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A 27-year-old quarterback with a 22-12 lifetime record as a starter will hit the free-agent market in one month. He’s a potential savior for a team that needs a franchise quarterback but doesn’t have the time to draft and groom one. This shouldn’t just be the biggest NFL story of the run-up to free agency. In most offseasons, it would be just about the only NFL story of the run-up to free agency.
So why isn’t everyone talking about Teddy Bridgewater?
Potential franchise quarterbacks in their primes are incredibly rare on the free-agent market. When a youngish backup like Jimmy Garoppolo, Brock Osweiler or Nick Foles wins a few games in relief, teams usually go to extraordinary, often regrettable lengths to acquire them. When a Kirk Cousins hits free agency, it nearly causes a stock market crash.
And here’s Bridgewater, who is far better than that shaggy bunch: a 2014 first-round pick (the rest were second-rounders or later) and Pro Bowler, younger than Foles (30) and Cousins (29) when they broke the bank, far more accomplished and successful than Osweiler was during his brief mirage.
Bridgewater is finally getting a share of the spotlight now that Drew Brees announced his plan to return to the Saints in 2020, making it inevitable that Bridgewater will sign elsewhere. But it’s only a small share of that spotlight, because Bridgewater’s rotten luck has landed him in just about the only veteran-quarterback market glut in NFL history. So instead of talking about the young-but-proven starter with a triumphant comeback story, we’re busy talking about:
Tom Brady: He’s trying to rekindle the spark in his relationship with the Patriots by making them jealous, and he’s taking the whole football world with him as his wingman.
Philip Rivers: We never paid much attention to him when he was great, so let’s pay extra attention to him now that he’s basically Cocky Eli Manning.
Taysom Hill: Yes, Bridgewater spent last week getting upstaged by his own backup, a Decaf Tebow Wildcat-and-fake-punt specialist with 15 career regular-season and playoff pass attempts.
Ryan Tannehill: Bridgewater came back from a debilitating injury that left him (in his own surgeon’s words) with a “toothpick of a leg” that needed to be rebuilt. But Tannehill won Comeback Player of the Year because he came back from Adam Gase’s coaching.
Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford: Can we interest you in a quarterback who threw 30 interceptions last year? How about trading for one coming off the demolition derby market, or one who has been declining for five years and wasn’t all that great at his peak? Or Stafford, who probably isn’t available at all but makes for a juicy rumor?
Bridgewater is a far better option as a starting quarterback than any of these players. Yes, even Brady, who will expect his next team to clone a Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman for him and provide office space for his TB12 dietitians and soothsayers so he can continue to play at a not-quite-Pro Bowl level for a few more months.
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According to Football Outsiders, Bridgewater’s DVOA last season (15.7 percent) ranked above those of Cousins (14.5 percent), Garoppolo (11.2 percent), Deshaun Watson (9.6 percent), Aaron Rodgers (9.1 percent), Rivers (6.8 percent) and Brady (2.6 percent), as well as Foles, Dalton, Newton, Winston, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and many, many others. Plus, he has spent two years in a quarterback room with Brees, persevered through adversity and done all the other stuff that allegedly turns guys like Garoppolo into franchise quarterbacks via osmosis.
With a portfolio like that, Bridgewater should have at least a half-dozen teams sending armored cars full of money to his home as we speak:
- Colts: Bridgewater would keep them competitive while they solve other roster problems and will still be in his prime when they’re ready to become true contenders again. Instead, there’s speculation that they are enamored with Rivers, who represents a short-term patch job at best and an expensive anchor that will sink the leaky franchise at worst.
- Chargers: They could be very competitive very quickly with Bridgewater leading a fine supporting cast and a star-studded defense, and Teddy Ballgame is more likely to sell season tickets to the Chargers’ new digs than Tyrod Taylor or some second-tier rookie prospect.
- Buccaneers: Bridgewater would be handed the keys to Tampa the moment he got the Bucs through a first quarter without turning the ball over.
- Bears: They could sign Bridgewater, let him “compete” with Mitchell Trubisky, watch him win the starting job 45 minutes into training camp and immediately return to the playoffs. Instead, they plan to cross their fingers and hope Trubisky doesn’t go full Blake Bortles.
- Raiders: Jon Gruden’s greatest career success came with Brad Johnson, a great decision-maker with a B-grade arm who began his career with the Vikings but spent years waiting for a full-time starting opportunity, and with Rich Gannon, a great decision-maker with a B-grade arm who began his career with the Vikings but spent years waiting for a full-time starting opportunity. So naturally, they are enamored with Brady, who will dump an arugula smoothie on Gruden’s head the moment the coach F-bombs him.
- Dolphins: Instead of deciding between Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert (which shouldn’t be a difficult choice, but whatever), they could sign Bridgewater and use their three first-round picks on an offensive tackle, receiver and edge-rusher. Bridgewater is good enough to first help a young roster grow and then help an established roster win.
- Patriots: Then there are the Pats themselves, in the unlikely event that Brady indulges his Vegas midlife crisis. Bridgewater would be their best option to remain atop the AFC East with a roster that has already been retooled to win with ball control and defense.
Bridgewater is a fit for any team that needs a quarterback, because quality 27-year-old starters fit everywhere: established teams, rebuilding teams, even teams that don’t know whether they are coming or going.
So where’s the buzz?
The biggest Bridgewater headline entering this week was a wild-hare rumor that Bridgewater could command $30 million per year—nearly Rodgers-Russell Wilson money—as a free agent. That report, of very dubious provenance, appears to be either a misunderstanding or a a false-flag operation by a rival agent trying to nudge the conversation from Hey, maybe Brees’ scramblin’ backup is secretly the next Steve Young to Eh, Bridgewater’s gonna be too expensive; sign my client instead. Only Bridgewater, with his miserable luck, could go from unnoticed to overpriced before he even gets a chance to field some phone calls.
But there’s more to the tempered Bridgewater enthusiasm than a buyer’s market or the fact that Brady makes a better headline. Whether they realize it or not, coaches and general managers place quarterbacks in categories. As a first-round pick who had some success but then disappeared, Bridgewater was dumped in the Failed Prospect/Damaged Goods bin. Once there, he was discarded by the Vikings in favor of veteran game manager Cousins. The Jets then signed him for a song before trading him for a middle-round pick so they could commit to Quarterback of the Future Sam Darnold. Now, Bridgewater’s competing for money and opportunities with Living Legends like Brady and Rivers and Reclamation Projects like Tannehill.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
After last season’s success, Bridgewater lacks a label: He’s part game manager with upside, part quarterback of the future with experience. The labels are stupid, but they are sticky, and it will take a team, or teams, with vision to look past them.
Come March 18 or not long after, Bridgewater will sign a fairly lucrative contract and get a shot to be some team’s starter. It will mark both the beginning of a new era for that team and a chance for Bridgewater to finally reignite a career that looked so promising after the 2015 season.
And what will the headline be that day? Probably either Tom Brady Hugs Patriots and Makes Up or Anonymous Scout Says Taysom Hill Is a Zillion Times Better Than Lamar Jackson.
But the headlines that day won’t matter. The eventual results will. And Bridgewater is very good at producing results.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.