NFL

Is Philip Rivers an Upgrade Over Jacoby Brissett for the Indianapolis Colts?

The longtime Bolt is now a Colt.

We've known for a while that Philip Rivers was going to be playing somewhere new in 2020, and now we know where.


The Indianapolis Colts are signing Rivers, taking one of the big free-agent passers off the market, and it may spell the end of the Jacoby Brissett era in Indy.

How much does Rivers lift the Colts? Let's dig in.

Can Rivers Still Produce?

The 2019 campaign was undoubtedly a down season for Rivers compared to what he'd done the two years prior, but Rivers was still pretty good.

Our numbers bear that out.

Rivers finished with a clip of 0.16 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, which was better than the league-average mark of 0.10. It was his seventh straight above-average season. (NEP is the efficiency metric we use at numberFire to track the expected points added or lost on each play. Passing NEP includes deductions for expected points lost on plays like sacks, incompletions, and interceptions.)

Rivers' Career Drop Backs Pass NEP Per Drop Back NFL Average
2006 487 0.18 0.01
2007 482 0.10 0.03
2008 503 0.25 0.04
2009 511 0.34 0.04
2010 579 0.26 0.05
2011 612 0.17 0.05
2012 576 0.03 0.06
2013 575 0.28 0.05
2014 605 0.18 0.08
2015 702 0.14 0.11
2016 614 0.12 0.12
2017 593 0.26 0.06
2018 540 0.30 0.11
2019 625 0.16 0.10


It's not all glitter and unicorns, though, as Rivers finished with 20 picks in 2019, tied for his second-most in a single season, and he tossed at least one interception in 10 of 16 starts, with six multi-pick outings.

And while Rivers' Passing NEP per drop back was solid, it was a steep drop from his marks in 2017 (0.26) and 2018 (0.30), when he performed at an elite level -- the second-best Passing NEP per drop back in 2017 and the third-best in 2018. Since last year was Rivers' age-38 season, it's fair to wonder if he is simply succumbing to Father Time.

While it's hard to know exactly how much Rivers has left in the tank, it does seem like he's still got plenty of juice in his arm -- or, given the 20 picks, at least he thinks he does. Rivers' average intended air yards, according to Next Gen Stats, was 8.6 last year. That was actually higher than his numbers from either 2018 (7.9) or 2017 (8.3).

Compared to Brissett

Brissett was thrust into the starting gig in a crazy situation last fall after Andrew Luck abruptly retired. All in all, Brissett did fine, registering 0.10 Passing NEP per drop back -- right at the league average -- and showed himself worthy of a starting gig.

To be fair to Brissett, he was really good until he suffered a knee injury in Week 9 at the Pittsburgh Steelers. From Week 1 through Week 8 (seven games), he had a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.19. From Week 10 on (seven games), he came in at -0.04.

In those first seven games, Brissett totaled 14 passing scores with five multi-score games, averaging 7.51 adjusted yards per attempt. In the final seven games, he averaged 5.78 adjusted yards per attempt with only four passing tuddies and a single multi-score outing. The Colts started 5-2 and could've been better if Adam Vinatieri had made a few more kicks. After the Steelers game, which the Colts lost, Indy won just two of its final seven.

We're dealing with small samples here in both splits, and Brissett's knee injury was just one variable (schedule, T.Y. Hilton getting banged up and so on). But if the first eight weeks was the real Brissett, then maybe Indy didn't need to go sign Rivers, which is clearly a short-term fix given Rivers' age and the length of the deal.

Obviously, the Colts' brass felt differently.

Something Rivers will benefit from in Indianapolis is playing behind one of the league's better offensive lines. In 2019, Brissett had an average time to throw of 2.93 seconds, the second-highest mark in the NFL. Rivers, meanwhile, had an average time to throw of 2.63 seconds in his final campaign with the Chargers, which was the fifth-worst clip among qualified starting signal callers.

What Oddsmakers Think

Prior to inking Rivers, the Colts were at +2600 to win next season's Super Bowl, per FanDuel Sportsbook.

They're now at +2400.

That lines up with my feelings -- Rivers is a slight upgrade, but this doesn't move the needle much.

Fantasy Impact

Rivers was in a pretty good situation for fantasy success with the Los Angeles Chargers this past campaign. He had a top-notch receiver (Keenan Allen), a good tight end (Hunter Henry) and an elite passing-game back (Austin Ekeler). Despite attempting the seventh-most passes, Rivers was able to muster just a QB18 finish. He was QB11 and QB8 the two years prior.

Rivers' 2019 fantasy output was hampered by some bad touchdown luck. He finished with a measly 3.9% touchdown rate, the lowest of his career. In fact, he'd recorded a touchdown rate below 4.5% just once, and that was a 4.4% clip in 2015. His 3.9% touchdown rate last year was the seventh-worst rate among qualified starters.

With the Colts, Rivers will have -- as of now -- T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal, Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines surrounding him. Unless Campbell makes a big impact after an injury-plagued rookie season, the supporting cast in Indy looks a tad weaker than what Rivers enjoyed last year with the Bolts.

Assuming he sees some positive regression in the touchdown department, Rivers could be a solid QB2 option in superflex formats. In one-quarterback leagues, he'll likely be relegated to streaming duty.

As for the other Colts playmakers, no one's fantasy stock is impacted too much with this move. If anything, it might give a slight boost to Doyle, while Hilton's status as a WR2 is solidified.

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, the NFL -- and the daycare industry -- is better off with Rivers playing football.


Rivers should find life easier behind the Colts' stout offensive line, and this move is the latest in what's shaping up to be an active offseason for general manager Chris Ballard after Indy traded for DeForest Buckner on Monday. The Colts have plenty of cap space and an improving core. If Rivers can get close to his 2017 and 2018 efficiency, the Colts will be right in the mix in the AFC South, aided by the Houston Texans tripping over themselves.

As for Brissett, he'll likely be holding a clipboard for much of 2020, but prior to his knee injury, he showed he can put up good numbers. Indy has him under contract through 2020, with a dead cap hit of $12.5 million, so they won't be releasing him. Brissett returning to the New England Patriots would make some sense, as would a move to the Chicago Bears, who are looking for someone to push Mitchell Trubisky. Or Indy could just keep Brissett through his contract and see how 2020 plays out.