The Indianapolis Colts and specifically general manager Chris Ballard could soon be faced with another crossroads at their starting quarterback position this offseason.
However, it very well might be prudent for Ballard to mimic the brilliant blueprint his former franchise, the Kansas City Chiefs, recently performed at quarterback—planning for a potentially great long-term future—albeit unguaranteed one, at the expense of the “pretty good and comfortable” present.
Back in 2017, the Chiefs, even with 2x Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith in his prime, traded up to select a somewhat raw, yet incredibly athletically gifted rookie quarterback named Patrick Mahomes out of Texas Tech with the 10th overall pick.
Mahomes sat behind Smith for a season before the Chiefs made the difficult decision of trading the veteran quarterback to the Redskins during the following offseason.
Mahomes fully took over the reins in 2018, and the rest is history, as he threw for 50 touchdown passes and won NFL MVP honors—truly setting the league on fire from the get-go.
The Colts incumbent starter Jacoby Brissett is arguably a ‘poor man’s Alex Smith’ right now—although that might admittedly be a stretch.
Smith, was perhaps wrongly labeled a glorified game manager at times, but he was generally consistent, limited turnovers, and could make some big throws when necessary—even if he didn’t always throw downfield enough.
Quite frankly, the Chiefs won a lot of games with him behind center—having made the playoffs in 4 of his last 5 seasons in Kansas City.
And that’s not dumping on Brissett, who has been a parachute—even if not golden, as the presumed primary backup for the Colts as late as two weeks before the regular season started when their franchise player, Andrew Luck, shocked the world by retiring and left all of Colts nation free-falling in a tailspin.
Thrust back into a starting position under incredibly difficult circumstances, with Brissett, the Colts have had a relatively safe landing spot at starting quarterback—and it could be much, much worse all things considered.
Even if Brissett has not been great, he has kept the Colts generally competitive—in a season that may have already been doomed before it started—having lost Luck so suddenly, so abruptly, and seemingly now forever to early retirement.
Up until 5 weeks ago, before Brissett got hurt, missed two games (both losses), and the Colts then proceeded to lose the next 2 of their 3 games upon his return—for a total of 4 losses in 5 games, Indianapolis was 5-2 and there was talk that they could not only win the AFC South, but potentially earn a first round bye and homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
However, fast forward just a few weeks later, and the Colts are now a longshot to make the postseason—with their draft position now potentially more important than actually winning football games.
With all of the recent losing comes questions of whether Brissett is a mere stopgap, a placeholder simply keeping the seat warm for the Colts long-term answer at quarterback—who’s not even on their roster right now.
For perspective, Brissett hasn’t had a passer rating higher than 76.9 in his past three starts, and in two of those three starts, he and the rest of the Colts passing offense has failed to eclipse 150 total passing yards.
On the season, he ranks 28th in average passing yards per game (204.1 ypg) and 24th in average pass yards per attempt (6.9 ypg)—indicating that there’s been a clear inability to generate big plays or throw downfield for the Colts offense this year.
Now, some of that can be attributed to Brissett throwing to a receiving corps that often resembles a preseason lineup—as the Colts offensive weapons have been decimated by injuries all season—including to star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton in recent weeks.
However, Brissett has simply failed to hit open targets at times, and he’s shown a clear inability to anticipate routes when his receivers might be breaking open—instead only electing to throw to his teammates when they’re actually wide open—which doesn’t always happen for a makeshift receiving group that often struggles to create separation in its routes.
That being said, there’s no guarantee that there’s a ‘Patrick Mahomes’ in the upcoming 2020 quarterback draft class, and if there was, there’d be 25 teams lining up to try to trade up and draft him with the 1st overall pick (although the Bengals would assuredly politely decline).
There are some top, polished passers available in the upcoming year’s quarterback draft class such as LSU’s Joe Burrow or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, but both are projected Top 5 picks. Tantalizing near-NFL ready rookie passers that the Colts at 6-6 simply won’t be bad enough or fortunate to draft—unless Ballard gives up the farm, a Jets-like ‘Sam Darnold’ package, which seems highly unlikely for a GM who admittedly “loves them picks.”
[The Colts also have a number of team holes, so it’s not as though this roster is simply “one quarterback away” to mortgage everything either in such a king’s ransom scenario.]
Still there are a few raw, yet athletically gifted passers—much like Mahomes once was considered—even if one has to ‘squint their eyes and dream a little.’
Perhaps just outside the Top 10.
Perhaps in the teens.
Maybe even the late first round.
[*However, the Colts also have the luxury of possessing the Redskins early second round draft pick in 2020 to “play around with” in potential trade-up for a top quarterback scenarios—thanks to a shrewd trade-out of the first round in last year’s draft.*]
Developmental projects such as Utah State’s Jordan Love, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, or Washington’s Jacob Eason could fit the bill as being the Colts ‘Mahomes’ (and let me again preface this by saying, I’m not saying any of these prospects will be as great as Mahomes).
These project passers may not be as polished as say Tua or Burrow—and come with a greater volatility of career success to failure, but if they were, they also wouldn’t be available outside the Top 5, so there’s some definite risk-reward here for the Colts.
However, each of Love, Herbert, and Eason have flashed a lot of ability and natural arm talent at times, and could be afforded the developmental luxury to sit and develop behind Brissett for a season (who will have one year left and a cap hit of $21.5M in 2020) before fully taking over the Colts starting quarterback duties in 2021 (although it’s always possible the Colts project rookie quarterback could challenge the incumbent for the starter’s job much sooner).
It would allow such a quarterback project to mature at his own pace—at least for a year.
The long-term gains of developing such a talented passer, homegrown in the gardens of quarterback-friendly Frank Reich’s offensive system could pay off major dividends down the road—as his career upside could theoretically be higher than Brissett’s—who the Colts labeled a “Top 20 quarterback in this league”.
However, why not aim higher than that ceiling for the Colts for what’s the most important position in football?
Yes, Indianapolis Colts fans have been ridiculously spoiled with franchise altering quarterbacks, two to be exact: one in 1998, and another in 2012.
One went on to become a soon-to-be Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players to ever play the position, Peyton Manning, and another might very well have been, Andrew Luck—had his body not betrayed him (although there’s plenty of blame to go around).
Yes, it could cause an uncomfortable situation for Brissett and the Colts in 2020—especially in their quarterback room, but Brissett has been lauded for his leadership and being the consummate professional—and Ballard has preached creating competition all over the Colts roster since the first day he arrived in Indianapolis.
Why should Brissett be exempt?
To the winner, go the spoils after all.
The goal for the Colts franchise shouldn’t be just winning the AFC South or a mere playoff game, it should be about winning a Super Bowl championship and becoming a perennial AFC contender.
Anything short of that is just wasting time.
Brissett keeps the Colts competitive, but he doesn’t appear to be the type of passer that can carry a team, truly take over a game, and the Colts figure to be competing against the likes of not only the reigning MVP, Mahomes, but the Baltimore Ravens’ MVP frontrunner Lamar Jackson for the foreseeable future as top dogs in the AFC—both of whom are truly gifted passers (and runners) who absolutely can.
If Brissett’s not the guy that the Colts think they can win a Super Bowl with behind center, then the Colts have to make the difficult decision to eventually let him serve as a one-year mentor before sadly moving on (unless he opts to stay as a backup at a reduced rate—which seems unlikely).
The Chiefs recently transitioned from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes with incredibly glowing results, why can’t the Colts—albeit in their own way?
Sometimes the road less traveled is actually the one worth taking.