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Sifting Through the Philip Rivers to Indianapolis Colts Free Agency Smoke

San Diego Chargers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Monday, it was announced that the Los Angeles Chargers and longtime franchise quarterback Philip Rivers have agreed to mutually part ways after 16 NFL seasons:

As the 4th overall pick of the 2004 NFL Draft, Rivers has gone on to become an 8x Pro Bowler for the Bolts, complete 4,908 passes, throw for 59,271 passing yards, and have 397 touchdown passes in 224 consecutive career starts.

After taking over as a full-time starter in 2006, the Chargers would make the playoffs in 6 of Rivers’ 14 remaining seasons with the franchise.

Now 38 years old and coming off a down year—having thrown for just 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions in 2019, Rivers presumably isn’t the same quarterback he was in his prime, now in the twilight of his NFL career.

However, he can still help some football teams as a full-time starter.

The Colts have been linked to Rivers—even before the NFL’s offseason officially began, as ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler first reported potential interest in early January of the new year.

Such speculation only increased as Dan Patrick reported a source texted him that a serious suitor to watch for Rivers is in fact the Colts.

Since Monday’s formal announcement that Rivers and the Chargers were ‘breaking up the band’, there’s only been more smoke connecting Rivers to the Colts (as well as a recent blurb from NBC Sports’ Peter King):

It’s unclear if the rumored interest is genuine from both sides—or whether this is just a ploy by Rivers’ agent to generate attention in his client league-wide (as the Colts, with a projected $86 million of cap space, will assuredly be linked to a lot of free agents this offseason).

Now, I know what you may be thinking, how does a 38 year old Rivers, who’s a sitting duck in the pocket, a gunslinger no longer with his best revolver, and a veteran quarterback who only slightly had a better passer rating (88.5) to Colts incumbent starter Jacoby Brissett (88.0) in 2019 dramatically improve this year’s team?

The answer is simple.

Even though Rivers has a greater propensity to commit turnovers (20 interceptions and 3 fumbles lost) to Brissett (6 interceptions and 5 fumbles lost) this past season, he also has shown the willingness to throw the ball downfield—which leads to bigger plays for an offense—and thus, scoring more points.

For perspective, Rivers was 11th in the NFL with 7.8 yards per pass attempt in 2019, while Brissett was 30th at 6.6 yards per pass attempt this past season.

Rivers also has the chance to play behind a superior Colts offensive line and reunite with his old Chargers offensive coordinator (now Colts head coach) Frank Reich, which could potentially lead to improved performance in 2020.

That being said, solely signing Rivers does not make much sense for the Colts.

At this late stage of his career, he’s nothing more than a veteran stopgap as a starter—a band-aid, and a ‘Rivers-led’ Colts team is realistically capped short of serious Super Bowl Championship aspirations—especially in an AFC now ran by two dynamic young MVP’s, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

With Rivers alone, the Colts would be just treading water—wasting time, and delaying the inevitable of trying to find a franchise quarterback who can actually take them to a Super Bowl and hoist the elusive Lombardi Trophy.

The caveat should be that Rivers comes to the Colts in a package deal, say with a top rookie quarterback such as Oregon’s Justin Herbert or Utah State’s Jordan Love this offseason.

This would allow the Colts to groom Herbert or Love behind Rivers for a season (much like the blueprint the Kansas City Chiefs brilliantly executed with Mahomes)—assuming either doesn’t win the starting job outright much sooner.

Thus, providing either rookie quarterback the opportunity to develop at his own pace behind a grizzled, fiery field general, Rivers—who’s seen a lot of defenses, been in a lot of film rooms, and played in a lot of big games.

After all, Rivers with 224 career starts would theoretically serve as a better mentor and veteran soundboard for a young quarterback than Brissett—who’s only had 32 career starts to his name—and would assuredly be sent packing in such a scenario.

In fact, ‘what to do with Brissett’ may be the biggest sticking point of Rivers signing with the Colts because there’s the difficult question of how to handle his uncertain future.

To his credit, Brissett has been lauded for his leadership and is a well-respected member of the Colts locker room. Moving on from him is something that the Colts would have to conduct with tact and the utmost professionalism.

The Colts don’t generally carry three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster (much less two, Rivers and Brissett, with huge cap hits respectively). While current veteran backup quarterback Brian Hoyer is easy to cut ($3 million cap savings to $2 million dead money) in the bigger picture, the same can’t be said for Brissett.

By cutting Brissett, the Colts would have to eat $12.5M in dead cap space just to save $9M of cap room in 2020, meaning trading Brissett is much more likely than releasing him:

Now, whether there’s a serious trade suitor for Brissett at his current price tag remains to be seen, but that’s probably the biggest hiccup of ‘Rivers to the Colts’ actually gaining steam.

As a veteran quarterback coming to the Colts—in tandem with a top rookie quarterback, Rivers actually makes a great deal of sense from a veteran leadership and player development standpoint—while helping the Colts win slightly more games in 2020.

By himself (and especially if Brissett remains in the fold), not nearly so much.

Whatever the case may be, it’ll be interesting to see if the current smoke of ‘Rivers to the Colts’ actually becomes a bonfire as the offseason progresses.