GM: Free agent WR Michael Pittman Jr. will be a Colt in 2024

INDIANAPOLIS -- Colts general manager Chris Ballard offered a succinct but bold prediction when asked Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine whether impending free agent receiver Michael Pittman Jr. will be on the roster next season.

"Yes," Ballard said, without a hint of hesitation.

It was a meaningful, if brief, reply to a critical question facing Indianapolis. The Colts' top wideout the past three seasons, Pittman is set to become a free agent in the coming weeks after playing out his rookie contract.

But given Pittman's preference to test the open market, the only way of truly ensuring Pittman remains on the roster for the 2024 season is to franchise-tag the 2020 second-round pick. NFL teams have until next Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET to designate a franchise player.

The nonexclusive franchise tag allows players to negotiate with other clubs, but it removes their unrestricted status because the player's original team retains the right to match a competing offer or receive two first-round picks as compensation if the player signs with another club. The accompanying one-year salary for a franchised wide receiver this year is $21.816 million.

Regarding the idea of using the tag, which the Colts haven't utilized since designating former punter Pat McAfee in 2013, Ballard said, "It's a tool we have. I'm not going to say we're not going to use it, but I'm not going to say we are. Hopefully we can come to an agreement and find some compromise on a deal."

Ballard said those conversations are underway with Pittman's representatives, but reaching a deal could prove challenging, especially before Tuesday. Pittman has expressed a desire to maximize his free agency, saying recently, "I wouldn't be doing my due diligence if I didn't explore every option and find the best fit."

On Wednesday, Ballard said, "We've had talks with [Pittman's] agent, who is really good... We'll work hard to get a deal done."

Pittman's value to the Colts has long been clear. The 26-year-old has averaged 99 receptions and 1,053 yards during the past three seasons, during which he has played with six different starting quarterbacks.

Ballard and his staff will presumably be consulting with owner Jim Irsay throughout the Pittman negotiations, based on a health update Ballard offered on Wednesday.

"He is progressing well. We are talking," Ballard said of Irsay, who was recently hospitalized with what the Colts described as a respiratory illness.

"Shane [Steichen] and I have talked to him multiple times and we keep him abreast of anything. Look, at the end of the day, we're not going to do anything without his approval, so we still keep him in the loop. I mean, you know him. He wants to know. He loves his team. He's making his way and he's doing well. It's getting better."

All of that is notable given Irsay's recent health challenges, which prompted great concern throughout the organization and among those close to the longtime owner. Irsay had not been involved in day-to-day management of the team for many weeks, sources told ESPN. Earlier this month, Irsay posted on X that he was "on the mend. Grateful for all the messages of love and support."

It remains unclear what, if any, health challenges remain for Irsay in his recovery, but his involvement in team matters is an indication things are trending in a positive direction. Concerns about Irsay were compounded by recent news that he was found unresponsive at his home in early December and rushed to the hospital in what police described as a suspected overdose.