On the eve of the 2021 NFL Draft, two teams gained at least a little clarity on their quarterback situations, with the Panthers trading former starter Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos in exchange for a sixth-round pick. Neither side is guaranteed to sit out the QB market come Thursday night, but we can at least assess who got better -- or who found better value -- in the wake of Bridgewater's relocation to Denver. Let's break down the deal for both parties:
Some teams deserve criticism when they settle for perceived base hits over potential home runs, specifically at a position like QB. And the Bridgewater acquisition almost certainly falls in the "base hit" category; rarely has the former Vikings, Saints and Panthers veteran been anything but a high-floor, low-ceiling starter. At his best, Teddy's still more of a good-but-not-great QB, which may or may not be enough to lift Denver to the postseason for the first time since Peyton Manning was in town.
But here's the difference between the Broncos and a team like the Bears, which made a similar mid-level acquisition this year in Andy Dalton: Denver also has the high-upside option in tow. Enter Drew Lock. While Lock might not be franchise material, proving to be something of a turnover magnet in between 2020 injuries, he's still just 24 and possesses play-making traits. By adding Bridgewater, the Broncos have simply raised the collective floor of the QB room, while retaining the possibility of a Lock breakout.
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Most importantly, by giving up just a sixth and getting the Panthers to pay all but $3 million of the $10M due Bridgewater in 2021, Denver has ensured it can still do anything it wants at the position. If a top QB prospect slides within reach or, dare we say, all the way to their No. 9 pick, they can take him. If a Day Two signal-caller catches their eye, they can do it. It's the old Seahawks approach of 2012, when Seattle paid Matt Flynn before drafting Russell Wilson; or the Eagles approach of 2016, when Philadelphia kept Sam Bradford and paid Chase Daniel before drafting Carson Wentz. The name of the game at QB is to stockpile assets until you find one worthwhile, and the Broncos are doing that sensibly.
Even in the event they don't add more long-term juice by finding a way to get a prospect like Justin Fields or Trey Lance, SportsLine projects Denver will be much better off relying on Bridgewater than Lock. While the latter has the much bigger arm, expert analyst Stephen Oh notes, "the improvement in accuracy with fewer INTs helps Denver win nearly one more game per season simulation." Projecting Bridgewater as the 2021 starter elevates the Broncos' win total from 6.6 to 7.5 and boosts playoff chances from 8.2% to 17.5%.
There was no clear path back to the starting job for Bridgewater in Carolina. It was only a matter of time until the Panthers moved the veteran. The team also shouldn't be faulted for admitting its sunk cost, realizing one year into Teddy's three-year, $63 million deal that maybe, just maybe, Bridgewater has always been a fine but replaceable (rather than game-altering) passer. You don't trade three picks for Sam Darnold, after all, if you're planning to ride out that contract. But still, we can't ignore the numbers, and the Panthers poured a hefty amount of resources into what amounted to a one-year placeholder at QB.
Combining Darnold's $4.77M cap hit with Bridgewater's $7M sunk cost means the Panthers will be paying almost $12M for their QBs in 2021 -- a mild figure, just above guys like Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick, but not insignificant considering Carolina could still be eyeing a rookie addition to the group. Couple that with the fact that Carolina paid Bridgewater a total of more than $30 million guaranteed since 2020, and it's just hard to crown the Panthers for selling him off in exchange for essentially a throwaway late-rounder. Was the deal inevitable? Yes. Does it make it any more rewarding? Not really.
Once more, this is the path the Panthers had to take. Bridgewater wasn't going to be the guy there, no matter how respected he was in the locker room. Darnold offers more upside. And a surprise pick like Lance or Fields would make all of this especially moot, giving their QB room all kinds of excitement. In terms of the actual trade, though, this was more a necessary blow than a celebratory deal.