Following their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game, the Minnesota Vikings are now officially in offseason mode. Throughout the coming weeks, we will look at the future of each position, what changes may come in free agency, the draft or trades and which direction players are trending. For Part 1, we look at the quarterbacks….
When Sam Bradford struggled to come back from a Week 1 knee injury, it appeared the Vikings would be in for a long season, but career backup Case Keenum rose to the occasion, leading the team to a division title and a playoff win.
It’s safe to say the Vikings got their money’s worth out of Keenum, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract in Minnesota last offseason. But now he is a free agent, as is Bradford and one-time franchise QB Teddy Bridgewater.
By nearly every possible measure, Case Keenum had a very good season. He completed 67.3 percent of his passes at 7.4 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a quarterback rating of 98.3.
ESPN’s QBR stat, which is an adjusted version of quarterback rating for game situation, rated Keenum No. 2 in the NFL, only behind Carson Wentz. Pro Football Focus, which grades every play, scored Keenum as the league’s ninth best QB.
Breaking things down even further, Keenum was strong in most situations, scoring a 99.2 passer rating against the blitz, 78.5 under pressure (league average is 67.4), and 113.2 in the red zone.
The areas where Keenum did not have great numbers were on third-and-long and when he attempted “big-time throws.”
In situations where the Vikings had third down and more than six yards to gain, Keenum averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, which ranked at the very bottom of the NFL among starters. He also posted a 65.2 rating in those situations. Compare that to third-and-short, where the Vikings’ starter had a 107.8 rating.
PFF tracks “big-time throws,” which would be into tight windows or deep down field. Only 4.0 percent of his throws were “big-time throws,” which ranked 20th in the NFL. On passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, he went 11-for-41 with two touchdowns, two interceptions.
Keenum excelled at avoiding the rush. He was sacked only 22 times this season. He also got a lot of help from receivers and running backs after the catch, ranking seventh lowest in air yards per completion.
Speaking of help, Stefon Diggs ranked No. 1 in completion percentage and QB rating on throws qualified as “contested catches.”
In the playoffs, Keenum finished with the second lowest rating of any QB in the postseason. Only Tyrod Taylor was lower. While the sample size is very small in the playoffs, his performance could play into a long-term decision.
The Vikings couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to the season than the one Sam Bradford had. He torched the New Orleans Saints for 346 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1. The former No. 1 overall pick appeared that he was in for a big year with improved pass protection and a better running game.
But the former Ram and Eagle suffered a knee injury and never recovered. He played in only one more game after drubbing the Saints and was force to exit at halftime.
Overall, Bradford finished his Vikings career with 23 touchdowns, five interceptions, a 71.8 completion percentage and 101.1 quarterback rating. By far, those numbers were the best of his career. Bradford had a tremendous chemistry with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, especially on deep passes. On throws that traveled more than 20 yards in 2016, Bradford went 18-of-40 with four touchdowns, zero interceptions.
The only concern about Bradford was his consistent struggles on third down. He managed only 5.9 yards per attempt on all third downs in 2016, ranking at the bottom of the league. That number was consistent with his career mark.
Over a 27-game stretch from Week 4 of 2015 to Week 1 of 2017, Bradford averaged 269 yards per game, threw 39 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and posted a 97.1 quarterback rating.
Returning from a severe knee injury, Teddy Bridgewater only found his way into one game this season, throwing two passes at the end of a win over Cincinnati. Both passes were dropped by his intended receiver.
It’s hard to know whether Bridgewater will be the same quarterback that he was in 2014 and 2015, but his performances were better than some of the fantasy stats would suggest. The former first-round pick was among the best in the NFL on third downs in 2015 with 8.0 yards per attempt and very accurate on short and intermediate throws, completing 65.6 percent of his throws between 1-20 yards. Also, against the blitz, he managed a 105.2 rating.
While he didn’t throw many touchdowns, Bridgewater led scoring drives. The VIkings scored on the seventh highest percentage of total drives in the NFL (this year they were ninth).
Bridgewater played under an entirely different offense than Case Keenum and Sam Bradford, which makes the numbers hard to compare, but when he did get an opportunity to run spread formations, the ex-Louisville star was terrific. On 72 throws with four or more receivers, Bridgewater completed 73.6 percent and had a 100.5 rating.
— The Vikings are facing a tough decision with Case Keenum. They could let him walk, sign him to a long-term deal or franchise tag him.
All of the numbers combined leave us with the conclusion that Keenum was a very effective quarterback within OC Pat Shurmur’s West Coast system. But he was assisted greatly by his supporting cast and was not asked to hit passes that he wasn’t capable of completing.
The biggest question is whether his numbers will be sustainable. For example, he was good against the blitz and under pressure this season, but his history in previous stops did not suggest that was one of his best skills. Last year, Keenum had a 37.4 rating under pressure and 69.8 against the blitz.
Because he’s the most recent QB, he feels like the easiest to predict, but that might not be the case. Consider a quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had good numbers for a stretch, then ultimately faded. Fitzpatrick threw 31 TDs and won 10 games just two years ago, then put up a 74.3 rating over his next 14 starts. There are also examples of players emerging in their late-20s or early 30s like Jake Delhomme. The ex-Panther got his first shot at 28 and eventually led Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance.
The possibility of regression may scare the Vikings away. The possibility of letting a win-now year slip away in 2018 could also make Minnesota’s front office wary, especially after Keenum’s postseason struggles.
However, if the organization believes he can put them on the doorstep of the Super Bowl again, there’s no reason to move on.
— — Bradford’s history with injuries makes him too risky to invest long term or trust as the undisputed No. 1 QB. The Vikings could try to bring him back to compete for a job, but there’s likely to be better opportunities on the free agent market.
— — Mike Zimmer always wanted Teddy Bridgewater to be his starting quarterback, so there’s a possibility he could push for Teddy to return to Minnesota to be his QB1. Of course, the Vikings would have to be certain they had a backup who could step into the starting role if needed.
The Vikings would know better than anyone else how Bridgewater’s knee has looked in practice and whether he has bounced back to 2015 form. If they let him walk without a fight, it will either be because they’ve locked into Keenum or they don’t believe in his knee.
— — Kirk Cousins is a free agent. Over the last three seasons, he’s tossed 81 touchdowns, 36 interceptions and put up a 97.5 quarterback rating. This season Washington lost its offensive line to injury and Cousins’ sack total went from 23 in 2016 to 41 this year.
The biggest concern about Cousins is the price and term. Judging by contracts in the $125 million range handed out to Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford, the Vikings would likely have to go all-in. And the worry would be that he isn’t skilled enough to get the Vikings over the hump come playoff time.
Minnesota would offer more support for Cousins on the defensive side than Washington has. Under Jay Gruden, they have finished 28th, 28th and 21st in yards allowed.
— — Drew Brees is an extreme long shot, but he is a free agent. Even at 39, he’s coming off a year in which he led the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt. If he leaves New Orleans, the Vikings could be a destination he considers.
— — Tyrod Taylor got very little support in Buffalo this year as the Bills let both of his top receivers go. They also lost their starting left tackle to injury and ultimately fired their offensive coordinator. Taylor is under contract with an $18 million cap hit next season. If the Bills are going to draft a QB to start in 2018, it could make Taylor available for trade.
While he’s a dynamic athlete, the results aren’t all that great for Taylor. He doesn’t throw many INTs, but he only has an 89.4 rating the last two years and has been sacked 88 times. He also suffered multiple concussions in 2017.
— — Eli Manning is likely to stay in New York after the Giants picked him over head coach Ben McAdoo. If he’s on the trade market, the two-time Super Bowl winner becomes intriguing, but there’s huge risk involved. He’s under contract through the end of 2019 and coming off a very poor year in which he averaged 6.1 yards per attempt.
— — Colin Kaepernick would be an option if the NFL could move on from punishing him over kneeling during the anthem. The Vikings’ supporting cast looks a lot like the one that Kaepernick took to the Super Bowl in 2012. He’s still younger than Case Keenum and had a three year stretch where he went 25-14 as a starter. Still it appears that no one will be willing to sign him.
— — Drafting a quarterback is an option, but starting a first-year QB would be tough on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Top prospects like Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen are likely to be off the board. If Louisville’s Lamar Jackson somehow fell to the end of the first, it’s possible the Vikings would take him, but that scenario seems far fetched.
The Vikings are facing a franchise-altering offseason at the quarterback position. Every option has risk involved. The most likely scenario appears to be that the Vikings would bring back Teddy Bridgewater on a reasonable contract rather than go all-in on Keenum. But, especially considering the Vikings’ history of finding veteran QBs, almost anything could play out over the next few months.