Once upon a time, Teddy Bridgewater had the makings of a franchise quarterback. Then the unthinkable happened: His left knee exploded during a non-contact drill prior to the 2016 campaign, and the potential he once displayed was forgotten.
Bridgewater's career appeared to be on the line well over a year before the Minnesota Vikings medical staff cleared him to play last October. The NFL has a way of humbling even the most talented individuals.
Kirk Cousins' record-breaking contract was a ripple effect of Bridgewater's injury, since the Vikings originally planned to build their roster around the 2014 first-round pick. The New York Jets should consider the same possibility after signing Bridgewater, even if it's just a short-term solution.
"This is a team that was headed in the right direction and has a great coaching staff, a great athletic training staff and a group of guys who are eager to continue to make names for themselves in this league," Bridgewater said, per Eric Allen of the Jets' official site. "As a guy who has the same mindset of those guys, this was the best spot to eventually continue my career."
No guarantee exists that Bridgewater will even be on the Jets roster once the regular season starts, but his release would be shortsighted.
Above all, the 25-year-old signal-caller is healthy and throwing again, according to general manager Mike Maccagnan, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini.
Bridgewater may never be the player he once was, but the Jets organization must see if he can reach his previous potential based on its current roster configuration. The quarterback already passed a physical before he signed a one-year deal worth up to $15 million with incentives, according to Newsday's Calvin Watkins.
But the warning signs of a possible release are present.
The Jets are only on the hook for $500,000 this season, per Spotrac. A more significant investment would indicate Bridgewater has a chance to compete. Instead, the much lower number makes him easily expendable if New York is comfortable with Josh McCown and the third overall pick, Sam Darnold, making up its quarterback room.
But a void exists between McCown and Darnold. An 18-year void to be exact. McCown turns 39 years old in July; Darnold will be 21 a month earlier. McCown's eldest daughter made sure he felt that age difference on draft weekend:
The Jets can open the season with McCown—who presents little to no upside—after a strong 2017 performance yet has never started an entire season during his 15-year career. Or they can expedite Darnold's learning curve and play him earlier than expected.
Bridgewater provides a happy medium.
First of all, I think the signing of Josh was instrumental in creating stability within the quarterback room like it did last season. Number two, bringing in Bridgewater allows you the luxury of not playing a younger guy faster than what you’d like. I think the Jets are in a really good position knowing they have two men that can hold the fort down when football games make this team as productive as possible.
The Jets can accomplish two goals by keeping Bridgewater throughout the 2018 campaign and possibly longer.
First, it pushes Darnold further down the depth chart to make sure he's not prematurely forced into the lineup. His overall readiness, not circumstance, should dictate future playing time. There's no rush.
Second, mentoring the new face of the franchise can become McCown's primary emphasis. Darnold has plenty of work to do with his understanding of the position's intricacies. The USC product is a naturally gifted athlete, but he entered the draft after his redshirt sophomore campaign and didn't run the most complicated offense, unlike previous Trojans quarterbacks, who played in more advanced schemes.
The opportunity to sit and learn is crucial for someone whose primary knocks involve decision-making and turnovers. The Jets are in a position to keep Darnold off the field entirely in 2018 so he can acclimate himself. If that proves to be the case, he'll only be 22 years old when he takes his first official NFL snap in 2019.
A return to form from Bridgewater could delay Darnold's wait even longer.
Two seasons with a single abbreviated game appearance feels like a lifetime in professional football. Yet Bridgewater was well on his way to franchise status based on his initial play with the Vikings.
His 6,150 yards and 28-to-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his first two seasons aren't overwhelming. Context is everything, though.
Minnesota trended in the right direction with Bridgewater under center. The team made a playoff appearance after an 11-5 regular season in just his second campaign. Those Vikings didn't feature the same roster depth as they do now.
Stefon Diggs was a rookie and still led the team with 720 receiving yards. Adam Thielen had yet to emerge. Plus, the 2015 offensive line performed so poorly that the team's front office made the position an offseason priority (and still didn't get it right until 2017).
Yes, Bridgewater could lean on a still-productive Adrian Peterson, who led the league with 1,485 rushing yards. However, little help could be found beyond that point.
The young quarterback showed tremendous poise, toughness and accuracy as a starter. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater ranked first in 2015 with a 79.3 adjusted completion percentage—which takes into account drops, batted passes, spikes and passes where the quarterback is hit as he throws the ball. He also finished fifth with a 70.7 adjusted completion percentage against pressure.
His efficiency in a run-first offense allowed the Vikings to stay ahead of the chains and proved effective before he even had the opportunity to emerge from Peterson's long shadow.
The Jets feature a little more on offense, sans Peterson. Along with Jermaine Kearse, Robby Anderson and Bilal Powell, the front office added Isaiah Crowell, Thomas Rawls, Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Clive Walford to the skill positions. Quincy Enunwa should be healthy after missing all of last season with bulging discs in his neck. Maccagnan also upgraded the offensive line with Spencer Long and Travis Swanson.
But now, Bridgewater's future remains cloudy. He's not the Jets' chosen one, nor is he guaranteed anything past August. Even so, most still remember the unflappable, pro-style quarterback prospect from Louisville who fell farther in the draft's first round (behind, ahem, Johnny Manziel) than he ever should have after a woeful pro day performance.
Quarterbacks are the NFL's most precious commodity. Bridgewater is a lottery ticket. His potential payoff is enormous for a franchise in desperate need of quality long-term quarterback play.
Darnold will take the reins of the Jets offense sooner or later. The longer it takes, the better off they'll be. New York's best-case scenario is for Bridgewater to start and play well while Darnold becomes an afterthought. The Jets will then have two valuable commodities at the game's most important position.
Bridgewater's career can still have a fairy-tale ending, and there's no better place than New York to prove himself.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.