INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps Zaire Franklin saw this coming.
Six weeks ago, just before playing in Indianapolis Colts teammate Quenton Nelson’s charity softball game, the linebacker spoke highly of the new face of the franchise: Anthony Richardson. The rookie quarterback was four days away from starting his first NFL training camp.
“Just go out there and be a baller,” Franklin said, repeating the advice he gave to Richardson. “I told him during the spring, ‘Look, man. They wouldn’t have drafted you fourth overall if you wasn’t that (good). You’re him for sure. You’re a ballplayer, you got everything.’”
Franklin’s support was validated Thursday when Colts head coach Shane Steichen announced the team’s seven captains for 2023, with Richardson as the headliner. The 21-year-old is one of the youngest team captains in franchise history, and he and the other captains — Franklin, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, center Ryan Kelly, linebacker Shaquille Leonard, cornerback Kenny Moore II and left guard Nelson — were chosen by their teammates. Franklin, a team captain for the fourth straight season, believes a big reason why Richardson received the honor is because he’s the starting quarterback.
But that’s not the only or biggest reason.
“Anthony being a captain so young, honestly, just speaks to how he carries himself in the building, just the respect that we have for him,” Franklin said. “I think Shane said it the best, ‘We got his back no matter what.’ It’s gonna be highs and lows during the season, but I want him to know that he’s our leader. We’re gonna ride and rock and roll off of him.”
Colts analyst Rick Venturi on Anthony Richardson: ‘We’re gonna see greatness’
Richardson has a lot on his plate and a lot to prove. He was drafted to stabilize the Colts at the most important position in football, a position the team has failed to get right since Andrew Luck surprisingly retired in 2019. Philip Rivers took the reins in 2020, Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022, but none were the long-term answer.
Richardson plans to put an end to the quarterback carousel.
“I want to be great, and I want to be remembered,” Richardson said shortly after he was named QB1 two weeks ago. “I don’t want to just be one of those guys like, ‘OK, he was in the league.’ I want my legacy to be remembered forever. I’m working. Just trying to work forever and build championships with this team and this organization.”
There will be buzz and excitement when Richardson makes his debut on Sept. 10 in the Colts’ season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium, the same venue he lit up in March with the most athletic showing of any quarterback prospect of all time. However, there will be growing pains. Richardson completed just 53.8 percent of his passes last year at Florida, which ranked 13th out of 14 starting SEC QBs.
He completed 13 of 29 passes for 145 yards and one interception, plus seven carries for 45 yards in two preseason games. But his stats don’t illustrate his otherworldly physical gifts, elusiveness in and out of the pocket and big-play ability, all of which were on display. Steichen has been impressed with Richardson’s progress and the levity he brings to his craft.
“I think it’s just his contagious personality,” Steichen said. “He’s got something special about him that says, ‘I want to be around this guy.’ He’s fun to talk to, he can relate to everybody. I think that’s what makes him special, that’s part of it. Obviously, he’s a very talented player, but when you add that extra piece of the hard work and the character and the preparation part of it — I think that’s when guys have success in this league.”
The Colts kept five tight ends on their initial 53-man roster Tuesday, but one of them won’t be available to start the season. Second-year pro Jelani Woods will miss at least the first four games after being placed on injured reserve Wednesday due to a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him for most of the offseason.
Last season, Woods totaled 25 receptions for 312 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score in an upset of the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. He was poised to be a potential starter in Steichen’s offense thanks to his size and speed, and fellow tight end Mo Alie-Cox said he feels for his teammate.
“Just staying in his ear to not get too down on himself,” Alie-Cox said. “And also, if you don’t feel right, don’t rush back. I know as a player, you’re always gonna want to rush back and get on the field, but if you’re not 100 percent, you’re gonna come back and really just hurt yourself even more. I’m not sure if he ever got to 100 percent, but you know that competitor in you wants to go back out there and get on the field. He went back out there and re-aggravated it.”
Whenever Woods returns, he’ll be jockeying for playing time in a diverse and crowded tight end room. Alie-Cox is the elder statesman as the six-year pro and prides himself on his physicality and toughness, while his counterparts Kylen Granson, Andrew Ogletree and rookie Will Mallory offer other strengths.
“We got Kylen, he’s faster,” Alie-Cox said. “Drew plays a little more similar to me, but he’s a little more faster. He’s like a Swiss Army knife. You can move him anywhere. And Will, man, Will can run. Y’all saw it in the preseason.”
Defensive end Genard Avery (knee), linebacker JoJo Domann (undisclosed), wide receiver Ashton Dulin (ACL), rookie defensive end Titus Leo (undisclosed), guard Danny Pinter (ankle), rookie safety Daniel Scott (ACL), tight end Ricky Seals-Jones (foot) and rookie tackle Jake Witt (hip) were placed on IR prior to the roster cut deadline Tuesday and are out for the 2023 season.
The Colts haven’t won a season opener since 2013, which was seven years before Richardson graduated high school. Indianapolis’ new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was the Jaguars’ passing game coordinator last year, so in addition to preparing his rookie signal caller for his first game, Cooter has also passed along a few tips to Steichen.
“It’s huge,” Steichen said. “Obviously, he was there. He’s got familiarity with a lot of the defensive players. It’s definitely going to help playing this team.”
(Top photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)