Exploring free agency: Is the Colts’ next quarterback on the 2020 market?
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The 2020 offseason will be a pivotal time in franchise history for the Indianapolis Colts.
While several areas of the roster are in need of reinforcements, no position is more critical than quarterback. To put it bluntly, Jacoby Brissett wasn’t good enough over the second half of 2019.
After a 5-2 start and an impressive 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Brissett sprained his MCL versus Pittsburgh in week 9, beginning a tailspin neither he nor the team could halt. He would miss Indianapolis’ embarrassing home loss to Miami before returning for the final seven weeks of the season. During that time, Brissett completed 56.4% of his passes, averaged only 185.3 passing yards per game and threw just four touchdowns. The Colts were 2-5 over that stretch and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Brissett is under contract through the 2020 season, and according to general manager Chris Ballard, the “jury is still out” on whether he is the team’s answer at quarterback.
“Jacoby did a lot of good things,” Ballard said. “He also did some things that I think he would tell you he needs to get better at. But it’s a constant evaluation.
“I don’t want to just gloss over. I don’t want to just look at the second half of the season. Jacoby did some good things. I think as a whole, our passing game – not just the quarterback position – but our passing game has to improve.”
The Colts ranked 30th in passing in 2019.
Whether they dip into free agency, pull off a trade, turn to April’s draft or simply stand pat, how Indianapolis approaches the quarterback position in the months to come will impact the franchise for the next several years.
Today, let’s explore the 2020 free agent class.
The most appealing quarterbacks set to become free agents likely won’t even hit the open market. Drew Brees and the Saints both seem committed to getting a deal done should the 41-year-old decide to continue playing, and there’s no way the Cowboys let Dak Prescott out of Dallas. Ryan Tannehill has the Titans one game away from the Super Bowl and appears destined to at least be placed on the franchise tag if the two sides aren’t able to agree on a long-term deal.
What that leaves us with is a group of passers who are either past their prime or do not present an obvious upgrade over Brissett. Below are the top options likely available to the Colts should they turn to free agency to address the position:
Could you imagine? If Thomas Edward Patrick Brady — the longtime archenemy of the Indianapolis Colts and a perceived villain by all who root for them — ends up with a horseshoe on his helmet, it will be the most clear sign yet that we are living in a simulation.
Irony aside, there are reasons to believe Brady would be interested in the Colts if he decides to test free agency. The future Hall of Famer will turn 43 before the start of next season and is looking to add to his ring collection before he calls it a career. If he determines Indianapolis’ talented, young roster gives him the best chance at championship number seven, the belief is that Brady would leave New England, who has been criticized for not putting enough offensive pieces around their aging leader.
But if the Colts can come to terms with the concept of welcoming in their long-time rival, would they even be interested? While Brady’s longevity has been impressive, he displayed clear signs of decline throughout 2019. It’s clear the vet doesn’t have the arm he once did, and one has to wonder how long his smarts and savvy will be able to make up for his deteriorating physical ability.
Bringing in Brady only makes sense for Indianapolis if the front office believes the team is a quarterback upgrade away from the Super Bowl. At his age, Brady can’t be seen as anything more than a one or two-year rental. Unless the Colts believe their roster is ready to win now and Brady is the missing piece to get them over the hump, the franchise is better off using this offseason to find their long-term signal caller.
Rivers, like Brady, would be a short-term option should the Chargers — who have competent veteran Tyrod Taylor and the sixth pick in April’s draft — decide to move on from the 38-year-old gunslinger. 2019 was the ugliest season of Rivers’ career. Los Angeles finished 5-11 after having reached the divisional round of the playoffs the year before, and the 16-year-vet posted a 23-20 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a career-worst.
Despite the down-year, the Rivers-to-Indianapolis notion does have a couple things going for it. Head coach Frank Reich is quite familiar with Rivers from his time as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Over those two years, Rivers posted a 60-31 touchdown-to-interception ratio and averaged over 283 passing yards per game.
Secondly, mobility has never been Rivers’ strong suit, and he was under constant duress last season behind an injury-riddle offensive line. The Chargers had Pro Football Focus’ 29th-ranked o-line in 2019, and the last time they received a team pass-blocking grade ranked above 26th was 2014. Meanwhile, Indianapolis has one of the best offensive lines in the league — ranked third by PFF in 2019 — and could offer Rivers much improved protection to find open receivers.
Rivers is a potential win-now option for the Colts if they believe his performance can rebound in 2020 with an improved supporting cast.
A week 2 thumb injury to Drew Brees opened the door for Bridgewater to see extended time as a starter for the first time since his devastating knee injury in August of 2016. The Bridgewater-led Saints went 5-1, including the week 2 loss to the Rams in which Brees left after the team’s second series. Over those six games, Bridgwater put up a 9-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, averaged over 228 passing yards per game, and he completed 67.9% of his passes in 2019.
But is he better than Brissett? For comparison’s sake, let’s extrapolate Bridgewater’s numbers over 14 games, the same amount off full games Brissett played last season. Bridgewater was on pace to throw for 3,196 yards, 21 TDs and 4.6 INTs, while Brissett had 2,883 yards, 18 TDs and 6 INTs. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Bridgewater had All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas to lean on, while injuries had Brissett throwing to practice squad players for a significant stretch of the season.
If the jury is still out on Brissett, it’s certainly still out on Bridgewater. Both passers are 27 and will be looking to establish themselves in 2020. While the Colts’ evaluation is the one that matters, from where I’m sitting, it isn’t clear that Bridgewater is a significant upgrade over Brissett. We’ll see how Indianapolis feels once free agency rolls around.
If the Buccaneers move on from Famous Jameis, it’ll be interesting to see what the demand is for his services. Winston plays with reckless abandon and became the NFL’s first member of the 30-30 club in 2019, throwing for 33 TDs and 30 INTs. He led the league in passing yards (5,109) and Tampa Bay ranked third in points per game (28.6), although the team finished 7-9. One must also take into account Winston’s off-field history, which includes several regrettable incidents, the most recent of which resulted in a 2018 suspension after an Uber driver accused Winston of groping her.
Winston is reportedly seeking a deal worth over $30 million per year, a high cost for a turnover-prone player with a 28-42 record as a starter.
Between his tendency to make mistakes — both on and off the field — and high asking price, it’s hard to envision the Colts being interested in Winston, who just can’t seem to get out of his own way. I highly doubt Winston is who comes to mind when Ballard closes his eyes and pictures the next face of his franchise.
Other impending free agent quarterbacks include guys like Marcus Mariota, Case Keenum and Eli Manning, who are more likely to be signed as backups than land starting gigs. No team is more aware of Mariota’s limitations than the Colts, who face his Titans twice a year. Keenum is an NFL journeyman who could be brought in to push Brissett for the starting job but is a stop-gap option at best. The 39-year-old Manning was benched this season for rookie Daniel Jones and has been well past his prime for several years now.
Given what they have to choose from, Indianapolis’ next quarterback addition will most likely come through the draft. There are several intriguing options in the 2020 draft class, including Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love, just to name a few. In the coming months, we’ll dive deeper into which collegiate passer the Colts might target. Also keep an eye out for more on free agency, as we explore other positions of need.
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