TAMPA — Less than two weeks before the start of free agency, here’s where the Bucs’ quarterback search stands:
Russell Wilson is still and maybe forever a Seahawk. Aaron Rodgers’ only breakup so far has been with Shailene Woodley, not the Packers. Deshaun Watson has a mountain of legal trouble and Bucs’ owners likely won’t sign off on the 26-year-old Texans quarterback. And, finally, Jimmy Garoppolo can’t throw the deep ball so cross the 49ers quarterback off the list.
The Bucs could sign Teddy Bridgewater, which was the plan if they didn’t lure Tom Brady from New England in 2020. This time, however, Bridgewater would have to compete for the starting job.
In other words, it’s time for a trip back to that imaginary place Brady calls Never Say Never Land.
If Brady doesn’t suddenly change his mind about retirement and appear behind Door No. 2 again for Bruce Arians, say hello to starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Kid you not.
Kyle Trask would have to come very far, very fast to be the Bucs’ starter in Week 1.
Before you pooh-pooh the idea of the 32-year-old Gabbert, perhaps competing with Bridgewater, consider the alternatives.
In alphabetical order, let’s call the roll for the other free-agent quarterbacks: Jacoby Brissett, Andy Dalton, Mike Glennon, Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor, Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston.
No, no, heck no, nope, nah, hard pass and been there, done that.
Arians is high on Gabbert
Gabbert went 2-3 as an emergency starter for Arians in Arizona during his last extended playing time in 2017, beating the Jaguars (who finished 10-6 that season) and Titans (9-7). That year he completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,086 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions. The 10th overall pick of the Jaguars in 2011 has a career record of 13-35 as a starter with 50 touchdowns and 47 interceptions.
“People may not like the overall record, but Blaine had eight head coaches and eight coordinators his first eight years,” Arians said. “He beat Jacksonville their best year and beat Tennessee their big year for us in Arizona. And he’s been in the system now. I don’t have a problem there and let Kyle continue to grow. Either one. (Gabbert) has never played with a team this good. He’s got all the respect in the locker room that he can have.”
Since joining Tampa Bay, Gabbert has been limited to mop-up duty behind Brady. The most he played was in a 47-7 win at Detroit in 2020 when he went 9 of 15 passing for 142 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
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Physically, Gabbert is elite. He is 6-5, 235 pounds with a cannon for an arm and terrific mobility. But his last start was in the 2018 season finale against the Colts while playing for the Titans.
Like any quarterback, Gabbert benefitted from being Brady’s wingman the past two seasons. He learned a lot about preparation, managing a game and winning.
In fact, Brady relied heavily on Gabbert to teach him the nuances of Arians’ offense.
What about Trask?
The Bucs like Trask better than any quarterback in this year’s draft, which would include Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Liberty’s Malik Willis, Mississippi’s Matt Corral, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Nevada’s Carson Strong.
Trask was inactive for all 17 regular-season and both postseason games. It was an NFL redshirt season, but he made good use of it. He lost some weight and improved his mobility in the pocket. Although he rarely got any reps during practice (and when he did it was as a scout squad quarterback running the opposing offense), Trask was the first player on the practice field every day and did drills with quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen to work on his mechanics and accuracy.
It’s the same path Trask took in high school behind D’Eriq King and at Florida behind Feleipe Franks. When he got his chance, he was prepared and excelled.
Is there any reason to think Trask couldn’t replicate the success of Mac Jones in New England, a player he matched pass for pass during the Gators’ games against Alabama?
QBs at a premium
Gabbert is a free agent, so the first thing the Bucs have to do is re-sign him. He played for $2 million last season as a backup, so even with incentives for starting, this would not be a hard deal to do and would allow the Bucs to re-sign some of their other free agents.
Adding another veteran to compete would be smart. You generally take four quarterbacks to training camp.
When Arians considered Bridgewater to replace Winston two years ago, he was coming off a 5-0 record with the Saints as the fill-in starter for Drew Brees. That included a 314-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 31-24 win over the Bucs in 2019.
But a lot has changed since then. Bridgewater went 4-11 as a starter for Carolina in the first season under Matt Rhule in 2020. Last season, he went 7-7 as the Broncos starter. He doesn’t have a big arm like Gabbert, but he is efficient. Even so, any veteran not named Wilson, Rodgers or Watson would have to compete with Gabbert for the starting job.
A lot can happen between now and the start of free agency or the draft. But the Bucs are in the middle of a very busy quarterback market. The Panthers, Saints, Steelers, Commanders and Broncos all are looking for quarterbacks and more teams could join them. A few teams are hanging onto their quarterbacks now — like Kirk Cousins in Minnesota — but could move on from them sooner rather than later. Teams that use a high draft pick on a quarterback may shake loose a veteran or two after the draft.
Gabbert isn’t the quarterback Bucs fans will want. He may, however, be the best man for the job and a bridge to Trask in the future.
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