For the second offseason in a row, the Indianapolis Colts are in the quarterback market. Two years after Andrew Luck's abrupt retirement and one year after taking a flyer on longtime Chargers signal-caller Philip Rivers, the team confirmed Wednesday that Rivers, 39, has called it a career. Fresh off an 11-5 finish and playoff appearance, the Colts have neither short- or long-term certainties in-house, with Jacoby Brissett set to hit free agency and rookie Jacob Eason has yet to take a single NFL snap.
So where will the Colts turn? Where can they turn? Here are five of the most logical candidates to take over under center in 2021 (you can check out SportsLine's look at the odds here):
5. Trey Lance
The NDSU product is widely considered a top-four QB prospect in this year's draft, which means he's bound to go far earlier than the Colts' No. 21 pick in the first round. If, however, general manager Chris Ballard is serious about exploring a first-round QB (and he should be), and both he and coach Frank Reich fall in love with Lance, who hails from the same school as ex-Reich pupil Carson Wentz and apparently flashes some traits reminiscent of Luck, there's reason to believe the Colts would go big to move up. Reich, after all, hasn't been afforded a true long-term QB option in two years, and he's now entering his fourth season with the team. It would likely take a big haul to jump closer to or even into the top 10, but if it gets them Lance's enticing size and athleticism, so be it. Pair him with a veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick, and you've rejuvenated the Colts fan base.
4. Mac Jones
The opinions on Jones differ a bit more, with some projecting the Alabama product to go as early as the top four, and others considering him more of a mid- to late-first-rounder. In the event draft day actually brings about a slide, pushing the two-time national champion into or beyond the teens, the Colts will almost certainly be a player. The knock on Mac is that he's a true pocket passer -- a "subpar" athlete who must win with his smarts more than raw talent. But just look at the QBs the Colts have targeted lately. In 2020, before landing on a 38-year-old Rivers, one of the league's true statues in the pocket, they reportedly considered Tom Brady, whose immobility is topped by few. That's not to say Reich prefers "un-athletic" QBs, but he certainly isn't opposed to more traditional passers. And, more importantly, Jones may not cost as much if he falls into their lap.
3. Carson Wentz
This one's been speculated so much that it almost feels too logical to be true, at this point. There's no denying the connections: Reich was Wentz's offensive coordinator during the most promising stretch of his career (2016-2017), the Colts are built to contend now, they aren't necessarily primed to land one of the top rookie QBs, and they've got more than enough cap space to absorb Wentz's big deal. From Wentz's perspective, the embattled Eagles QB has reportedly already circled the Colts as a preferred destination in the event of a trade. Here's the holdup: While Reich and Ballard may be intrigued by the long-term upside here, it feels unlikely they'll want to surrender a ton of draft capital to take on Wentz's price tag, and if the Eagles are actually leaning toward trying to restore their franchise QB, there's little reason to think they'll race to accept a bargain offer.
If the Colts are looking to stay in the mix in 2021 without taking a big gamble on an unofficial project in Wentz, then there's no better option than Stafford. The price tag would still be steep ($33 million in 2021, $26 million in 2022), and the Lions wouldn't sell him for nothing, but in Stafford's case, there's a much sturdier resume to justify the cost. The former No. 1 pick wasn't great in 2020, but he feels overdue for a change of scenery and would be primed for something like 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns behind Indy's O-line. At 32, he's also young enough to warrant more than a one-year rental, though his contract allows for a quick exit in 2022, if the Colts were ready to move on. The only real issue here is compensation: What is Ballard willing to surrender? Everything else fits, and as an added bonus, the Lions would get to ship their longtime QB out of the NFC.
1. Sam Darnold
Wentz has gotten all the buzz as a potential Reich restoration project, but we're not talking enough about the more cost-effective alternative. Darnold, who, as fate would have it, ended up with the Jets after New York's pre-draft trade with Indy, is still just 23. He's under contract for just $9.8M in 2021 and could be retained on a fifth-year option in 2022. And while the Jets may talk about salvaging their former first-rounder under a new staff, all signs point to them drafting a new franchise QB in April. He's far less proven than both Wentz and Stafford, but the skill set is there. Imagine how different his numbers may have looked in Indy's system. Reich, meanwhile, has a relationship with Jets GM Joe Douglas, who'll try to milk Darnold's trade value. Would it be risky? Sure. But if the Colts can't strike for a top rookie, what better alternative than "re-drafting" Darnold as a long-term development?