Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn’t respected as a sixth-round pick out of Washington State, and the team that finally acquired him will move on to another signal-caller near the top of the 2021 NFL Draft.
These are the unique circumstances serving as the backdrop that makes Minshew, surprisingly, the NFL’s most underrated trade chip of the upcoming offseason.
HOT TAKE! Or is it? Permit, if you will, an explanation.
Minshew Mania: A breakout rookie year
No one expected anything out of Minshew. The conventional wisdom was his undersized frame, lack of elite arm strength and allegedly inflated college numbers playing in Mike Leach’s pass-happy Washington State offense would not at all translate to the pros.
Minshew proved everyone wrong in 2019. Expected to fade into obscurity and ride the bench behind Nick Foles, a broken collarbone suffered by the reigning Super Bowl MVP at the time pressed Minshew into duty against the eventual champion Kansas City Chiefs.
How did the youngster respond? Well, Minshew went 22-of-25 passing for 275 yards and two scores in his NFL debut. Although he’d be in and out of the lineup along with Foles, Minshew made the most of his opportunities as a rookie, throwing for 3,271 yards, 21 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Oh, he also racked up 344 yards rushing.
All this despite playing behind an offensive line that Football Outsiders ranked 27th out of 32 teams in adjusted line yards. Minshew also bailed Jacksonville’s o-line from yielding far more sacks due to his ability to escape the pocket and create with his legs.
Stands to reason Minshew is a little better than a replacement-level quarterback with those numbers as context.
Thumb injury derails Gardner Minshew sophomore season
It’s been documented that Minshew had multiple fractures and ligament damage in his right throwing thumb — and was hiding his injury from the Jaguars.
A mistake? Probably. Who can blame him, though? Minshew knew the way the season was going, Jacksonville was aiming to tank and move off him in 2021. He tried to gut it out. After throwing for 301 yards and two scores against Houston, the 24-year-old was inconsistent against the Lions and Chargers, losing both starts.
From there, head coach Doug Marrone benched Minshew so he could fully recover. Or so the team could lose as many games as possible. Unclear was the motive here. Maybe it was a bit of both and so happened to work out for the Jags.
So that mini-slump preceded Minshew’s return in Week 14 against Tennessee, who’s playoff-bound, barring an epic collapse. Minshew nearly beat the Titans in Week 2, yet at this point, the Jaguars aren’t trying. They’re tanking. It showed in a 31-10 loss.
Oh, even with all that? Minshew has a 93.4 passer rating on the year. Against the Indianapolis Colts’ heralded defense in the season opener, Minshew threw three touchdowns against only one incompletion to catalyze Jacksonville’s only victory of 2020.
What’s going on here, again, doesn’t boil down to Minshew’s performance or lack thereof at all.
Jacksonville Jaguars front office, defense to blame, not Gardner Minshew
General manager Dave Caldwell kept his job entirely too long after drafting Blake Bortles third overall in 2014. Yes, Bortles led the Jags to an AFC title game appearance. Where is he now? Exactly.
Otherwise, Caldwell misfired on a dizzying number of high-priced free agents and top draft picks. The ones he did hit on, such as Jalen Ramsey, became fed up with the organization and wanted out.
The consequences of Caldwell and his front office lacking competence ultimately led to Jacksonville’s defense being atrocious. A strength of the team that nearly went to the Super Bowl during 2017, it’s now a laughingstock. The Jags are DFL in the NFL in total yards allowed right now. Hence the 1-12 record.
Fresh start for Gardner Minshew: Best landing spots
No! The Jaguars should not pass on Ohio State star Justin Fields if he’s there with the second overall pick. Or BYU’s Zach Wilson for that matter. Both have more upside and franchise quarterback potential than Minshew, who needs a strong system that caters to his strengths. He can’t overcome the Jaguars’ perpetual ineptitude.
Speaking of which, here’s a quick glimpse at some appealing landing spots for Minshew in 2021, where he could either compete for a starting job or start outright and perform well enough to lead a team to the playoffs. With two years still left on his cheap rookie contract — less than $1 million in base salary each of the coming two years, that kind of cheap — a team can have Minshew playing on it through next season at least.
Gardner Minshew to the New Orleans Saints
Provided it’s Drew Brees’ last season, the Saints seem zeroed in on Taysom Hill as their quarterback of the future.
Um, Hill is a good all-around football player and all. A franchise quarterback? Maybe not so much. There’s at least enough doubt there to bring in competition.
It’s a win-win for New Orleans. Minshew thrives in a system where he can make quick decisions and get the ball out fast. That is how Brees made his living under head coach Sean Payton.
Saints running back Alvin Kamara and All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas are arguably the best in the business at their positions in creating separation as pass-catchers. Two easy, go-to targets for Minshew to rely on, not to mention a stout defense, the benefits of which Minshew has yet to reap in his young NFL career.
It’s a win-win for the Saints. If Hill beats out Minshew? Great. If Minshew shows enough to merit an extended look in 2021? Great. If Hill starts initially in 2021 and struggles, in comes Minshew to save the day, and Hill can play his usual hybrid tight end spot.
Philip Rivers has found the fountain of youth this year, leading the Colts to a probable Wild Card berth. However, is it more Rivers or his head coach and offensive architect Frank Reich?
Remember, Reich was the man behind Carson Wentz’s MVP-caliber season in Philadelphia, wherein Minshew’s aforementioned teammate, Foles, took the reins down the stretch from an injured Wentz and led the Eagles to a Lombardi Trophy.
Ever since Reich left Philly, Wentz and the offense have been a mess for the most part. Could Reich sprinkle his magic on Minshew next season?
General manager Chris Ballard has done a masterful job building a competitive roster in Indianapolis. He has the third-most cap space to work with in 2021 to boot. Should Rivers prove ineffective in the playoffs and the Colts want a nimbler distributor of the ball, Minshew should get the call from Jacksonville.
Plus, how sick would it be if Minshew got to stick it back to the Jags by joining an AFC South rival and lighting it up with a competent coach, team and organization?
This lengthy Minshew column was admittedly inspired by a piece on Ben Roethlisberger’s potential 2021 successors by yours truly. The Jacksonville jorts-wearing mustachio-sporting QB1 didn’t merit a mention as a Big Ben replacement. Mostly, it was due to the premise of the article being the prospective replacement had to be an upgrade over Roethlisberger.
While it’s difficult to label Minshew as such, and he may not get a crack at the field right away if he winds up in Pittsburgh, there are a lot worse contingency options for the Steelers. Just ask head coach Mike Tomlin, who had to trot out Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019. Tomlin somehow coached his team to an 8-8 record without Big Ben under center.
It’s a low-risk, high-reward situation for Pittsburgh to trade maybe a Day 3 draft pick in exchange for Minshew. Roethlisberger is entering the final year of his contract. We saw last season how disastrous the quarterback depth chart is behind him. If the Steelers want to run it back one last time with their long-tenured field general, Minshew is there as insurance for 2021, and a potential bridge starter for 2022.
Unless a strong prospect is waiting there near the end of the 2021 draft’s first round, it’s tricky to swing an upgrade for Roethlisberger this offseason. The salary cap is way lower, Pittsburgh doesn’t really have any room, and it’d take a trade and potentially messy divorce with Big Ben.
Minshew on the Steelers helps the organization avoid a lot of that potential conflict. Plus, imagine him with weapons like Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Eric Ebron and JuJu Smith-Schuster if he returns, along with an elite defense to complement him?
Minshew Mania in the City of Champions? Sounds like a heck of a time, even if it were to be short-lived.