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NFL Draft

Could Teddy Bridgewater Be Too Good A Stop-Gap For Panthers?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 9, 2020
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There’s a new captain of the ship in Carolina. In fact, there’s a new crew, too. Come to think of it, it’s actually a completely new ship.

The Panthers went through a bit of a franchise purge this past offseason. Really, when you look at the past calendar year, they’ve moved on from their long-time head coach, who has the most wins in franchise history, their MVP quarterback, who has been the franchise’ signal-caller since 2010, and two of the best defensive players to put on a Panthers uniform (though one was a surprise retirement).

And that wasn’t all. The rest of the coaching staff, many others throughout the roster, and even the man funding the organization has changed during this process.

Many like to peg new coaches and new rosters as a “turning of the page.” But, in Carolina, they’re not turning the page. They’re not even going to a new chapter.

They’re getting a whole new book off the shelf.

Head coach Matt Rhule now captains the ship in Charlotte, and around him, a new coaching staff that includes the offseason’s prized coaching possession in offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The 30-year-old Brady is fresh off working side-by-side with the man who just took the college football world by storm, won a Heisman Trophy, a National Championship, and was the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.

This infusion of innovation at the coaching level to a young, rebuilding roster is surely phase one of Carolina’s plans to get back to Super Bowl contention down the road. But not everyone on the team has as much youth on their side as others. When it comes to the quarterback position, the player Rhule and his staff chose to bring in for phase one is journeyman Teddy Bridgewater.

Draft Twitter of old remembers Bridgewater as QB1 of the 2014 NFL Draft; his Louisville highlights were of elite decision making, pinpoint accuracy, and a leader by example. In his final season of college ball, Bridgewater threw for nearly 4,000 yards at a 71% completion percentage with 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions. 

Unfortunately for Bridgewater the NFL decided to go full fantasyland in that draft and selected the likes of Blake Bortles—at No. 3 overall—and Johnny Manziel—yep—over Bridgewater.

Bridgewater was still a first-round quarterback by the skin of his teeth as pick No. 32 to the Minnesota Vikings. His rookie season was an acclimating year as he became the starter, but in his second season, he helped lead the Vikings to a playoff berth. Though his stats hadn’t taken that next step, the Vikings’ offensive line in front of him was not what it needed to be. Upgrades there were thought to be the key to elevating Bridgewater to true franchise levels of play.

Unfortunately for all football fans, we never got to see that in Minnesota, as Bridgewater suffered a horrific knee injury during practice before the next season could even begin. 

During an August practice, Bridgewater dropped back to pass and with no contact to him at all, his left knee buckled and he fell to the ground. At that moment, he suffered a torn ACL as well as a dislocated knee cap. As devastating as it was to his football career, had doctors not acted quickly as they did, he could have lost his left leg.

But those who know the next scenes of this movie know he didn’t, but that didn’t make his comeback any easier.

Bridgewater missed the entire 2016 season, and the Vikings, not wanting to take a step backward coming off a playoff season, traded a first-round pick to Philadelphia for Sam Bradford. As unfortunate and out of his hands it was, that’s when Bridgewater’s time in Minnesota really started to come to a close.

Following missing the 2016 season, there were reports that Bridgewater wouldn’t even be ready for the 2017 season. This forced the Vikings to make the choice to decline his fifth-year option, which made him a free agent for 2018. He started the year on the PUP list, but in Week 15, after a long, long road to recovery, Bridgewater entered the Vikings’ game against the Bengals in the fourth quarter to the sound of roaring cheers and an ovation from the crowd.

Though Bridgewater’s time in Minnesota did have a feel-good moment at the end, it still, indeed, ended. Bridgewater signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets in the 2018 offseason, but he wasn’t there long. A few months later the New Orleans Saints traded a third-round pick to the Jets for Bridgewater to be their backup. Bridgewater backed up Drew Brees and was active for only five games that season, but in the final week of the 2018 season, as the Saints had already locked up with No. 1 seed, he started for the first time in four years.

The following season Bridgewater was once again poised to be Brees’ backup. But after Brees suffered a hand injury in Week 2, it was Bridgewater’s time to shine—a time he had waited and worked more than four years for.

In relief of Brees, Bridgewater threw for more than 1,300 yards passing with nine touchdowns to just two interceptions. He also went 5-0 as a starter, and his stint is pointed to as the reason the Saints were able to keep their high seed in the playoffs.

All of that is important context for what Bridgewater might now do in Carolina because many believe he’s just a stop-gap quarterback whose purpose with the Panthers is to not make them look embarrassing as they turn the roster to the new staff’s liking over the next few years. But if you listen to the words of Rhule, the way he speaks of Bridgewater sure doesn’t sound like a guy they’re looking to get in and get out.

"The best players in the world bring out the best in their teammates and I can tell you, since free agency started, the amount of the guys that want to come and play with Teddy has nothing to do with me or anybody else," Rhule said. "They want to be a part of what he's doing 'cause he brings out the best in people."

There are a couple of factors at play here that could be hints as to what the Panthers might be thinking with Bridgewater. Since it’s always smart to believe money over words, let’s start with Bridgewater’s contract.

Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million contract with the Panthers as a free agent. On the surface, that pays Bridgewater an average annual salary of $21 million. So how does that number stack up against the rest of the start/franchise quarterbacks in the NFL? Per Spotrac, if we just take out Alex Smith’s contract from the league rankings, Bridgewater’s $21 million is dead center at 16th highest in the league. However, when you take into account the current starters on rookie deals, which include guys like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson, Bridgewater’s contract would likely be in the early-to-mid 20s in value per year. That, to me, is the contract of a replaceable quarterback. 

Bridgewater’s contract is not divided up evenly, either. In fact, it’s quite front-loaded. According to Spotrac, in 2020, Bridgewater will only be a $14 million cap hit while carrying a $33 million dead cap penalty, if cut. That obviously means he’s not going anywhere in 2020 and is quite team-friendly on the books. In 2021, things even out a bit more, as Bridgewater jumps to $23 million against the cap with a $20 million dead cap penalty. This would tell you that Bridgewater likely isn’t going anywhere in 2021, either, while still being pretty team-friendly compared to other starting quarterbacks in the league.

But after that 2021 season, things start to get interesting.

In 2022, Bridgewater’s contract, as is, would make him a $26 million cap hit, but just $5 million would be dead money if cut. This gives the Panthers the luxury to move on from Bridgewater relatively free after that second season.

Contrary to Rhule’s words, Bridgewater’s contract gives the vibe of a stop-gap player. Not saying that Rhule is a liar in any way, but if you just listen to what he says, they make it seem like the 27-year-old (people forget how young Bridgewater still is) could be their guy for the next five years. When you look at his contract, that tells the story of a plan that could see him jettisoned before 2022.

The thought process here likely isn’t because they don’t like Bridgewater, they’re just leaving the door open in case they like someone else better.  That would likely come in the form of a top draft pick, and by that, I mean either a No. 1 overall selection or a Top 3-5 selection that could still get them a franchise quarterback in a stacked quarterback draft class—if such were to form over the next two offseasons.

But here’s the kicker and the point to the entire backstory you just read: Teddy Bridgewater might be too good to allow that to happen.

Short/Intermediate Striker

Talking about what Bridgewater could be in Carolina requires us to understand the offense around him. Bridgewater’s go-to offensive weapons in the passing game will be the ascending D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and newcomer Robby Anderson at wide receiver with Ian Thomas at tight end and Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield.

In 2019, Moore was a top-50 wide receiver in terms of yards-per-reception at 13.5, but he was the only one in the top 50. Samuel’s 11.6 YPR was 73rd, tight end Greg Olsen’s 11.5 was 78th and McCaffrey’s 8.7 was 121st. As a team, the Panthers were ranked 29th in the NFL in terms of yards gained per passing attempt and were 30th in net yards gained per passing attempt, which also takes sacks into consideration.

Now, I understand that between Newton being hurt then inactive, Kyle Allen, and then Will Grier, the quarterback play did not have as high of a ceiling as an offensive staff would deem ideal. However, with the offensive weapons not much different around a new coaching staff and new quarterback, Carolina’s passing offense likely won’t be making the jump into the top 10 in terms of big-time passing yards—at least without some serious yards after the catch by their playmakers.

That likely means the Panthers’ offense will be more about attacking the short and intermediate parts of the field to open up both the run game and a handful of deep shots rather than attacking the field vertically early and often.

Bridgewater can do that, and throughout his career, he has shown he can do it well.

In both 2015 and then 2019, Bridgewater averaged 7.2 and 7.1 yards per attempt respectively. That number averaged into last year’s passers would have put him right around 16th versus the rest of the league. His completion percentages of 65.3 and 67.9 in those seasons show that short and intermediate gameplans are Bridgewater’s comfort zone.

Outside of his passing weapons, we also have to take into account the man calling the plays for Bridgewater, offensive coordinator Joe Brady

When we think of Brady and the LSU offense of last year, it can be natural to just think of the big shots down the field, the quick touchdowns, and the foot-on-the-throat mentality. There was plenty of that, as Burrow was No. 1 in the nation in deep-ball touchdowns with 26. But Burrow’s body of work was one of repetition. In fact, Burrow’s average depth of target was just 9.6 in 2019, which was tied for the 47th highest total in college football.

That tells us that, even with the big shots down the field, there were numerous short to intermediate passes in LSU’s offense. One could even say that’s how the offense was built. That likely won’t change as the preference for Brady, and Bridgewater seems to be the perfect man to run that kind of attack. 

Debunking Deep Ball Narrative

Even going back to his Louisville days, Bridgewater has carried a narrative around him that he can’t throw the deep ball—his arm isn’t strong enough, he has to put too much into it, he can’t be accurate with it, etc. While Bridgewater certainly won’t be taking a ton of shots down the field, to say that he can’t simply isn’t true.

According to Player Profiler, Bridgewater had 15 deep ball attempts in 2019, which averaged out to 1.7 per game. That average ranked 37th in the NFL. However, when it came to accuracy on those deep passes, Bridgewater’s 46.7 completion percentage was fourth-best in the league.

Just because Bridgewater is clearly more comfortable as a short and intermediate passer does not mean that he can’t step up when the time calls for him to take a shot down the field. He doesn’t have the arm strength in terms of velocity to fit a football in a football-sized window deep down the field on a moments’ notice; if you’re looking for him to be that, he won’t be. But Bridgewater understands trajectory and has the overall arm strength to float passes into his receivers’ hands beyond 20 yards.

Passing Under Pressure

Bridgewater is also a player who really knows how to manage a pocket.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers’ offensive line ranked 18th in the NFL. There were some changes along the offensive line in terms of the projected starters, but it will still likely be a group that is middle of the pack or lower. 

Bridgewater knows how to handle that, and also knows how to be accurate on less-than-ideal platforms, as shown above.

The play above is the best example I could find from the 2019 season.

Bridgewater isn’t known as a scrambler. He’s a pocket passer first and foremost. When scrambling outside the pocket, he won’t be a big threat with his legs, but he will continue to be a threat with his eyes and his arm in ways other quarterbacks are not.

There is clearly a long-term plan in place in the minds of the decision-makers in Carolina. If you remember the “follow the money” rule, Rhule signing a seven-year deal means they’re committed to building this thing as slow as they need to. That would likely come via high draft picks.

I would imagine one of the bullet points in the plan is for one of those high draft picks to be a quarterback. If that was their goal, maybe Bridgewater wasn’t their guy after all.

Bridgewater isn't really here for all that, and neither is offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Both of these players are in crucial "prove it" parts of their football journey.

For Brady, every game he calls is a mini test to see if he was worth the risk. If he passes, the sky is the limit for his career. He'll do everything he can to make his quarterback look and feel as comfortable as he can, just as he did with Burrow.

For Bridgewater, it's his first crack at being a franchise quarterback in half a decade. This is his chance at true redemption; to complete the long, taxing comeback he's put so much of himself into. You know he's going to give it his best yet.

He might just mess around and win Carolina some ball games they didn’t expect.

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