Few teams enter 2021 with a bigger question at quarterback than the Indianapolis Colts.
Perhaps no club has a more attractive opening under center than the Indianapolis Colts.
And, arguably, no front office has a more pivotal decision to make regarding the immediate future of the organization than the brass of … the Indianapolis Colts.
It should be an intriguing offseason for a franchise that arguably has the richest lineage of passers in the history of the NFL – Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck … not to mention some vocal Bert Jones truthers. Will a new name join those ranks? Will a familiar one remain?
We don't know who will be taking the first snap for Indy nine months from now, but here are nine names to consider:
He was in his feelings Saturday, dealing with the aftermath of a crushing playoff loss to the Bills in which Rivers played quite well but missed just enough crucial throws to cost the Colts in a 27-24 heartbreaker. The 39-year-old with the wonky throwing motion had an uneven yet impressive inaugural season in Indianapolis, though it could well be his last with his one-year, $25 million contract set to expire. Rivers needs surgery on his foot, already has his next job lined up – head football coach at St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope, Alabama – and was often replaced by backup Jacoby Brissett (also headed for free agency) when a QB sneak or Hail Mary was required.
Still, an emotional Rivers gave little indication Saturday afternoon that he's a man on the verge of walking. He admitted his faith will guide his next move, but if the Colts are interested in re-upping, it was obvious he very much enjoyed playing for them after spending 16 years with the Chargers.
“It’s a really neat team. I think under these circumstances,” Rivers said, “I know personally, for me, to develop the type of bond and camaraderie that we had, it was pretty special for sure."
And, given his relationship with coach Frank Reich and the allegiance earned from the locker room, it might still be.
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“As I sit here right now, yes, I want Philip Rivers to be my starting quarterback next year,” Reich said Sunday.
But the caveat wasn't far behind, the coach admitting everything "could change."
“I think we both know how we feel about each other and about the year that he had, but we also know this business is what it is,” Reich added. “We know the natural tendency is to say, this is great stuff, let’s keep this rolling, and that’s how we feel, and I hope that’s how he feels. But you have to digest, you have to pull away to get perspective, you have to think about the whole thing.
"We’ll have to see, but it’s too early to tell right now.”
The chic marriage is to reunite the embattled Philadelphia Eagles quarterback with Reich, Wentz's offensive coordinator when he played at an MVP level in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The men are also bonded by Christian faith. NFL Network has reported Wentz would like to come to Indianapolis if his time in Philly is, in fact, at an end – though Monday's firing of Doug Pederson was a strong hint that the Eagles are headed for a fresh start that includes Wentz.
And here's the real rub: To divorce Wentz this winter, the Eagles would have to absorb a huge salary cap hit as the four-year, $128 million extension he signed in 2019 takes effect at the start of the 2021 season. Cutting him is cost prohibitive (roughly a $60 million cap charge), which makes trading him – about a $34 million hit if done shortly after the new league year begins in March – palatable only by comparison. This also presumes Colts GM Chris Ballard, always thrifty with his draft picks and cap resources, is willing to engage.
But even if he and Reich decide they can resurrect the 2017 Wentz, the Eagles would have to be willing to sell at a discount given how depressed his value is while conceding the relationship with the face of their franchise is irreparable.
The @NFLGameDay Notebook with @MikeGarafolo & @TomPelissero: #Colts QB Philip Rivers will either retire or return to Indy; If Carson Wentz is on the block, the #Colts are a preferred spot; #Bengals will try to keep Lamar Jackson in check again; Derrick Henry may get a shot at 2K. pic.twitter.com/ZTLCojaJwM
The Detroit Lions' longtime bomber has two years remaining on his deal and would be owed about $43 million – reasonable by the current quarterback salary scale. Stafford turns 33 next month, but his arm talent remains among the league's elite. Current and former teammates tend to swear by his personality and toughness. On the downside, he has taken a lot of abuse over the years and, from a team perspective, he's never led Detroit to a playoff win in 12 seasons – and now the Lions are in the midst of another regime change, which may or may not spell the end of the former No. 1 pick's tenure.
Stafford isn't the hand-in-glove fit that Wentz might be, but he is a more realistic trade option financially – the Lions would take a $19 million hit for moving him. And Stafford would sustain a veteran presence for a Colts roster that's built to win now.
Will Philip Rivers remain the Colts' quarterback in 2021? Could Detroit's Matthew Stafford (9) be his replacement? (Photo: Scott Horner, IndyStar photo illustration)
The Atlanta quarterback's name has been floated as a possibility – maybe because the 2016 MVP's experience and surgical style would probably fit well in the Circle City. But realistically, Ryan's contract – it runs through 2023 – is even more unwieldy than Wentz's and would cost the Falcons, who are also searching for their next coach and GM, more than $40 million to unload in a swap. And given Ryan is nearly three years older than Stafford? Seems like the worst of all worlds given the Colts' other available avenues.
The 33-year-old may not have quite the résumé or physical gifts of more acclaimed passers in the league. But the three-time Pro Bowler is steady, led the Cincinnati Bengals to five straight playoff berths – talk about a résumé bullet – and, best of all, is a free agent after helping keep the Dallas Cowboys afloat in 2020 in the wake of Dak Prescott's broken leg. And Ballard has to like the idea of giving up nothing more than a mid-tier contract while searching for a longer-term solution to the position on a parallel track.
Ballard could always turn to the draft to fill the position. Given the Colts will pick 21st in the first round this year, Jones seems like the most realistic target – though a trade up wouldn't be out of the question if a prospect like BYU's Zach Wilson, Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance fell within range.
Still, Jones, who will be 23 in September, seems logical given he comes from an Alabama program that resembles an NFL team in some ways and is used to being a distributor rather than the center of attention. A guy who completed 77% of his passes in 2020 could theoretically step right into an offense built to run the rock while supplementing a staunch defense with a ball-control approach.
(And, yes, his dismantling of Ohio State's defense in Monday's national championship game shows he's not just a game manager.)
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The New York Jets drafted him third overall in 2018, using a pick acquired from Ballard – who thought then that Andrew Luck would be Indianapolis' starter for the long term. But now the Jets could opt to reset the position with the No. 2 pick in 2021, meaning Darnold would be available with at least two years of contractual control. He was widely viewed as the best QB prospect on the board when he came out of USC but has been plagued by the turmoil and talent gap that so often plagues the Jets … and his own tendency to press. He could be a relatively low-cost, high-ceiling reclamation project in a place where he could initially reboot as a role player.
Barring a franchise tag from the Bears, he's also headed for free agency. Though he was a Pro Bowler in 2018, the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft has largely been a disappointment in Chicago. Signing him could represent a sweet spot between guys like Dalton and Darnold when it comes to finding the right mix of experience and upside. Adding Trubisky would certainly suggest Ballard had a Plan B in the works, too. But this could be the kind of environment, similar to those 2018 Bears, where Trubisky could excel as part of the puzzle without being saddled by outlandish expectations.
The only reason last year's fourth-round pick rates a mention is because he's currently the only quarterback on Indy's roster who's under contract. Eason, who was considered a boom-or-bust prospect after a checkered college career split between Georgia and Washington, did not play as a rookie and is probably the classic example of a youngster especially hindered by the lack of a 2020 preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be surprising if he challenges for the backup job in 2021. But if he makes a meteoric rise up the depth chart this offseason, he wouldn't be the first quarterback to come trotting into the spotlight from anonymity.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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