Colts' Zaire Franklin taking advantage of opportunity

INDIANAPOLIS -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson delivered a short throw to running back Kenyan Drake, and 24 yards later, the Ravens appeared to be in business in their Week 3 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts.

But that changed suddenly when cornerback JuJu Brents swooped in from behind Drake and punched the ball loose for the defense to recover.

Colts middle linebacker Zaire Franklin didn't make the play, but he still managed to get a piece of the action.

"He looks at Kenyan, and he's like, 'You're soft as hell! You could never play with us!'" Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox said. "I was like, 'Bro, this was just your teammate a couple weeks ago.' He was with us all [through] camp.

"But [Franklin] was just talking crazy. With my former teammates, I don't really talk trash to them. I'll talk trash to someone I don't know. But hearing him say that to him was like, 'Damn, y'all are cool and you're saying this?'"

Ask Franklin about it and he regrets nothing. It's not personal, he said.

"I guess I'm old school. I don't really feel you're supposed to be friends with the guys that you're playing," he explained. "When we're out there, when we're between those white lines, I'm not friendly with anybody.

"I want our defense to be tone-setting ... All the great defenses ever, they put fear in their opponent. And you don't get there by being friendly."

But there's another important variable at play here.

The intensity with which Franklin plays is fueled by his experiences. Yes, it's an extension of his upbringing in North Philadelphia, where he said he learned to trash talk with the best.

But, more than that, it's the product of making up for lost time.

Franklin, 27, has established himself as one of the NFL's finest linebackers. But the opportunity to make that statement took longer than he believes it should have. And during each of those four seasons that he toiled on special teams, long before he became the NFL's leading tackler, he held himself to the same standard he does now.

"Every role that they asked me to do, I felt like I dominated," he said. "They asked me to just be a special teams player, I proved myself to be one of the best in the league. And now that they asked me to be an every-down player, I'm proving I'm the best again."

TITANS STAR RUNNING back Derrick Henry has accumulated more than 1,300 rushing yards in 15 career games against the Colts. On Oct. 8, he needed just one.

On a huge fourth-and-one, Tennessee was setting up a pivotal go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Henry took a handoff at the Colts' 4-yard line, searching for room behind his right guard. Suddenly, a hole opened and Henry turned his 247 pounds toward the daylight.

Franklin did the same.

The two met head-on in a violent collision. Franklin won. He stuffed Henry for a loss of two yards, giving the ball back to the Colts' offense at a critical juncture while further establishing Franklin's reputation for physicality.

"That's what I train for," Franklin said. "That's what I practice for. I was ready for that moment. I wasn't going to duck it."

It was the sort of moment Franklin believes he's long been capable of producing had he just been afforded the chance.

Franklin, who led the NFL in tackles entering Week 11 with 117, was the 235th pick in the 2018 draft. He wasn't even the first linebacker the Colts drafted in the seventh round that year, slotting behind Matthew Adams (221st overall). Under the circumstances, merely making the roster would have been considered an achievement for the former Syracuse standout.

But it wasn't long before Franklin made himself valuable, becoming a fixture in the kicking game and battling for playing time on defense. Adams, who's currently with the Cleveland Browns, and Franklin competed for the strong-side linebacker role as rookies, but Adams won out.

FRANKLIN WAS ALSO in the mix the following year, 2019, against another rookie, Bobby Okereke. Ultimately, though, Franklin played no defensive snaps that season. In 2020, he played 8% of the Colts defensive snaps -- hardly enough to make a mark. His role would not substantively change until 2022, when he earned a starting job after Okereke's departure in free agency and amid Shaquille Leonard's recovery from back surgery.

Franklin has always pointed to the preferences of former Colts defensive coordinator -- and current Chicago Bears head coach -- Matt Eberflus as the primary reason for his previous lack of opportunity. He says he didn't fit the coach's style of play.

"It was a long four years sitting on the sideline because of one man's opinion -- not because of the merit of my play," Franklin said.

In fairness, the Colts have produced a wealth of linebacker talent under general manager Chris Ballard. Players like Okereke and Anthony Walker have departed in free agency to become core players for the Giants and Browns, respectively, because of the Colts' depth. Franklin was also a victim of that competitive situation.

"I blocked a punt against Jacksonville [in 2021] and had a pick the next weekend and they still weren't trying to play me," Franklin said.

Frustration would sometimes set in. And developing patience through it all wasn't easy. Franklin couldn't do it alone.

"It starts at home," he said. "My fiancé [Khandice Dyson], she's been there for me. She's my rock. And then my mentor and my friends, I talk to them every day. They hold me accountable."

His village, as Franklin refers to them, stressed that letting up was the worst thing he could do. The message resonated.

"He's the hardest-working person I've ever met," Dyson said.

Said Leonard: "No matter what was thrown at him, he made sure that he kept his head down, and his work is paying off. That's why he's making a lot of plays. That's why he's doing everything in his will to continue to stay on the field.

"Because once you get that feeling of standing on that sideline and watching guys go out there, then when you get that opportunity and have success, you're never going to want to feel that feeling of standing on the sideline again."

A BOYS & GIRLS Club on the southside of Indianapolis might seem like an odd place to gain insight on an NFL linebacker. But with a DJ spinning and kids dancing around Franklin, you start to see the other side of a man who is ultra intense on the field but thoughtful and considerate away from the game.

Community service has become a priority for Franklin, an instinct instilled in him by his mother and grandmother. Shelice Highsmith and Juanita Highsmith-Bailey both died in 2013, but the lessons they taught live on through Franklin.

His Thanksgiving Impact Program consists of a holiday party, serving a catered meal for the kids. The dessert -- chocolate-chip cookies -- were particularly popular.

But this was about providing more than a sugar rush. The idea was to show the kids what is possible for them, even if they can't yet envision it.

"I just understand how important these moments are for these kids," Franklin said.

It's a concept Franklin applies within the confines of the Colts' locker room, too. Stars dominate the headlines, but the bulk of NFL players are a lot like the guy Franklin used to be -- depth players awaiting their chance.

"They see, 'Look at Zaire, there's pictures of him on the wall, he's all over social media, he's the man,'" Franklin said of his younger teammates. "They don't understand what it was like four years ago when I was a guy in the building that was just trying to make a name for myself, trying to stay [on the roster], honestly. And I feel like it's just those experiences that help me just relate with everybody on the team."

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley -- whose staff gave Franklin a real opportunity upon arrival in 2022 -- also tells the story of his defensive captain as an example for young players. It was linebackers coach Richard Smith who approached Bradley shortly after they were hired, saying his film study on Franklin suggested he'd be a perfect fit for their scheme. That season, Franklin would go on to play more snaps than any player in the NFL.

"[As] a special teams player, he gives his heart and soul to the team and to the special teams," Bradley said. "Then, 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 that he's having some success come back two-fold because that's what he does. I think that's the biggest lesson with our guys -- just give."

On the field, Franklin will never be accused of being charitable. Just ask Drake or Henry. But that's what happens when a player this good has to wait this long for his shot.

"I'm appreciative of the notoriety and the popularity and I'm doing my part to keep that going," he said. "But I understand that that comes with production, and that comes with results. And the moment I'm not holding up my end of the bargain, I understand how that conversation can change."