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The Colts are now facing quarterback purgatory for the first time in 2 decades

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If Jacoby Brissett doesn’t turn out to be an elite quarterback, it’s going to be real hard for the Colts to find one who is.

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Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett warm up
Jacoby Brissett is taking over as the Colts quarterback following Andrew Luck’s retirement.

There’s a chance Jacoby Brissett will end up being the next star quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s more likely he won’t be.

Brissett threw only 55 passes in his rookie season with the Patriots before he was traded to Indianapolis in 2017. He was thrust into a full-time role for the Colts when Andrew Luck was sidelined all season with a shoulder injury. It didn’t go well at all.

Brissett went just 4-11 as the starter. He was sacked an NFL-leading 52 times, and he completed only 58.8 percent of his passes. For the most part, that’s perfectly normal for a player who was still very new to the NFL.

Two years later, he’s the starting quarterback in Indianapolis once again. Luck’s abrupt retirement leaves Brissett at the helm of a team that went 10-6 last year. Brissett’s had a couple more years to grow, and he inherits a roster that is significantly better than the one he had in 2017. Until Luck retired, the Colts were considered a top Super Bowl contender.

If Brissett ascends to the elite tier of quarterbacks, he wouldn’t be the first to get there after an up-and-down start to his career. Luck and Peyton Manning set an absurdly high bar in Indianapolis, though.

The Colts drafted Manning with the No. 1 pick in 1998 and got 11 Pro Bowls and four MVP seasons out of him. When a neck injury ended his career in Indianapolis, the Colts landed the No. 1 overall pick again in 2012 and selected Luck. He gave them four Pro Bowls and 171 touchdowns in six seasons. And even with those two passers for two decades, the Colts still only managed to win one Super Bowl.

Brissett might lead the Colts to a championship one day, but it’s a better bet that he won’t. With Brissett’s contract expiring after the 2019 season, Indianapolis will have to decide relatively soon if he’s the man for the job.

If he’s not, Indianapolis is headed for quarterback purgatory for the first time since the 90s.

Franchise quarterbacks rarely fall in your lap

Tom Brady has become a nice fairy tale to keep fans watching the last rounds of the NFL Draft. The 14-time Pro Bowler and six-time Super Bowl champion is undeniably the GOAT, and the Patriots got him with the No. 199 overall pick in 2000.

It’s not a realistic way to hunt for a topflight quarterback.

For every Brady, there are dozens and dozens of quarterback taken in the later rounds of the draft who never throw a single touchdown pass. In fact, in the 25 years since the NFL Draft was cut down to seven rounds in 1994, there have been 183 quarterbacks picked between rounds four and seven. Brady’s the only one who earned first-team All-Pro honors.

The best way to find a franchise quarterback is to draft one early. Really early.

An analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that among teams who draft a quarterback in the first round, only the ones that took that player in the top five exceeded their expected performance. There was a small dropoff for players selected in the back half of the top 10, but quarterbacks drafted between picks 11 and 32 usually struggle. If that’s confusing, I’ll allow them to sum it up:

In other words: If the top QBs are off the board, it’s probably not worth spending a first-round pick (and more money) speculatively.

It’s certainly not a steadfast rule. The Packers snagged Aaron Rodgers at No. 24 overall and got one of the best quarterbacks of all time. The Chargers drafted Drew Brees in the second round and the Seahawks got Russell Wilson in the third.

The moral of the story isn’t that you can’t find a quarterback after the top five or top 10. It’s that you’re much more likely to miss than hit. Just ask the Cleveland Browns, who went through approximately 400 quarterbacks in the last 20 years before taking Baker Mayfield with the top pick in 2018.

Cleveland dug through free agency a few times, but that hardly ever works out either. While the Broncos and Saints won Super Bowls after signing Manning and Brees, respectively, those are rare exceptions. Most teams win a Lombardi Trophy with a quarterback they pick themselves.

The safest way to address the position is with the No. 1 pick in the draft. That’s exactly how the Colts wound up with Manning in 1998 and Luck in 2012. The problem is that the Colts likely won’t get that opportunity again.

If Brissett doesn’t wind up being their future at the position, the Colts almost definitely aren’t landing another No. 1 pick who conveniently turns into a transcendental quarterback.

The Colts are too good to tank

Indianapolis isn’t going to get stuck at four wins like it did with Brissett in 2017. The roster is stacked now after a few years of general manager Chris Ballard running the show.

Ballard fixed the offensive line that allowed Brissett and Luck to get beat to a pulp. Now it has 23-year-old All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson leading the way for a line that is the fifth-best in the NFL, by Pro Football Focus’ grades. The offense also has Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron and head coach Frank Reich — a former NFL quarterback and Eagles quarterbacks coach — helping Brissett.

On the other side of the ball, the Colts have 24-year-old All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard in the middle of a defense that added veteran pass rusher Justin Houston in the offseason.

Indianapolis finished the 2018 season No. 5 in points scored, No. 10 in points allowed, and won nine of 10 games to end the regular season. It certainly helped that the Colts got an NFL Comeback Player of the Year season out of Luck, but the roster is too young, deep, and talented to bottom out without him.

So if the Colts decide this offseason that Brissett isn’t the one who will lead them to their next Super Bowl ring, they aren’t going to have a No. 1 pick to replace him. They probably won’t even be drafting in the top 10.

That means no Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or whichever other quarterback prospects winds up going top five in the 2020 NFL Draft. Don’t expect the Colts to be in position to draft Trevor Lawrence in 2021, either.

If Brissett’s not the guy, the Colts’ roster is too good to set them up with an early pick anytime soon. That would force them to go hunting through the bargain bin of free agency or the leftovers of the draft for a new starter — and that seldom works out.