For months, all signs pointed to a hectic offseason of QB movement in the NFL. But even for those who expected a flurry of moves, this week has been downright wild. Tom Brady is a Buccaneer. Cam Newton’s days in Carolina are over. Ryan Tannehill is worth $62 million guaranteed. Imagine reading those statements a year ago. With several of the major QB dominoes down—and a few more still to fall—I tried to slow the QB carousel and make sense of what’s happened so far.
All Eyes Are on the Patriots’ Succession Plan
Tuesday was one hell of a day in the football world. It began with Tom Brady, the most accomplished quarterback in history, announcing his departure from New England after two decades and six Super Bowl wins. It ended with the news that Brady planned to sign with the Buccaneers—which is still hard to fully grasp. Brady’s departure leaves a monumental void in New England’s offense, and now, the focus shifts to how Bill Belichick plans on filling it.
The Pats may not have Brady, but they still have the best coach in football and a talented core of veterans. Key contributors like Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon, and Danny Shelton have all left in free agency or been traded, but stalwart safety Devin McCourty remains, keeping New England’s stellar secondary mostly intact. The Pats defense fell off a bit late last season as the level of QB competition it faced improved (and defensive performance tends to vacillate from season to season), but this group should still be a top-10 unit in 2020 if it can stay healthy. New England needs a significant influx of pass-catching talent on offense, but the Pats already have a strong foundation built around a rock-solid offensive line and a versatile stable of backs.
The right quarterback could probably keep the Pats afloat in the AFC East, but it’s not clear who that quarterback would be. Belichick has never been one to make moves because he had to, but he’s also never found himself in this type of situation. High-profile options like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston are still available, but New England may elect to avoid the risk of a potentially expensive veteran and practice patience with its timeline. Those in the draft community have said that 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham is far more talented than his draft status might indicate, and that he impressed the staff during his first season in New England. Belichick could very well roll with Stidham this season as he waits to see how the 2021 QB class unfolds. He could also use New England’s ridiculous war chest of picks to move up and secure a QB of the future in this year’s draft. This is uncharted territory for both Belichick and the Pats, and it feels like any outcome is on the table.
Philip Rivers and the Colts Were Meant to Be
Sometimes, the obvious answer is the right one. The moment the Chargers announced that Rivers and the franchise were parting ways last month, Indianapolis became the logical destination. Rivers has a history with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni—both of whom coached him for multiple seasons in San Diego. And each time I’ve talked to Sirianni over the years, his admiration and respect for Rivers has been obvious. So it wasn’t the least bit surprising when the two sides made things official on Tuesday with a one-year, $25 million deal. The 38-year-old quarterback will take over the starting job from Jacoby Brissett and keep the Colts on their desired path.
Rivers threw 20 interceptions last season and regressed considerably down the stretch, but I wouldn’t read too much into his 2019 production. Throughout his career, Rivers has displayed hero-ball tendencies when he feels like he has to elevate talent around him. The Chargers featured plenty of pass-catching weapons last year, but their crumbling offensive line and banged-up defense played a role in Rivers’s regression into some bad habits. He’ll have less receiving talent in Indy (barring a home run selection from their pair of second-round picks), but every other aspect of the Colts offense should help insulate Rivers in a way the Chargers couldn’t. Indianapolis boasts arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, and that group’s dominance should only continue after extending left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Rivers will likely have substantially more time and space to work in the pocket this season than he has in years. Indy has also shown an ability to lean on its rushing attack to take a load off the QB and bleed defenses dry. That option, combined with a quick-strike passing game that features a lot of intermediate throws and concepts designed to exploit the middle of the field, should make Rivers feel right at home.
It’s fair to wonder how a one-year deal for a quarterback approaching 40 affects the Colts’ future QB plans, but Rivers actually seems to fit Indy’s approach. General manager Chris Ballard has been judicious in free agency since taking over in 2017. He’s built the Colts’ roster methodically and with a strict adherence to his preferred timeline. Spending $25 million on Rivers may seem like a departure from that plan, but it’s not. The franchise has cap space to burn, and upgrading at quarterback allows the Colts to continue building upon the relative success they’ve had over the past two seasons. When healthy, this team is too talented to bottom out and land a top-10 quarterback in next year’s draft. By signing Rivers and spending a boatload to acquire and extend Niners defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, the Colts have decided to facilitate the growth of their young nucleus by trying to compete right now.
Other teams have proved in recent years that bottoming out isn’t necessary to find a franchise quarterback. Both the Texans and Chiefs were playoff teams the season prior to drafting Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. I’m pretty sure neither team is longing for the picks they traded away to get those guys. There’s also no way to know how next year’s quarterback class will develop. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Joe Burrow certainly weren’t the presumptive no. 1 picks heading into their final college season. More promising options could emerge alongside highly touted prospects Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Signing Rivers keeps the Colts on their preferred trajectory and doesn’t preclude them from starting over with one of those guys next spring. And that feels like a victory.
The Panthers Have No Intention of Tanking
Carolina found itself at a crossroads at the start of this offseason. With new ownership, a new head coach, and a new front office structure, the Panthers could have gone several different directions as a franchise. Matt Rhule’s seven-year contract suggests that he’ll have significant say—and plenty of time—to build his program, and with Luke Kuechly’s retirement and Cam Newton entering the final year of his deal, the new regime was starting with a pretty blank slate.
When the team announced on Tuesday that it was giving Newton permission to seek a trade, some wondered whether that meant the Panthers were stripping the roster in an effort to bottom out and position themselves to land a quarterback in next year’s draft. But the decision to give Teddy Bridgewater a three-year, $63 million deal (with $33 million guaranteed) squashed that notion pretty quickly. Nabbing a midlevel quarterback like Bridgewater might seem like an odd move for a team in need of a reboot, but I can understand why Rhule wouldn’t want to start his tenure with a disastrous season haunted by bad quarterback play. Going with (and paying) Bridgewater rather than riding with a guy like Kyle Allen will actively hurt the Panthers’ chances to land a top-five pick next season, but Rhule is trying to establish a culture in Carolina. He and his staff also need to assess the talent on the roster, and that’s much easier to do with competent quarterback play. First-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady was on the Saints’ staff when they traded for Bridgewater in 2018, so he’s familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. And of Bridgewater’s $33 million in guarantees, $24 million will be paid out this season. If he plays well in 2020, Carolina will be able to run it back next year and pay Bridgewater a $17 million base salary that will actually be under market value. If he plays poorly, the Panthers can look to unload him (and his reasonable salary) next offseason to a quarterback-needy team.
Before you say that’s unlikely, consider what happened Wednesday with the Bears and Nick Foles. Signing Bridgewater is probably a lateral move from Newton and will likely be a stopgap option for a team that’s starting over. But even if it wasn’t the analytically sound move, I can understand why the Panthers made it.
Nick Foles Isn’t Mitchell Trubisky—and Maybe That’s Enough for Chicago
The Bears had to do something to improve their quarterback situation this offseason. Following Trubisky’s disappointing 2019 season, it would have taken an impressive amount of delusion for general manager Ryan Pace to give no. 10 a clear path to the starting job this fall. Chicago apparently kicked the tires on nearly every QB on the market. Pace reportedly offered Teddy Bridgewater a similar deal to the one he eventually took in Carolina. The Bears made some initial calls about Cam Newton but were never “real factors”—according to The Athletic’s Joe Person—because of concerns about Newton’s health. Ultimately, the choice boiled down to trading for Foles or Andy Dalton, and in the end, Pace decided that Foles was the better option. For Bears fans, it’s an anticlimactic end to a week once brimming with potential.
Nick Foles is fine. In the right circumstances, he’s been a competent quarterback who’s had a few red-hot stretches. He’s also been downright bad at multiple stops in his NFL career, with a checkered injury history that makes me question the Bears’ stance on Newton. People who believe that the Bears are getting the version of Foles who led Philadelphia to a Super Bowl didn’t watch many Jaguars games late last season. Foles is not the guy who lit up the Vikings and Patriots en route to a championship. And he’s probably not the guy who lost his starting job to a sixth-round pick last year, either. Foles is a serviceable, streaky quarterback who provides the Bears with token “competition” for Trubisky. He’s better than Trubisky at his best. He’s a lateral move at his worst.
Foles has connections to just about every member of the Bears’ offensive staff, which made him an attractive option. He played for quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo in both Jacksonville and Philadelphia. Head coach Matt Nagy was on the Eagles’ staff when Foles was drafted in 2012 and served as the Chiefs QB coach when Foles was Kansas City’s backup in 2016. Foles knows Chicago’s offense. He’s also a notoriously good dude, who shouldn’t cause too much of a rift in the locker room as he pushes Trubisky for the starting gig. On paper, the move makes a lot of sense—even if it did elicit a shrug from the entire fan base.
If Trubisky falters, the Bears probably have a better chance to compete with Foles in 2020, but man, he did not come cheap. Without his $25 million signing bonus to worry about, the Bears aren’t taking on the brunt of the onerous deal (which included $50 million guaranteed) that Foles signed with Jacksonville last year. But they’re absorbing enough to have the Jags front office doing backflips. Many expected that Jacksonville would have to give away a draft pick to avoid paying Foles; instead, the Bears offered a fourth-round pick to absorb Foles’s $15 million base salary (which turns into a $20 million cap hit when his roster bonus kicks in on Friday). There have been reports that Indianapolis offered the Jags a fifth-round pick for Foles, but I’m told that deal was never officially on the table. So, just as they did three years ago when trading up for Trubisky, the Bears negotiated against themselves for a quarterback who’s worse than the other available options. If Foles takes over for Trubisky five games into the season and pulls a Ryan Tannehill while leading the Bears to the playoffs, none of this will matter. If both guys falter, Chicago can get out from under Foles’s deal next spring and look for a new quarterback in next year’s draft. The Bears had to do something, but of all the potential options, this one was bound to leave me cold.
Cam Newton and Jameis Winston May Be Left Standing When the Music Stops
With the QB carousel starting to slow, two former no. 1 picks still don’t have new homes. Newton is in a difficult spot as he tries to plan his post-Panthers career. With leaguewide preventive measures in place because of COVID-19, he can’t travel to team facilities to get a physical and assure interested clubs that his surgically repaired foot is progressing on schedule. That eliminates virtually any potential trade, and even if Newton is released, teams will be hesitant to sign him before knowing his health status. It could be a long time before Newton has a new home, and if that’s the case, he could easily become the steal of the offseason. If Newton is healthy, a patient team with an uncertain quarterback situation (like New England, God help us) is going to be very happy.
Winston has no such caveats to explain his stagnant market. On a pure football level, the Bears probably would have been better off nabbing Winston at a relatively cheap price instead of giving up a pick for the right to pay Nick Foles $20 million. But Winston’s background and penchant for turnovers have likely given teams pause. He’s a talented quarterback who’s still just 26 years old, but it’s starting to look like Winston’s destined to be a backup in 2020.