Are Saints a realistic option for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater?

Teddy Bridgewater, 26, is now an unrestricted free agent after his one-season stint as the New Orleans Saints' backup quarterback. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

METAIRIE, La. -- Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would be an ideal successor to Drew Brees for the New Orleans Saints. The only thing that doesn't seem to fit is the timing.

Bridgewater, 26, is an unrestricted free agent after his one season as Brees' backup. So in order to stay, he would have to sacrifice an opportunity to start in 2019 -- and probably leave some cash on the table -- as the Saints enter this offseason with about $7 million to $11 million in salary-cap space.

Even then, Bridgewater would probably stay only if he had some sort of guarantee that Brees, 40, planned to retire within a year or two.

The good news for New Orleans (and the bad news for Bridgewater) is the number of NFL teams in the market for veteran starting QBs is awfully small right now -- especially after the Denver Broncos traded for Joe Flacco on Wednesday. And those teams might prefer Nick Foles or a first-round draft choice instead.

But all it takes is one team to offer Bridgewater a bigger role and salary (maybe in the range of $12 million to $16 million per year?) than the Saints. And as our panel of ESPN NFL experts discussed, there are a handful of QB-needy teams, including Bridgewater's hometown Miami Dolphins, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Washington Redskins and possibly the New York Giants.

Bridgewater's top choice should be the Giants. He would be surrounded by offensive talent in New York and reunited with coach Pat Shurmur, who was his offensive coordinator during his final year with the Minnesota Vikings. However, that would require the Giants releasing Eli Manning, which is a pretty big if at this point.

The Dolphins, Jaguars and Redskins are the only three teams with obvious openings for a starting job this season (assuming the Raiders, Bengals or some other wild-card team doesn't make a surprising change).

The Dolphins make sense, since they appear poised to move on from Ryan Tannehill and did show interest in Bridgewater when he was a free agent last year. And ESPN Dolphins reporter Cameron Wolfe thinks Bridgewater could be a more likely fit in Miami than Foles, especially if he comes on a shorter-term deal and without any trade compensation.

However, the Miami Herald's longtime columnist Armando Salguero has suggested the Dolphins might "tank" in 2019 and wait to pounce on a top quarterback in the draft in the next year or two rather than try to win right away with a highly priced veteran.

And Bridgewater himself might want to avoid a team that looks poised to draft a quarterback early. Remember that last year he signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets that was worth between $6 million and $15 million based on playing time and incentives. But the Jets then drafted Sam Darnold and named him the starter before trading Bridgewater to New Orleans.

The Jaguars could be a better fit, since they have a roster poised to compete right away. However, there has been a lot of speculation they will pursue Foles. And ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco pointed out Jacksonville had minimal interest in Bridgewater before he was drafted with the No. 32 pick in 2014. And he believes there is still concern in the building about the major knee injury Bridgewater suffered in the 2016 preseason, wiping out nearly two full years of his career.

Finally, the Redskins could be a good short-term fit after starter Alex Smith suffered a devastating leg injury last season. But ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim doesn't expect Washington to make a major financial investment at quarterback while still paying Smith for at least two more years.

For a breakdown of each of the QB-needy teams, check out this post ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus put together on the possible market for Foles.

One other possibility is Bridgewater signs a one- or two-year deal with one of the teams listed above so he can further prove his value on the field and re-enter the market in a year with more or better options (including a return to the Saints).

Bridgewater spoke highly of his time in New Orleans, where he learned under Brees and worked with one of the league's top offensive minds in coach Sean Payton. If they had a starting job open right now, the decision would be a no-brainer.

As for the Saints themselves, they'll have to make a tough decision on how much they're willing to offer Bridgewater to stay in a backup role.

They were obviously willing to invest a third-round draft pick in him this past summer (trading it to the Jets for Bridgewater and a sixth-round pick). And by all indications, he was everything they thought he would be as both a player and locker-room fit.

Defensive players credited Bridgewater for preparing them through some competitive scout-team battles filled with trash talk. And his postgame "Bike Life" dance moves became a hit in the locker room.

Bridgewater didn't do much to increase his market value when he started in Week 17 while the Saints rested several starters with the NFC's No. 1 seed already locked up. But the Saints recognized (as most teams should) he was playing behind a makeshift offensive line as he completed 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Bridgewater showed great promise early in his career with the Vikings before he tore multiple ligaments, including the ACL, in his left knee. He went 17-12 as a starter, including a playoff loss.

Payton said the only question mark about Bridgewater around the NFL was his health -- which he answered with an impressive preseason performance with the Jets (28-of-38 for 316 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception).

"People in our league know and certainly saw in the preseason," Payton said in December of Bridgewater's ability.

The Saints could receive a compensatory draft pick if Bridgewater signs elsewhere (as long as they don't sign several top free agents from other teams to balance it out). So that would be one small incentive for letting him go.

And ideally, the Saints wouldn't want to pay Brees $23 million and Bridgewater another $10 million-plus in 2019. But general manager Mickey Loomis said the team doesn't make evaluations in terms of how much is being allocated to each specific position. It's about the specific player and need.

The Saints don't have another obvious succession plan for Brees in the works -- especially considering they don't have a pick in the first, third or fourth round of this year's draft. They like their do-everything passer/runner/receiver/special-teamer Taysom Hill. But they obviously didn't like him enough to trust him as their backup quarterback in 2018.

Although the Saints don't have a ton of cap space, they also don't have a ton of glaring needs in free agency. So they could carve out enough room to keep Bridgewater if it's important enough to them.

So call it a long shot Bridgewater stays in New Orleans. But don't rule it out.