TAMPA — If the Bucs are prepared to move on from Jameis Winston, they may not have to look very far for his replacement.
Furthermore, coach Bruce Arians gave this potential free agent quarterback a big endorsement after watching him carve up the Bucs in New Orleans earlier this season.
Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as a starter for the Saints after Drew Brees injured his thumb in a Week 2 loss to the Rams. His passer rating was over 100 in three of those games and 94.7 in another.
He also had his biggest passing day in a 31-24 win over the Bucs in October, going 26 of 34 for 314 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Arians listened that day while the crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome chanted “Ted-dy! Ted-dy! Ted-dy!
“I’ve always loved Teddy," Arians said after the game. “He’s a good, solid player and should be a starter in this league."
Bridgewater proved it by completing 67.9 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions this season. A chance to come back to his home state and be a starting quarterback again may be appealing to the Miami native.
Unless, of course, Brees, who will be 41 at the start of the 2020 season, decides to retire. New Orleans also may be grooming Taysom Hill to eventually take over the No. 2 role should Brees return.
Either way, Bridgewater could have lots of options to become a full-time starter, even in the NFC South. In addition to the Bucs’ tenuous quarterback situation, Carolina could decide to move on from Cam Newton.
Bridgewater was off to a good start as a first-round pick of the Vikings (32nd overall) out of Louisville in the 2014 draft. At 27, he is only two years older than Winston. But a devastating left knee injury sustained during a practice in Minnesota threatened to derail his career. An MRI confirmed that Bridgewater tore the anterior cruciate ligament and suffered other structural damage to his knee, and he was lost for the season. And the one after that.
In fact, it took 19 months for Bridgewater to recover.
Whether in Minnesota or New Orleans, Bridgewater has always been a winner. His career record with the Vikings and the Saints is 22-12. By contrast, Winston’s career mark is 28-42.
Like Winston, Bridgewater was the Pepsi Rookie of the Year in 2014 and he has one Pro Bowl appearance in 2015. He has a wildcard playoff appearance in which the Vikings lost 10-9 to the Seahawks.
Bridgewater earned $7.25 million as a backup this season. As a free agent, he won’t come cheap. Spotrac estimates his value on a three-year deal to be $60,120,146, an average salary of $20,040,049. By contrast, the website projects Winston’s value to be $107,185,168 on a four-year deal or an average salary of $26.796 million.
If there’s a concern, it’s Bridgewater’s durability as a starter. And at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he is a much smaller quarterback than the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Winston.
Bridgewater won’t offer the arm talent for providing explosive plays in the passing game the way Winston has, but it’s a trade off for reducing turnovers. His career average yards-per-pass is 7.2, a half yard shy of Winston’s 7.7.
But the Bucs may be willing to sacrifice a few deep passes for protecting the football. Bridgwater’s career interception rate is 2.3 percent. Winston’s is 3.5 percent on his career and 4.8 this season.
The Bucs plan to take a couple weeks to evaluate Winston and weigh their options. Arians says part of the decision will be based on “what’s behind Door No. 2.”
In a way, the Bucs are in a familiar “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario at quarterback.
As a franchise, it’s one they had with Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer after six seasons. Both quarterbacks went on to have success. Testaverde played 21 seasons while Dilfer was a Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Ravens.
Here’s a look at the Bucs’ other possible free agent quarterback options:
Drew Brees, Saints
Doesn’t feel as if Brees will ever leave New Orleans for another team. But you could see him walking into the sunset on the French Quarter if his team wins another Super Bowl this season. It would be tough for Brees to leave a play-calling savant like coach Sean Payton.
Tom Brady, Patriots
The GOAT doesn’t have a contract for 2020 and put his Brookline, Mass., home up for sale at $39.5 million. For the first time, there is genuine belief that this will be his last season in New England. He is 42. Maybe he plays another season or two for another team. The Chargers have been mentioned because they are closer to his northern California home. Or maybe he just retires. There are only three scenarios and two involve not quarterbacking the Patriots.
Eli Manning, Giants
This one feels more like retirement. Manning has played his entire career with the Giants, where he won two Super Bowl MVPs. He doesn’t need to chase another ring, the way brother Peyton did with the Broncos. Eli is 39 and virtually took no hits in 2019. The arm strength isn’t what it used to be, but maybe a win-now head coach will give him a shot.
Philip Rivers, Chargers
Rivers had the second-most interceptions in the NFL behind Winston this season with 28. He is 38 and says he wants to continue playing. The Colts and Panthers would seem to be likely destinations.
Marcus Mariota, Titans
Well, there’s an easy way to settle the debate — Winston or Mariota? Try them both. Unlike the Bucs, who didn’t want Winston looking over his shoulder, the Titans had Ryan Tannehill ready to go when Mariota faltered. Now the Titans are in the playoffs looking to re-sign Tannehill and Mariota is going home. But his game doesn’t seem suited for Arians’ offense and this feels like the Bucs would pass on Mariota.
Ryan Tannehill, Titans
See above. Tannehill went 7-3 as a starter after replacing Mariota and has the Titans in the playoffs. A big pay day is coming his way from Tennessee.
Not suitable for consideration
Case Keenum, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel, Drew Stanton, Chad Henne, Mike Glennon