It took four years and an incalculable amount of hard work, but Teddy Bridgewater did it. He restored his value as an NFL starting quarterback.
The former Vikings signal caller’s trajectory was indelibly altered by the dislocated knee that cost him all of 2016 and all but a few snaps in 2017. Backup stints with the Jets and Saints helped him rebuild his career. Bridgewater spent 2019 as the league’s highest-paid backup thanks to a one-year, $7.25 million deal with the Saints. He rewarded that faith with a 5-0 record as a starter after Drew Brees missed a chunk of the season with a thumb injury.
He’s now set to cash in as a free agent. The 27-year-old stands out among a crowded crop of veteran quarterbacks on this year’s open market. His relatively young age and growing potential should earn him more than $20 million annually.
New Orleans lacks the cap space to keep him on its roster and still has Brees. A new team will to swoop in with Bridgewater’s biggest contract yet, but the question is who?
There are five clear options, broken down by fit.
The best place to make the most of his short throws: Carolina Panthers
Bridgewater’s success in 2019 came through a high concentration of short throws: 143 of his 196 passes traveled nine yards or fewer downfield. His 5.8 air yards per attempt was by far the lowest of any starting quarterback in the NFL.
That’s concerning, but it worked! After knocking some early rust off, he averaged 278 passing yards per game and a 108.4 passer rating over his final three starts.
Much of that had to do with his biggest short-range target. In the five games where Bridgewater had the opportunity to throw to a healthy Alvin Kamara, the Pro Bowl back averaged more than six targets and 40 yards per contest.
Kamara is a great pass-catching running back, but Bridgewater could go to a needy team with an even better one in 2020.
Panthers tailback Christian McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history to run for 1,000+ yards and have at least 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. At 7.2 average yards after catch, he could take Bridgewater’s well-placed passes and spin them into gold upfield.
Chance it happens: 1/10
The Panthers still have Cam Newton under contract for 2020, but he can released with just $2 million stuck to their salary cap. Owner David Tepper has made some wholesale changes that point to a rebuild in Carolina. Swapping out Newton and installing the slightly younger Bridgewater could be the kind of bold move that helps Tepper distance himself from the Panthers’ old identity. Even so, Newton’s best fit is in Charlotte, and the club is open to giving him a chance to take the reins once more if he’s finally healthy.
The best place to prove he can throw deep: Los Angeles Chargers
While Bridgewater didn’t take many chances downfield in 2019, he was able to use his short passes to set up some big plays. His 42.8 percent completion rate on passes of 20+ yards was better than quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and Tom Brady last season, albeit on only 14 attempts.
A move to the Buccaneers would also make sense when it comes to changing that narrative, but let’s focus on the QB-needy team that finished the season fourth when it came to big throws: the Chargers. Philip Rivers threw 73 passes of 20+ yards last fall, turning Mike Williams into the NFL’s yards-per-reception leader in the process (20.4). Keenan Allen averaged 10.1 air yards per throw, and Hunter Henry had a 9.5 air yards average. That’s a testament to head coach Anthony Lynn’s willingness to take risks downfield.
LA would give Bridgewater an excellent opportunity to turn one of his primary criticisms into a strength. The Chargers can offer top-notch receiving help and carte blanche when it comes to loading his cannon and firing deep. Plus, if Los Angeles retains restricted free agent Austin Ekeler, Bridgewater will also have a trusted tailback to target out of the backfield.
Chance it happens: 3/10
They could justifiably promote Tyrod Taylor, but they might be looking for a young veteran with franchise quarterback upside. Bridgewater fits that bill, though his limited resume the past four seasons casts a shadow over his recent achievements.
The best lineup to play to his strengths: Indianapolis Colts
The Colts could give Bridgewater deep threat T.Y. Hilton, who averaged 16 yards per catch in his career before an injury-filled 2019 dragged down his numbers. He’d have a steady-handed Pro Bowl tight end to connect with on short routes in Jack Doyle. Nyheim Hines, occasionally unstoppable as a punt returner, has untapped potential as a receiving back even after making 107 catches in his first two seasons.
Then there’s the offensive line that kept Jacoby Brissett and backup Brian Hoyer upright on approximately 94 percent of their dropbacks. Just as importantly, that group has been able to pave the way for running back Marlon Mack. Quenton Nelson has been named an All-Pro in each of his two seasons. Ryan Kelly was a Pro Bowler in 2019. Braden Smith is a solid right tackle who has only improved.
Though left tackle Anthony Castonzo is a free agent, the Colts have over $86 million in spending room before they’d bump up against the salary cap. They could retain Castonzo, sign Bridgewater, and add even more talent to the roster and still have cash to spare.
Combine all that with a former NFL quarterback who knows all about the jump from backup to starter — Frank Reich — at head coach, and you’ve got a tremendous foundation for Bridgewater to build the next chapter of his career.
Chance it happens: 5/10
The Colts have Brissett under contract in 2020 for a reasonable price and may still be assessing him after his hot start to last season fizzled due to a Week 8 injury. Adding Bridgewater would spark a QB competition. If Reich isn’t sold on Brissett, Bridgewater may be his best option.
The best place to overcome low expectations: Chicago Bears
The Bears went from NFC North champions to .500 despite a solid collection of offensive talent and a defense that ranked eighth in overall efficiency last season. All it may take to get Chicago back to the playoffs in 2020 is a league-average quarterback, something Mitchell Trubisky has failed to be.
That leaves the Bears in the market for an upgrade — and without a first-round pick. Bridgewater’s turnover-averse play would be a welcome deviation from the past decade of QB play in Chicago. His 1.4 percent interception rate as a Saint is less than half the INT rate of Bears passers between 2010 and 2019 (3.0).
He could also commandeer a young core of skill players that still has room to grow. Allen Robinson is coming off a season with 1,147 receiving yards even while trying to haul in passes from Trubisky. He’s flanked by a rising Anthony Miller and tight end Trey Burton, who could thrive under a new quarterback. Tailbacks David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen would also provide a run-pass punch out of the backfield.
Though there are issues with the offensive line, especially after Kyle Long’s retirement, Bridgewater could be the key to a postseason return — the next player to get Chicago’s hopes up about a new franchise QB.
Chance it happens: 0.5/10
General manager Ryan Pace says Trubisky’s his guy for 2020, but that may be out of necessity than choice. The Bears only have around $13 million in spending room this offseason, and some of that cash will have to be used to replace or retain free agent starters Danny Trevathan and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Clearing enough space to acquire Bridgewater would chip away at the depth that makes the Chicago job so appealing.
The best place to make his return to the playoffs: New England Patriots
Bridgewater could be the offensive centerpiece of a team that’s won 16 of the last 17 AFC East championships if Tom Brady leaves New England. With only 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham and Browns/Jaguars castoff Cody Kessler waiting in the wings, a Brady-less Patriots may have to scramble to pair a starting quarterback with a championship-caliber defense.
Several veteran options could fit the bill. At the top of the list could be another quarterback who, like Brady nearly two decades ago, had his promotion from backup to starter aided by a long run of short, confidence-building throws. Bridgewater’s ceiling at 27 years old is obviously lower than Brady’s was at 25, but he could still fulfill his Pro Bowl potential in Foxborough.
The problem is, this may be the worst time to be a Patriot quarterback in more than a decade. Brady’s targets last season were Julian Edelman, James White, and a handful of replacement-level players. While N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu could each improve in their second seasons with the team, the smoking crater Rob Gronkowski’s retirement left behind gives New England a bleak tight end situation.
There’s more to be concerned about, like the offensive line. The team’s blocking should be better if it can get full seasons from left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews. However, the retirement of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia suggests a regression is equally likely.
Chance it happens: 0.5/10
The only way Bridgewater lands on the Patriots’ radar is if Brady signs elsewhere. That seems unlikely. Even if Brady departs, New England may opt for a more proven, cheaper option than a player with only five starts since 2015. Bill Belichick likes to buy low with the majority of his veteran acquisitions. An ascending Bridgewater doesn’t fit that bill — but Belichick’s rules may not apply when it comes to the most important position on the field.