News & Analysis

Teddy Bridgewater: Bridge or building block for the Carolina Panthers?

Teddy Bridgewater has finally worked his way back to being a starting NFL quarterback, signing a three-year deal in free agency with the Carolina Panthers.

As I wrote recently at PFF, Bridgewater showed during his brief stint starting in 2019 that he can be a viable starting quarterback again. He was able to shake off the hyper-conservative play that had been a feature of whatever glimpses we had seen from him since his devastating knee injury and prove that he still had a higher level of aggressive play in his game.

What is really interesting is choosing Carolina as his destination, because the Panthers are a team in the midst of a full rebuild. The Panthers have a completely new coaching staff going to work in 2020.

New head coach Matt Rhule led a successful offense at Baylor before making the jump to the NFL. His new offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, was the man most responsible for the transformation of Joe Burrow at LSU from anonymous college quarterback to the presumptive No. 1 pick in the draft.

Brady was an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints before moving to LSU and helping to craft one of the most destructive offenses college football has seen in a number of years. Brady’s time in New Orleans actually overlapped with Teddy Bridgewater in 2018, and while there’s no way of knowing how much that impacted the decision, it would seem to be a very useful connection from either side’s point of view. Carolina is unlikely to have been happy to bring in Bridgewater without Brady’s sign-off, and Bridgewater is unlikely to have wanted to come to Carolina without the utmost confidence in his new offensive coordinator and system.

The fact that Bridgewater is also going to be familiar with terminology and concepts Brady uses can only be a bonus, even if it may not be something that moves the needle when it comes to this magnitude of decision.

What is intriguing is that Bridgewater shares some features of his game with what we saw of Joe Burrow at LSU. Burrow doesn’t have the strongest arm the world has ever seen, but his accuracy, anticipation and decision-making more than made up for that time and time again, and he had one of the best deep passing profiles we have ever seen.

Bridgewater doesn’t have the skills that Burrow showed last season, but he has many comparable traits and tendencies. Bridgewater has been criticized in the past for not having a strong-enough arm, but on deep passes (20-plus air yards) during his career he has a PFF grade of 88. He has made 24 big-time throws (PFF’s highest-graded passes) to just 13 turnover-worthy plays (the lowest-graded).

One of the interesting things to watch this year is how the offense evolves from the version we saw at LSU this past season. The Tigers ran virtually no screens (Burrow had just 262 passing yards on screens this past season) and ran a lot of empty sets with only five-man protection. These aren’t alien concepts in the NFL, but they are unusual, at least in extreme percentages, and we just witnessed a season in which a radical offensive system was modified and moderated by the league over the course of the season (Kliff Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid in Arizona). It’s possible that Brady will just import the LSU offense lock, stock and barrel to Carolina, but it’s far more likely that there will be a period of experimentation where they find the right balance of these various elements, something Bridgewater will likely help speed up.

One thing Bridgewater has in his game is the ability to read defenses, diagnose coverages and deliver the ball where it needs to go. There’s a strong argument that he does this too efficiently, and sometimes he’d actually be better off letting plays develop a little longer to allow a receiver to uncover deeper into the pattern. But the point is that he has the mental capacity and muscle memory to thrive in a system that relies on the quarterback to operate his own protection more than being protected by additional bodies.

In terms of scheme, Bridgewater should be a good fit for whatever offense the Panthers craft for 2020, and he'll probably be a useful part of its development. So the next task becomes determining what they have to deploy in terms of passing weapons. D. J. Moore is a solid receiver and Christian McCaffrey is a superstar out of the backfield, but outside of those two the Panthers need to add some receiving options to help. The good news is that it is a spectacular draft to find wideouts, and they could easily come away with an impact starter with a pick in the first or second round. With the potential of added capital coming their way via a Cam Newton trade, the team has plenty of ammunition to surround Bridgewater with help.

The main question: Is Bridgewater the new cornerstone of this regime at a bargain price, or is he simply a bridge to whomever is their favorite rookie? The Chicago Bears aren’t that many years away from signing Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract only to trade up to draft his replacement a month later and cut him less than a year after that. Adjusted for cap inflation, Bridgewater’s contract isn’t a million miles from the one Glennon signed, and it could be structured similarly to give the team an easy out in a year or two.

Carolina doesn’t quite have the draft position the Bears did in 2017, but they are positioned well at No. 7 overall — with the potential of extra picks on the horizon if they move Newton. It’s entirely possible that Bridgewater is seen as the player that Rhule and Brady want to build around, given he is just 27. But it’s also possible that they simply see him as the best bridge quarterback they could possibly sign considering his familiarity with the offense and his leadership amongst his peers — and still plan to draft his replacement when the draft rolls around.

Whether that’s his future or not, Bridgewater deserves another chance to start in the NFL and show what he can do in an offense tailored more to his strengths, and he should be an excellent fit in Carolina.

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