safety Julian Blackmon added. "Everything he says, we know he's right, so being able to have a guy like that is really important to our defense."
And for a group of players that has banked experience together – but not banked experience in Bradley's defense yet – having that strong communication from Franklin has been critical over the first quarter or so of the season.
"He's got great leadership qualities, takes total command of the huddle, play calls, makes checks on the field for us and is extremely intelligent," Bradley said. "With all that being said, he's playing really fast for us right now. Very excited about the way he keeps progressing. He's a great communicator out there. I think guys rely on him for that as well."
Or, as Franklin put it: "Everybody will tell you — I love talking. So when I'm out on the field, I'm talking anyway. Might as well be productive while I'm speaking."
There's an adage in football that you want your best players to be your best leaders, and it's one Franklin is embodying in 2022. His competitive fire, communication skills, Philly-grown toughness and thumping tackles have made him one of the Colts' most important players on and off the field. He can lead by example and lead through his words:
And Franklin leads by making play after play on the field, too.
"I believe he's gonna have the most tackles in the league this year," defensive tackle Grover Stewart said, "if he keeps doing the things he's doing and being the player he is."
Franklin, just as he didn't rest on becoming a core special teamer and three-time team captain, or on earning that contract extension, isn't patting himself on the back for leading the league in tackles in mid-October. "They don't give that award out in Week 5," he said. But as the Colts push forward in 2022, the example Franklin sets for his teammates – and the play he puts on the field every week – is one of the most important undercurrents to what this team feels like it can accomplish this season.
"If everybody can have a Zaire Franklin on their roster," Buckner said, "their roster would be upgraded immediately."