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Evaluating Chargers 2020 QB options: Teddy Bridgewater was most held-back QB of 2019

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

You can’t stop Teddy Bridgewater, you can only hope that Sean Payton will contain him.

That may have been the story of Bridgewater’s 196 pass attempts in 2019, the first real action he’d faced since 2015 when he was a 23-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings. But the New Orleans Saints paid an interesting price for Bridgewater, trading a 2019 third rounder to the New York Jets for him and a sixth, then re-signing him for $7.25 over one season.

The Saints didn’t want to see Bridgewater play last season, but he had to step in for Drew Brees in Week 2 and then proceeded to start the next five games ... going undefeated.

Bridgewater finished his season by going 133-of-196 for 1,384 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt, a 99.1 passer rating, a QBR of 45, and he remained firmly in the pocket and behind the line of scrimmage, not showing any real ability to run or scramble for yards. But Bridgewater beat the Seattle Seahawks, completing 70.4% of his passes for two touchdowns and no picks, and a pretty good Tampa Bay Bucs defense by going 26-of-34 for 314 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.

The Saints also got wins vs the Dallas Cowboys and on the road vs the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears with Bridgewater under center. It was a pretty strong endorsement for Bridgewater of course, though he only threw one more pass over the course of the year. Bridgewater enters free agency once again and he’ll be four years removed from his devastating non-contact knee injury in 2016, making him an attractive option for teams like Los Angeles who feel they may be a competitive quarterback away from competing for a playoff run.

And surely Bridgewater, at only 27 years old, is ready to be a franchise’s number one QB once again. Perhaps even if that team drafts a QB also, which a team like the Chargers should do anyway given Bridgewater’s extensive hiatus prior to 2019 and the lack of time he’s really had on the field to prove himself both in New Orleans and for another offense. It may seem odd to say that Bridgewater “hasn’t proved himself” after he just completed 68% of his passes and went 5-0 with only two interceptions, but consider that Nick Foles had made 14 starts over the three seasons prior to signing an $88 million deal with the Jaguars and won a Super Bowl.

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

But more importantly, Bridgewater may have played in the most friendly passing offense in the NFL and was more contained by Payton than perhaps any other quarterback in the NFL.

According to Pro-Football-Reference’s new advanced stats section (so new that it only goes back to 2018), Brees finished 32nd out of 32 qualified quarterbacks in Intended Air Yards per Attempt (now referred to as IAYpA), at 6.5 yards. That means that Brees threw the shortest passes in the league, on average. He sits in a bottom five with Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, and NFC Champion Jimmy Garoppolo.

Conversely, Matthew Stafford averaged 10.6 IAYpA, followed by Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and Josh Allen. Based on that, we know that being ranked highly on this list doesn’t necessarily mean you’re effective and being low doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not, but it does help paint a picture of the systems in which these quarterbacks played.

Philip Rivers had 8.5 IAYpA, slotting directly behind Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson and just ahead of Baker Mayfield. Again, Brees is 32nd at 6.5 IAYpA.

Teddy Bridgewater, who didn’t have enough attempts to qualify, averaged 6.2 IAYpA. NFLSIS also has him dead last in average throw depth. The only quarterback in the entire NFL who threw more than six passes in 2019 and averaged shorter throws was Luke Falk of the Jets, who had 5.4 IAYpA on 73 passes.

Looking at Completed Air Yards per Completion (CAYpC), Brees is averaging 5.3, tied with Mitchell Trubisky and Jacoby Brissett at the bottom. Only Mason Rudolph is averaging fewer CAYpC at 4.8.

Bridgewater, had he qualified, would be tied with Rudolph at 4.8. In 23 pass attempts in 2018, Bridgewater averaged 4.6 CAYpC.

Then there’s CAYpPA (per pass attempt), where Brees shines brighter because he completes so many of his passes. No other QB has a closer distance between average completion and average attempt because Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage in each of the last three years and he hasn’t been below 70% since 2015. He dominates in completion percentage and therefore Brees ranks 13th in CAYpPA (4.0) despite throwing the ball so close to the line of scrimmage.

Bridgewater averaged 3.2 CAYpPA ... he was only .1 ahead of Devlin Hodges, .2 ahead of Drew Lock, and the only other semi-regular below them was Josh Rosen.

New York Jets v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Another way in which Bridgewater was not as effective as Brees was in intermediate throws. NFLSIS has Brees as the 2nd-best intermediate thrower in the NFL after Lamar Jackson, whereas Bridgewater ranks 24th. Brees was 2nd in short throws, Bridgewater was 21st. Bridgwater only excelled in behind the line of scrimmage throws, ranking 1st in that category, completing 29 of 31 attempts. He was the best in the NFL at hitting receivers and backs who hadn’t gotten past the line of scrimmage yet, but that also inflated his overall numbers and may be why some think he was capable of throwing it anywhere.

The Saints passed off 97 attempts to running back Alvin Kamara, 43 to running back Latavius Murray, and 185 to the NFL’s best possession/overall receiver in Michael Thomas.

Thomas is an elite receiver, maybe only DeAndre Hopkins can claim to be better right now, but he’s not a deep threat. PFR also has advanced stats for receiver, including average depth of target. It’s the stat where the LA Charger had the league leader: Mike Williams averages 16.6 yards before the catch. It’s 2.2 more yards per catch than second place. LA’s passing offense has both an elite possession guy and an excellent deep threat, but the Saints don’t have a Mike Williams offense.

He averages 16.6 YBC.

Breshad Perriman was second at 14.4.

AJ Brown was 15th at 11.3.

Brandin Cooks was 30th at 9.9.

Hunter Henry was 48th at 8.7.

Keenan Allen was 55th at 7.9.

then... Michael Thomas was 60th, at 7.6 yards before the catch.

New Orleans offense, whether it was Brees or Bridgewater, threw 185 passes to a guy who was 60th in yards before catch and another 140 to its two main running backs. That’s 325 passes to those three short-yardage receivers.

The Chargers did throw 312 passes to Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Melvin Gordon, but the Saints don’t have anyone like a Mike Williams. The closest is Ted Ginn, who averaged 12.4 yards before catch, eight-highest in the NFL. When Brees threw to Ginn, he was 19-of-33 (57.6%), 1 TD, 0 INT, 8.1 Y/A. When Bridgewater did, he was 11-of-23 (47.8%), 1 TD, 1 INT, 6.7 Y/A.

New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Can Bridgewater be expected to come into an offense with a player like Williams and not dampen his value as a deep threat?

I mentioned that Bridgewater was a Pro Bowl QB in 2015. He also finished that season with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions, plus 7.2 Y/A. He finished 13th in the NFC in touchdown passes. Not in the NFL, in the NFC. You know who else was in the 2015 Pro Bowl?

Known Philip Rivers backup Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor had 20 touchdowns and six interceptions that season.

When Bridgewater went down just before the start of the 2016 season, the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford and installed a completely average QB into the starting offense after barely two weeks of practicing. He led the NFL in completion percentage (71.6) with 20 touchdowns and five picks.

The 2015 offense with Bridgewater had Adrian Peterson (1,485 yards, 11 TD), Stefon Diggs (720 yards), Adam Thielen (144 yards), and Kyle Rudolph (495 yards).

The 2016 offense with Bradford didn’t have Peterson (injured), but had Diggs (903 yards), Thielen (967 yards), and Rudolph (840 yards).

It’s interesting to think about just how different Bradford and Bridgewater really are, they were both very limited in what they could do even if they do that one thing well, but virtually every piece of evidence would seem to suggest that Bradford is better. Bradford was out of the NFL last season at 31 years old. Would Bradford have succeeded at all with the Saints in 2019?

With an elite offensive line, Thomas, and the shortest passing attack in the league?

This isn’t meant to be a hit piece on Bridgewater’s free agency, as he did what was asked of him in New Orleans last season with Minnesota in 2014-2015, but you have to ask yourself what a team is able to ask him to do. He’s done what’s asked of him because teams seem to know they can’t ask him to stretch his game any further than 6.2 yards out.

Do the Chargers want to be an efficient, but highly limited offense built around a quarterback with 221 attempts in the last four years? Or do they want someone who can satisfy Williams and Henry in addition to Allen and Ekeler?

Bridgewater has proven to be as good as any backup in the NFL when on the right team. That “right team” doesn’t feel like the 2020 LA Chargers.