It was not a guarantee Rivers would be back under center for Indy next season. Head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard both suggested they would love for Rivers to return, but also noted needing to keep an eye on the future.
In some ways, Rivers’ retirement has made the decision easier. The Colts need a new quarterback, and it is unlikely they will turn to 2020 fourth-rounder Jacob Eason to replace Rivers coming off an 11-5 season in which Indy made the playoffs.
As much as fans might like to see Deshaun Watson in a Colts uniform, it’s not happening. The Houston Texans are not going to trade their star quarterback within the division, if they trade Watson at all.
Dak Prescott would be another intriguing option, but there is almost no way the Dallas Cowboys will let him walk in free agency, whether the Cowboys use the franchise tag once again or reach a long-term extension with Prescott.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three best options to replace Rivers.
3. Mitchell Trubisky
This selection could garner some criticism given Trubisky’s struggles in Chicago with the Bears. But there is reason to believe the former No. 2 overall pick would have better success in Indianapolis.
For starters, the Colts have one of the better offensive lines in football. Pro Football Focus ranked Indy’s offensive line as the seventh-best in the NFL in 2020. Chicago, on the other hand, ranked 20th in football, per PFF. Granted, the Colts will have to replace Anthony Castonzo at left tackle. But Ballard has a strong track record drafting offensive linemen.
Secondly, Indianapolis is more balanced on the offensive side of the football. The Bears ranked 27th in rushing attempts and 21st in yards per carry. The Colts, on the other hand, ranked 10th in rushing attempts and 14th in yards per carry.
Perhaps Trubisky would be more dangerous working with a steady rushing attack that would also open up play-action and run-pass options, with the latter being a crucial part of his development in a breakout sophomore campaign.
Lastly, the Colts have a more promising receiving corps. Allen Robinson was Trubisky’s only dependable option in Chicago. While Indy does not quite have anyone of Robinson’s caliber at the wideout spot, there is talent there.
Michael Pittman Jr. was a game-breaker at the end of the season. Zach Pascal is a steady target. Nyheim Hines can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Plus, Parris Campbell showcased his explosiveness prior to another unfortunate injury. Who knows, maybe the Colts even sign both Trubisky and Robinson in free agency.
The Colts should not reach on Trubisky if he has a plentiful market. But if things are moving slowly for the Bears signal-caller, Indy might look to gamble on a change of scenery.
2. Sam Darnold
Darnold was victimized by the same things as Trubisky in 2020.
The Jets’ offensive line was even worse than Chicago’s, ranking 29th in football, per PFF. New York ranked 24th in yards per carry, often forcing Darnold to play hero ball by moving the pigskin through the air. That proved difficult, considering the Jets had a number of injuries in the receiving corps.
Jamison Crowder missed four games, as did Breshad Perriman. Rookie wideout Denzel Mims played just nine games. The uncertainty at the skill positions, paired with struggles up front, hardly served to benefit Darnold in his third season.
The Colts have a stronger foundation, which could serve Darnold well as he hoped to live up to his promised potential.
There is plenty of reason to be high on Darnold’s upside. He has the raw tools, and is developing an ability to make off-timing plays outside the pocket. In fact, Darnold even averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 2020, finding ways to make something happen when being flushed out.
The question will ultimately be whether the Jets choose to explore Darnold trades this offseason, and if the Colts are willing to pay New York’s price.
Perhaps Ballard feels Darnold can be the long-term solution under center. This would suggest an openness to giving up more draft capital, if necessary.
1. Matthew Stafford
It is hard to find a better “win-now” move for Indy than trading for Matthew Stafford.
The Detroit Lions star has toiled for years on underwhelming teams in the Motor City. As a result, he has become arguably one of the most underrated quarterbacks in football. Just ask presumptive NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Stafford played through myriad injuries in 2020. He managed to suit up for all 16 games, throwing for over 4,000 yards to go along with 26 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. This includes a Week 16 matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, during which Stafford played just four snaps before leaving the game with an ankle issue.
The former No. 1 pick’s 68.8 total QBR mark was the second-best of his career, which projects well for Stafford’s ability to be productive in the coming years. Despite his reputation as a risk-heavy gunslinger, Stafford was tremendously efficient in 2020, as well.
Lowest Turnover-Worthy Play Rate in the NFL in 2020:
1. TB Tom Brady – 1.6%
T-2. DET Matthew Stafford – 2.3%
T-2. GB Aaron Rodgers – 2.3%
4. HOU Deshaun Watson – 2.6%
— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) January 13, 2021
Stafford will be just 33 in February and is assuredly hungry to win. Indianapolis presents a tremendous opportunity in this regard.
It has taken Ballard little time to build a defense that ranked in the top 10 in scoring and yards allowed this past season. He figures to continue grabbing talent in the secondary and the skill positions in an effort to round out the team.
But acquiring a talent like Stafford, who has one of the livest arms in football, could be the move that cements the Colts as Super Bowl contenders.
The Lions are more likely to trade Stafford than cut him, given the $19 million dead-cap hit that move would carry. Can the Colts meet Detroit’s price?
Perhaps Detroit is more intent on keeping Stafford and seeing how the new regime (and head coach Dan Campbell) can build around him. But the Colts should buy high as they look for security at the quarterback position.