The Indianapolis Colts were a playoff team in 2020, and after quarterback Philip Rivers retired, they were aggressive in trying to keep those postseason aspirations on track by trading for Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller Carson Wentz.
The hope was that a reunion with Colts head coach (and former Eagles offensive coordinator) Frank Reich would help the 28-year-old recapture his MVP-caliber form of 2017 after a rocky final season in Philly.
Editor's Note (Monday, August 2): Quarterback Carson Wentz is expected to miss between five and 12 weeks due to his foot injury, coach Frank Reich told reporters Monday. Below is the original article with potential QB trade options.
It hasn't taken long for those hopes to take a serious blow, though. With Wentz sidelined by a foot injury that may require surgery, general manager Chris Ballard may have to be aggressive and try to swing a deal for a veteran stopgap under center for the Colts to keep their season from coming off the tracks before it even begins.
As ESPN's Mike Wells reported, after feeling "a twinge" in his foot in Thursday's practice, Wentz will be out indefinitely. The Colts sent scans of Wentz's foot to renowned specialist Dr. Robert Anderson.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Brady (who is serving as interim head coach with Reich out because of COVID-19) told reporters the team is taking it one step at a time.
"He's with the docs, trying to figure what out the process is," Brady said. "Still evaluating what the next move is, how bad it is. Then we'll go from there."
While the Colts may be playing it cool on the outside, it's understandable if they are freaking out internally.
Any significant injury to a team's starting quarterback in training camp is a huge deal. A significant injury to a new starter who is coming off the worst season of his career and who has missed at least three games in three of his five pro seasons is a potential catastrophe—especially since there's a whole lot of nothing on the depth chart behind him.
After electing not to re-up veteran Jacoby Brissett in the offseason, the Colts had two other quarterbacks on the roster: second-year pro Jacob Eason and sixth-round rookie Sam Ehlinger, who have thrown exactly as many passes in the NFL as I have. Per JJ Stankevitz of the team's official website, Brady expressed confidence in Eason's ability to improve with more reps.
"[It's] definitely going to get him more confidence because now he's going to be able to envision these plays in his head, it's going to make him think much quicker, it's going to accelerate his vision," Brady said. "So it's good that he's going to be able to accumulate all these reps."
To say that Indy's odds of besting the Seattle Seahawks in the Sept. 12 season opener take a hit with Eason or Hundley is a mother of an understatement. The schedule isn't doing the team any favors either. The Colts open against five straight opponents who won at least 10 games last year, including a Week 3 trip to Nashville to face the AFC South rival Tennessee Titans.
If Wentz misses substantial regular-season time, the Colts have two choices: Admit to themselves that 2021 is already a lost cause, or go get a veteran stopgap.
There are a few vets who could be available via trade and who might be able to keep the team in the hunt until Wentz gets back.
The most likely veteran trade option is one who could make Wentz question the fairness of the universe itself.
When Wentz tore his ACL in 2017, it was Nick Foles who took over and led the Eagles on a magical run that culminated in the 32-year-old being named the MVP of Super Bowl LII.
Since then, Foles has had forgettable stints in Jacksonville and Chicago, and with the arrival of rookie Justin Fields, Foles now finds himself as the Bears' third-string quarterback.
Foles hasn't been good of late. He's 2-9 as a starter over the past two years, with 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. But like Wentz, Foles enjoyed considerable success playing under Reich in Philly. We're also talking about a player who has made 55 career starts and has shown he can perform in pressure situations. And in fairness to Foles, his four losses in four starts two years ago were at the helm of a Jaguars team that, well, stank.
The Bears could save $4 million against the cap in 2021 by dealing Foles and get out from under $5 million in guarantees he's due in 2022. The Colts have the cap space to absorb Foles' salary. It's a move that makes sense for both sides provided that Wentz would go for it.
Not that long ago, it looked like Marcus Mariota would be a thorn in the side of the Colts for years to come. Now he could be the player who saves Indy's 2021 season.
Mariota went from the second overall pick in the 2015 draft to out of a job in Tennessee after the Titans acquired Ryan Tannehill prior to the 2019 campaign. The former Oregon standout spent the 2020 season backing up Derek Carr in Las Vegas, passing for 226 yards and a touchdown in a December loss to the Chargers in his lone game of the year.
The 27-year-old quarterback is also 2-4 over his last six starts dating back to 2019. But he posted three straight seasons above .500 from 2016 to '18, and the 27-year-old played pretty well in limited action against Los Angeles last season.
There would be a few hang-ups to overcome here. The biggest would be convincing the Raiders to part with him. Mariota restructured his contract in the offseason and just has a $3.5 million cap hit (plus incentives) 2021, so Vegas doesn't get much benefit from shedding his deal.
It would take substantial compensation for the Colts to make it worth the Raiders' while, whether it's a Day 2 pick or a later-round pick and a player. And after already giving up at least a second-rounder next year in the Wentz deal. Ballard could be reluctant to part with even more substantial draft capital.
There's been plenty written already about the Colts taking a run at Jaguars backup Gardner Minshew II, who has 20 starts over two years with the team. But I don't see the Jags dealing a capable backup on a rookie deal to a division rival unless they get a godfather offer, and Ballard isn't giving up a ton for a guy who was 1-7 a year ago.
There is, however, another AFC team that might be inclined to give up its No. 2 quarterback if the price is right.
After four up-and-down years with the Bears, Mitchell Trubisky signed with the Buffalo Bills in the offseason to be Josh Allen's backup. The notion of Trubisky riding in to save the day may elicit more groans than cheers (especially from the direction of Illinois), but he has 50 career starts, a 29-21 record and a Pro Bowl nod under his belt.
The first roadblock here is the same as with Mariota: compensation. Trubisky would likely be the most expensive of these three options. The Bills could bring back in Matt Barkley to back up Allen again and pocket a pick, but is Ballard willing to give up another Day 2 selection to maybe salvage 2021?
The second (and I can't believe I'm writing this) is that Trubisky is the most likely player listed here to cause a genuine quarterback controversy. If he played well in relief of Wentz, the Colts could be looking at a tricky situation—and having Wentz's bloated contact (average cap hit of $24.6 million over next four years) hanging around their necks.
There are other options on the trade market, whether it's New England Patriots backup Brian Hoyer or even expected San Francisco 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo in a Hail Mary play. The Niners did trade up to ultimately select Trey Lance at No. 3 in this year's draft. The Colts could also ink another veteran free agent like Blake (shudder) Bortles or Robert Griffin III.
The situation is far from ideal, but the Colts at least have options. The team has little choice but to start exploring them quickly.
Eason, Ehlinger and Hundley aren't going to cut it if Wentz misses significant time.