The Colts will be looking for another starting quarterback in 2021 after one-year starter Philip Rivers’ decision to retire from the NFL. Although Indianapolis may not have re-signed Rivers as a pending free agent, anyway, the team can now officially progress to other QB plans.
With backup Jacoby Brissett unsigned, Jacob Eason, the Colts’ fourth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, tops the current depth chart at the game’s most important position. But as they are projected to be around $65 million under the salary cap and will be picking first at No. 21 overall in the 2021 draft, the Colts have plenty of resources with which to land a longer-term franchise option.
Between who might be available to them via free agency, draft and trade, here’s exploring Indianapolis’ top avenues to replace and upgrade from Rivers:
Colts’ 10 best QB options in 2021
1) Draft Mac Jones in the first round
Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni have a great, balanced scheme where smarts, toughness and accuracy can be major assets, with passing efficiently playing off a sound running game. Jones, fresh off Alabama’s championship run, doesn’t necessarily wow with his athleticism and arm, but he makes good decisions and is capable of making all the throws.
The Colts need to rebuild their offensive line a little with left tackle Anthony Castonzo joining Rivers in retirement and also may further reshuffle their receiving corps with T.Y. Hilton unsigned. But they can give Jones another strong support system to be successful as a pocket passer.
Staying put at No. 21, the Colts need to worry about Washington (No. 19) or the Bears (No. 20) jumping them for Jones. If he’s still on the board, however, he would be hard to pass vs. taking a Castonzo or Hilton replacement.
2) Trade up to draft Trey Lance in the first round
After Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence goes to the Jaguars, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson shouldn’t last long on the board, likely gone in the top 10, too. But Lance, the complete North Dakota State product, is back rising up boards to the point that he can go anywhere between No. 11 and No. 20. Lance, with the same college pedigree as Carson Wentz, should have some appeal to Reich, the man who’s gotten the best out of Wentz in the NFL.
Lance offers a bigger arm, more athleticism and bigger upside than Jones, even if he might need a little more initial polish to produce in the NFL with his limited college playing experience. The Colts could get aggressive to get him, but by no means are they settling for Jones, who has the mental makeup to have a long pro career.
3) Draft Kyle Trask in the first round
Trask, with his brand of arm and athleticism and his passing style of spreading the ball around and getting it out quickly, is a natural fit in Reich’s modern version of the West Coast scheme. He has some of Jones’ qualities and is used to operating in an offense where working inside to tight end and slot are staples.
Trask may be more of a borderline first-rounder than Jones at this point, but he would be a pretty good Plan C. With more developmental projects on the board after Trask, the Colts won’t find an immediate starter in the draft without falling back on Trask, at worst with a slight trade down.
4) Trade for Deshaun Watson
The Colts, like every QB-needy NFL team in 2021, would love to have Watson. The problem is, it’s extremely hard, but not unprecedented, to pull off a big QB trade with a division rival (see Donovan McNabb, from Philadelphia to Washington). The Colts also don’t have the best starting point for a deal involving first-round picks topped by No. 21 overall.
If there’s any chance GM Chris Ballard can somehow make it work and finagle Watson away from Houston with the best offer, he should give it a shot. Otherwise, it’s a long one vs. non-division teams who can better compensate.
5) Trade for Matt Ryan
The Falcons, with new offensive-minded coach Arthur Smith, are being tied more into taking a new franchise QB in the first round at No. 4, either Fields or Wilson. Although there’s a scenario in which Atlanta would do that more with the intention of grooming that rookie to replace Ryan as the starter in 2022, there’s a way the team can trade Ryan in 2021.
Say their potential first-rounder blows them away during the pre-draft process and continues to prove he’s capable of playing right away at a high level early in offseason workouts. Then the Falcons can move Ryan after June 1 for limited dead money ($17.9 million) and solid salary cap relief ($26.5 million), something that would be cost-prohibitive before then. The Colts would need to be patient here and have a contingency just in case this can’t be worked out, and it can only work out if the Falcons lock into taking a QB high.
6) Trade for Jimmy Garoppolo
Meanwhile, the 49ers can move on from and move Garoppolo with no issues as soon as the league year begins in March. A trade would cost them only $2.8 million in dead money and come with great cap relief of $23.4 million. The Colts and 49ers were good trade partners last year, when sending defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis for a first-rounder worked for both sides.
Garoppolo has proved adaptable to schemes, making a successful transition from Josh McDaniels’ Erhardt-Perkins mastery to Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast expertise. Garoppolo is better off as a dependent QB, and the Colts have the line, running game and pass-catchers to get the best out of him in their system. Ryan, who thrived most for Shanahan, is the bigger prize, but Garoppolo can also help the Colts continue to win a lot of games.
7) Trade for Carson Wentz
With no Rivers, there’s a clear path to a Wentz reunion with Reich. The problem is, the firing of Doug Pederson suggests that Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie would like his new coaching staff to make it work and operate well with Wentz, rather than second-year second-rounder Jalen Hurts. There’s no doubt that the Colts can afford to bring on the remainder of Wentz’s contract, which would be around $25 million a year, which is how much they paid Rivers for one year.
If the Colts think Wentz can be special with Reich again, they could force the Eagles’ hand and make Howie Roseman more compelled to change the mind-set in Philadelphia. Don’t rule out this option for Ballard just yet.
8) Trade for Matthew Stafford
The Lions could also move on from their veteran QB with a shot at either Fields or Wilson at No. 7 overall, as the new combination of GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell look to make their early stamp in getting the team back on the winning track. Detroit doesn’t have a contract out with Stafford quite as bad as Atlanta does with Ryan or quite as good as San Francisco has with Garoppolo. Trading Stafford before June 1 will cost a good chunk of dead money ($19 million) but also some healthy cap savings ($14 million).
Stafford can win in Reich’s system, but the fit wouldn’t be as natural as it is for the QBs listed above, including the rookies. Still, if the win-now Colts are determined to replace Rivers with a similar accomplished veteran vs. a rookie, what the Lions consider doing at the position needs to be on the Colts’ radar.
9) Re-sign Jacoby Brissett
Brissett got his chance to start after the retirement of Andrew Luck two years ago and the offense was limited. Behind Rivers, his main role was as a short-yardage and goal-line QB. He’s had more time to absorb Reich’s system as a backup and a respected leader on the team. The Colts could always give him another shot if no other plans work out. With Dak Prescott really not available, bringing back Brissett vs. other team’s free agents is better than opting for another unfamiliar bridge QB.
10) Roll with Jacob Eason
How about staying in-house? With Eason’s development not being accelerated as a rookie, this is a hard second-year sell, much like the Patriots tried to make everyone believe Jarrett Stidham was the definitive replacement for Tom Brady until the summer signing of Cam Newton.
The Colts had to like a lot of Eason’s attributes when taking a Day 3 shot on him, but there’s little chance they will turn over the skilled offense of a playoff team over to him with so many other options.