Is he The Next Guy? Is he a difference-maker? Is he the quarterback to take the Patriots back to the top of the league?
Probably not. But Teddy Bridgewater is a serviceable quarterback, and it would be worth Bill Belichick's time to explore a trade that would result in Bridgewater landing in Foxboro.
Not only would Bridgewater represent a passing-game upgrade for the Patriots, but he also won't cost the team an arm and a leg in trade compensation or salary. Plus, acquiring Bridgewater wouldn't take the Patriots out of the running for a high-end quarterback in this year's draft who could be The Next Guy.
ON THE FIELD
Let's start with what Bridgewater can do on the field.
It may not be a great sign for his prospects as an NFL starter that the Panthers have decided to move on from him in favor of Sam Darnold, who has been arguably the worst quarterback in football since he was drafted by the Jets in 2018.
Of 36 quarterbacks who qualified in 2020, Darnold was 36th in quarterback rating, 33rd in completion percentage, 33rd in yards per attempt, 36th in EPA per play, 34th in success rate, 34th in adjusted completion percentage and 31st in completion percentage over expected. Darnold ranked 31st in Pro Football Focus grade last season after checking in at 29th in 2019 and 27th as a rookie.
Of course, in any analysis of Darnold's play, it's impossible to look at his play in a vacuum and not consider the fact that he had one of the worst offensive situations in football around him over the last three seasons.
Still, giving up three draft picks and paying Darnold his option of nearly $19 million next year is a hefty commitment for a team that already had Bridgewater in the fold at a reasonable salary.
Bridgewater was not a get-on-my-back-boys kind of quarterback in critical situations for the Panthers. They were 0-8 in one-score games, and his PFF grade on third downs ranked 22nd in 2020. But he's still an accurate passer who will protect the football.
For a coach like Belichick, who values decision-making and accuracy, Bridgewater seems like a fit.
Bridgewater's adjusted completion percentage (discounting spikes, batted passes and throwaways) was second only to Aaron Rodgers last year, per PFF. Bridgewater's completion percentage over expected (which uses tracking data to estimate whether a pass should be completed at the time it was thrown) ranked seventh in the NFL among passers with at least 350 dropbacks, according to Ben Baldwin of the Athletic.
And even though Bridgewater threw 11 picks last season, he still has an interception percentage of 1.9 over the last two seasons (20 starts), which for reference is a tick below that which Tom Brady posted in 2020 (2.0).
ON DRAFT WEEKEND
One of the alluring aspects of a potential Bridgewater-to-New England deal would be that acquiring him would not necessarily take the Patriots out of the mix for a quarterback in the first round of this year's draft.
Bridgewater is pretty clearly a placeholder-type. The team would be under no illusion that it is set at that spot for the foreseeable future, it simply will have bought itself some time.
That would be valuable if, for instance, North Dakota State's 20-year-old talent Trey Lance fell to within Belichick's range. Bridgewater would give the Patriots a player who could contribute to wins in 2021 while a potential star took a redshirt year to develop behind the scenes.
Plus, whatever would be given up to get Bridgewater wouldn't sap the Patriots of the draft-day resources required to trade up in the first round if a worthy quarterback became attainable.
The question is, if Bridgewater is a fine quarterback and not a great one, a quarterback who has been usurped by a less-than-awe-inspiring young player, what would it cost to get him?
Let's start with the precedent set by the Panthers in picking up Darnold. The three selections Carolina gave up to get Darnold, according to Rich Hill's trade value chart, appear to provide the same point value as a late second-round pick or an early third-rounder. Safe to assume Carolina will be expecting less than that back in a deal involving Bridgewater -- particularly since everyone now knows he's about to be on the move.
It could cost less than this, but it would not come as a marked surprise if Bridgewater commanded as much as a fourth-rounder via trade. A reasonable comparison in terms of the situation, where a veteran passer who may qualify as a borderline starter is moved along in favor of a younger option, would be what the Ravens did with Joe Flacco. Back in 2019, with Lamar Jackson established as a promising young starter, Baltimore dealt Flacco to the quarterback-needy Broncos for a fourth-rounder.
The Flacco example is also a logical comparison in terms of the salary that traveled with him in the deal, which leads us to...
ON THE BOOKS
Bridgewater carries with him a base salary of $17 million in 2021. He has bonuses in his deal that would pay him another $1 million, wherever he ends up. Flacco, by comparison, was paid $18.5 million for his one year in Denver. Even if the Patriots were hoping to keep Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham on the roster, the team would still only have just over $20 million committed to its quarterback room. In 2021, that's somewhat of a bargain. Bridgewater was the lowest-priced veteran starter (not on a rookie contract) in the NFL last season with a contract that had an average annual value of $21 million. Would the Patriots be able to fit Bridgewater into their plans given their current cap situation? Not perfectly. The team has just under $13 million in cap space available at the moment, per Miguel Benzan, but there are a number of moves Belichick and his front-office staff could pull off that would create space for Bridgewater and not require massive roster reconstruction.
Per Pro Football Talk, If Bridgewater is released, because of offset language in his contract, the Panthers would be on the hook to get him to what is a fully-guaranteed $10 million for 2021. That means if Bridgewater is released, and if the Patriots were to sign him as a free agent to a veteran minimum salary ($1.075 million), then Carolina would pay him almost $9 million to make up the difference.
That offset language is key to any potential Bridgewater trade, too. If Carolina's desire not to pay Bridgewater to play for someone else burns hot enough, releasing him might be viewed as a last resort. If it is, that might mean the Panthers would be willing to trade him and his contract for a below-market compensation package.
WHAT ABOUT JIMMY?
While acquiring Bridgewater wouldn't rule out an early Patriots draft pick used on a quarterback, it would effectively signal an end to the discussions of a Garoppolo return in 2021.
Would scooping up Bridgewater -- who is realistically available, while the Niners are holding out to be blown out of the water with a trade offer -- be worth it to the Patriots if it meant any hopes of reuniting with Garoppolo were snuffed out?
Garoppolo has a significant advantage over Bridgewater in New England in that Garoppolo spent three-and-a-half seasons in Foxboro before being dealt in 2017. He understands the Patriots offense. He knows Belichick and Josh McDaniels. The transition from one quarterback to the next, if the next was Garoppolo, would be seamless.
But Bridgewater, who will turn 29 next season, is one year younger than Garoppolo. He's made 49 career starts compared to Garoppolo's 32. Bridgewater is coming off a season in which he started 15 games, the third year of his career with at least 12 starts. Garoppolo, whose durability issues are well-documented, has had one season of 12 starts or more (2019).
It's hard to argue that Bridgewater's long-term outlook from a health perspective is better than Garoppolo's; Bridgewater nearly lost his leg due an injury suffered during training camp back in 2016. But Bridgewater has started nearly as many games (20) as Garoppolo (22) the last two seasons, despite backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans in 2019.
As far as their respective abilities to take care of the football are concerned, Bridgewater has been better over the last two seasons. Garoppolo's interception rate (2.9 percent) is a full percentage point higher than Bridgewater's.
In 2020, Bridgewater had a better completion percentage over expected (4.0, eighth in the NFL) than Garoppolo (0.2, 25th). Bridgewater's completion percentage (69.1) and adjusted completion percentage (79.6) were also better than Garoppolo's (67.1, 74.6). Meanwhile, Garoppolo's yards-per-attempt figure (7.8) and rating (92.4) were slightly better than Bridgewater's (7.6, 92.1).
From a bookkeeping standpoint, and in terms of trade compensation, Bridgewater would be the less expensive option. Garoppolo has a $24.1 million base salary in 2021, and he could see $1.4 million in per-game and workout bonuses. At this point, reports have suggested that he could only be pried away from San Francisco if a team was willing to hand Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch a first-round pick.
The Darnold-to-Carolina deal could end up working out in Belichick's favor in that the Niners may end up figuring out a way to acquire Bridgewater -- according to Joe Person of the Athletic, San Francisco showed interest in Bridgewater earlier this offseason -- which would then likely drop the price in a move that would send Garoppolo back to Foxboro.
But there are a variety of reasons why rolling the dice on Bridgewater as New England's bridge to The Next Guy might be an even better idea.