INDIANAPOLIS – First impressions turned out to be career-altering.
Richard Smith was following Gus Bradley from Las Vegas to the Midwest in February 2022. Bradley was taking over the Indianapolis Colts’ defense after long-time coordinator Matt Eberflus stepped into the vacant head coaching position with the Chicago Bears, and Smith again would oversee his linebackers.
One of Smith’s first responsibilities: evaluate the ‘backers from 2021.
Bradley smiled as his mind drifted back.
“I can remember Richard Smith coming to me and going, ‘Hey, you need to look at this Zaire Franklin now. For the style in which we play, I think he really fits in well with it,’’’ he said.
It might be understandable for an incoming defensive staff to casually brush aside Franklin. He was a 2018 seventh-round draft pick out of Syracuse – in fact, the second linebacker the Colts scooped up in round 7, with pick No. 235; remember Matthew Adams? – who had largely made his mark as a top-tier special teams contributor.
The previous Eberflus-led defensive staff, never warmed to Franklin.
“When you have factors working against you,’’ he said, “it’s tough.’’
Franklin never missed a game in his first four seasons – 65, a streak he’s pushed to 87 straight – and started 15. But he was on the field for more than 30% of the defensive snaps only seven times. He routinely handled 70-80-90% of the snaps on special teams.
Smith saw something as he went through the 2021 video.
“I had never met him,’’ he said. “Anytime you come into a new organization, you evaluate their personnel. I found out he was a free agent and he did play some minimal snaps the year before.
“What I watched, I liked on film.’’
“He had the speed and quickness you like,’’ Smith said. “He was very physical. He could come out of his cleats real well. Just liked the way he played the game.’’
Again, Franklin was prepared to test his worth on the free-agent market. Then, his cell buzzed to life.
“Got him on the phone and said, ‘Hey listen, I think you have a chance to be really, really good. Hope you sign here,’’’ Smith said.
Franklin did, accepting a three-year, $10 million contract with $4 million guaranteed.
“You’ve just gotta keep grinding through it and the right people always make the right decisions,’’ Franklin said.
The free-agent contract was a sizeable bump over a rookie deal that paid him roughly $2.5 million. But as he noted with a wry smile, “That was a little more special teams-ish. That was my role then.’’
That’s spot on. Franklin’s $3.3 million per-season average ranks 45th among NFL linebackers and . . . No. 3 on the Colts behind Shaquille Leonard ($19.7 million) and E.J. Speed ($4 million).
Since being rewarded for his special teams’ prowess and the potential Smith and Bradley saw, Franklin has emerged as one of the NFL’s top tackle machines. A perceived bad fit as an outside ‘backer with the previous regime, he’s flourished at the Mike spot with Bradley and Smith.
Franklin ranked No. 4 in the league last season with a franchise-record 166 tackles and leads the NFL after five games with 69 total tackles and 37 solos.
He’s the only player in the league with at least 10 tackles in each of the first five games, a streak which is tied for the longest in franchise history. He had a five-game stretch last season, joining David Thornton in 2003 and Jeff Herrod in 1989.
One more. Franklin has piled up at least 12 tackles in each of those games. Since 1987, only Miami Hall of Famer Zach Thomas has a longer streak (eight).
OK, another one. Franklin might have delivered his signature tackle late in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s 23-16 win against Tennessee. The Titans faced a critical fourth-and-1 at the Indy 5 and placed their fortunes in the hands of Derrick Henry. Franklin met him in the hole and, along with DeForest Buckner, stuffed one of the NFL’s premier backs for no gain.
“When I hit somebody,’’ he said, “I want them to fall exactly where I hit them. I also take pride in knocking running backs backwards.’’
That’s impressive stuff, and Franklin knows it.
“I think I’m the best linebacker in the league now,’’ he said.
So, he’s underpaid?
“I didn’t say that, you did,’’ Franklin said with a laugh. “I didn’t say that.’’
At the very least, he’s one of the league’s best bargains, right up there with San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy ($899,000 against the Niners’ cap this season).
“I think he felt strongly with the organization, and he ended up signing and it’s worked out really well for us,’’ Smith said. “It’s been really a blessing. He’s one of our top players in my mind.’’
Credit the perseverance engrained in Franklin by his family rocks: mother (Shelice Highsmith) and grandmother (Juanita Highsmith-Bailey), both of whom passed away while he still was at LaSalle College H.S. in Wyndmoor, Pa.
Whatever adversity you face, deal with it. Treat people around you with respect. Be a leader. Pay it forward.
Franklin founded Shelice’s Angels in 2019 to assist young women and give them tools to succeed. That includes expanding financial literacy. This week, Franklin held a fundraiser of Hoagies and Hops.
“Financial literacy is basically a long journey of trying to figure out where you are and where you wanna go,’’ he told media at the event.
From a personal/NFL perspective, Franklin always knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do.
When opportunity came, seize it.
“Just perseverance,’’ he said. “This league is going to humble you. There’s highs and lows, successes and failures. We’re all going to go through that no matter what. It takes being prepared. It takes you keeping your head down and continuing to focus on being better.
“When you get the opportunity, take advantage of it.’’
When Franklin sat down with Bradley for the first time, the message from player to coach was clear.
“I told Gus when he came in, ‘All I’ve ever asked for is a fresh set of eyes and a clean opportunity,’’’ he said. “And that’s all he’s ever given me. Just the trust and the relationship we’ve been able to build over the last two years is special to me.
“All I asked him for was an opportunity, and he did that for me. I’m thankful for that for my career. I’m just trying to prove him and coach Smith right every day.’’
There’s no question Franklin has impacted Bradley as well. He was effusive when asked about his defensive captain. His emotions bubbled to the surface.
“I’m a big believer, as I think all of us are, that when you give and ask nothing in return, it comes back twofold,’’ Bradley said. “So many times in the NFL or players, they will give but they’ll want a little something in return.
“No, just give to give. I think that’s the lesson. That’s what Zaire Franklin does. He’s a special teams player (and) he gives his heart and soul to the team and to special teams. He’s on defense and he gives to the younger players and he gives to the defense and to this team.
“So to me, it’s not surprising he’s having some success come back twofold because that’s what he does. If I’m retired 20 years from now . . . I would always say, ‘Hey Z, I’m going to share your story. Is it OK? Because what a great lesson to teach younger players, right?’
“He’s a classic example of that.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.