The Carolina Panthers, under owner David Tepper, have been remade into the billionaire's vision of a modern football franchise. He has invested heavily in infrastructure and analytics as a model to portend future success, and he clearly is someone who is not risk-averse by nature; being bold and swinging for the fences seems to come naturally to him, and are characteristics he espouses in others.
The decision to pluck Matt Rhule out of Baylor, pretty much on the spot after first meeting him, and give him a massive contract for a first-time head coach was, at its core, bold. He hired Scott Fitterer as his first GM – Tepper inherited old-school evaluator Marty Hurney (one of the best in the business) – bringing him over from Seattle; the Seahawks have been one of the most aggressive talent-procurement teams in the NFL under John Schneider and utilized the blockbuster trade market far more than most organizations. This is a cat who basically paid $2.5B cash for a football team, and isn't afraid to think big.
All of which serves as a lengthy preamble to the following: If the best trade offer for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater comes from New Orleans or Atlanta or Tampa, make the trade. Fear of trading within the NFC South shouldn't be a factor in this pending transaction. There should be conviction in the decision to move on from Bridgewater after just one year, and if the Panthers believe Sam Darnold is an upgrade for the present and the future, and will live up to his initial draft billing, then it really shouldn't matter where Bridgewater ends up.
It should be all about asset maximization, and while most in the football world are connecting Bridgewater to Denver – and league sources said the Broncos have interest (and I suspect that is where the former first-round pick ends up) – there is no sense being shortsighted about this and limiting the potential market of suitors for someone Carolina paid $24M for in 2020, and who is still just 28 years old and who is set to make $18M this season, with $10M of that already fully guaranteed.
And trust me, there is interest in the NFC South.
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It's well established how much Sean Payton loves Bridgewater. He has already won vitally-important football games with Bridgewater during Drew Brees' injuries. He was a huge part of that locker room. And the Saints have just most modest investments in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston; neither is making real QB money. It would take some onions to do a deal like this, but Tepper seems to have gardens full on onions. If New Orleans makes the best offer, so be it. The Panthers are aware of the Saints' interest, so let the chips fall where they may.
And I know Tampa just won a Super Bowl, and somehow managed to keep the band together, but if Bridgewater is willing to move some things around to help from a cap standpoint, when why not let him go there as Tom Brady insurance? Because it is definitely something being discussed internally in Tampa, I can assure you of that. Falcons rookie GM Terry Fontenot came from the Saints, where he saw Bridgewater up close. Atlanta is in purgatory with Matt Ryan, who is nearing the end, and lacks upside. Bridgewater could be a solid fit there as someone with potential beyond 2021, and is signed through 2022.
It's worth exploring all three options and doing whatever the Panthers can to exert the best return possible for a player who they do not evaluate as a difference maker. Eliminating a big chunk of your possible trade partners because you play them every year seems to run counter to the overarching organizational philosophies there.
Regardless, I keep coming back to Denver here. The Broncos' new GM George Paton was a top evaluator with the Vikings when they selected Bridgewater in the first round. Broncos coach Vic Fangio, if he had a coaching comp in the league, it would be Mike Zimmer; both are old-school defensive-minded coaches who had a very long wait to get their shot as a head coach. Both are risk-averse in their offensive philosophies – run the damn ball! – and believe in putting their defense in positions to thrive. Zimmer was obviously very involved in the drafting of Bridgewater in Minnesota.
Above all else, Bridgewater has been a smart game-manager who doesn't put his team behind. Even in Carolina, where he ended up with more turnovers than anyone expected, the bulk of them came after Week 11, when he was playing through some knee issues on a very young team that seemed to peak in October. Bridgewater fits the Broncos model, Paton did not draft Drew Lock, and Lock's decision making and predilection for turnovers have been the story of his brief career thus far (he was tied for second-most in the NFL with 18 giveaways a year ago).
Perhaps the Panthers will eat some salary to sweeten the pot in trade return – they absolutely should, given where they are in their rebuild and the vast resources their owner possesses. Perhaps they'll even strongly consider a divisional opponent.
Expect the Justin Houston market to heat up
Many execs believe Justin Houston is the best edge rusher left on the market, and the options out there at edge rusher remain superior to most other positions, where the talent has been completely thinned out.
Houston has shown in the past that he can be very methodical and judicious when playing things out in free agency, and he has again this year. It's been relatively quiet for him thus far, while guys like Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney have made some trips (with no deals done yet). Don't mistake that for a lack of interest, and look for Houston to begin sorting through his suitors and making a visit or two next week. He provided a lot of bang for the buck to the Colts the last few years, and there are some very needy contending teams (Baltimore and Cleveland immediately come to mind) who might prefer to add a proven pass rusher prior to the draft.
Over the last four years, Houston has played in 59 out of 64 games, proving very durable. He ranks 10th among all players with 37.5 sacks in that span – and fourth among all defensive ends – and his pressure rate of 12.4 percent is on par with guys like Myles Garrett (12.9%). Houston is in the top 20 of all defensive players with 67 QB hits the last four years and is top 15 among all defensive ends with 146 hurries since 2017.
Look for things to heat up next week.
Stanford QB Mills rising on draft boards
Many have assumed for quite some time that Florida's Kyle Trask would be the sixth quarterback selected in this draft. And at this point that would really surprise me, frankly. More coaches and execs are falling for Stanford's Davis Mills. Kid looks the part and the more people see of him, the more they want to keep seeing. I'm not entirely convinced he doesn't end up somewhere at the back end of the first round – perhaps via trade with teams coveting that fifth-year option. You will hear a lot about him the next few weeks.
Here's which WRs could be drafted after the big three
Everyone knows who the big three receivers are in this draft, all likely to go within the top 10 picks. But what comes next after Ja'Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith are off the board? The two receivers I am hearing the most buzz about atop that next cluster of WRs are Terrace Mitchell, Jr. from LSU and Rashod Bateman from Minnesota.