METAIRIE, La. — Teddy Bridgewater said he has “the chills” thinking about Sunday, when he will make his first start since suffering a devastating knee injury in the summer of 2016.
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said Friday that Bridgewater will start at quarterback in place of Drew Brees against the Carolina Panthers. The Saints (13-2) have the luxury of resting some starters since they locked up the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed last weekend.
It also will be a showcase for Bridgewater, 26, who figures to be one of the NFL’s most intriguing free agents in 2019.
Bridgewater’s last start came nearly three years ago for the Minnesota Vikings in a January 2016 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He returned to play for the Vikings late last season and played well for the New York Jets this preseason before New Orleans acquired him in a trade.
But he said being a starter again for the first time holds special significance.
“Just knowing that you can take that field from the start of the game, you just get the chills thinking about it. Because it’s been so long,” Bridgewater said. “… And it’s a great feeling. I get the chills just thinking about [it]. I’m excited about it. I’m trying to keep my composure. But it’s just another milestone to check off the list.
“All the time that you put in, all the sacrifices you made to get to this point … it’s great to see the opportunity present itself. I’m very grateful for it, appreciative of it, and I just can’t wait.”
The Saints traded a third-round pick to the Jets to acquire Bridgewater following the preseason — in part because they wanted to shore up their backup QB position and in part because they wanted a closer look at a possible future successor to Brees. But neither Payton nor Bridgewater would speculate this week on whether he might re-sign with New Orleans after the season — or decide to leave for a more immediate starting opportunity somewhere else.
Either way, Payton said he doesn’t think NFL teams need to see Bridgewater perform well Sunday to have a high opinion of him.
“People in our league know and certainly saw in the preseason. The only evaluation really teams needed was, ‘How healthy is he?’ And that’s been answered,” Payton said. “But he’s looked sharp all week. … I think he’s had a good week of practice and he’ll play well.”
Bridgewater completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards for the Jets in the preseason, with two touchdowns and an interception. He has appeared in four games with the Saints this year, mostly just taking a knee to run out the clock, with one pass attempt that fell incomplete.
When asked earlier this week how he’ll be able to “turn it back on” when he does play, Bridgewater said, “Well, I never turned it off.”
“Being in the position that I’m in, you always have to stay ready,” Bridgewater said. “And that’s been my mindset since I’ve arrived here. Your opportunity can come within a blink of an eye. Luckily, I haven’t had to be rushed out there. But I always have to stay ready.”
Bridgewater, who was drafted in the first round out of Louisville in 2014, went 17-12 as a starter for the Vikings, including the playoff loss. Then in the summer of 2016 he tore the ACL in his left knee, among multiple other ligaments, and suffered other structural damage. The Vikings let him go as a free agent this year when they made their big play for Kirk Cousins.
So Bridgewater signed a one-year deal with the Jets worth between $6 million and $15 million. He became expendable when the Jets decided to go with rookie Sam Darnold and recognized Bridgewater’s trade value.
“Whatever happens Sunday I’ll be excited, just thinking about the road I’ve had to take to just get to this point,” Bridgewater said earlier this week, specifically crediting all the people who helped him — “from medical staff to the strength and conditioning staff to nutritionists to the guys in the locker room.”
But he said Friday that he won’t try to get too caught up in the moment.
“I just have to stay within my character,” Bridgewater said. “I don’t have to do anything spectacular — or I don’t have to have an ‘S’ on my chest or a cape on my back. I just have to go out there, play with confidence, continue to believe in myself, believe in my guys and the rest will take care of itself.”
Also Friday, the Saints ruled out starting left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral), starting right guard Larry Warford (knee) and backup left tackle Jermon Bushrod (hamstring) for Sunday’s game. Payton declined to list the other starters who will be out or limited.