This is the next in a series of in-depth features on potential quarterbacks for the Bills.
Rick Spielman didn’t even need the question to be asked.
During his opening statement of his press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine, the Minnesota Vikings’ general manager told reporters, “I’m sure you want me to address the quarterback situation.”
Three quarterbacks took snaps for Minnesota in 2017. All three of them are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the league year begins Wednesday, and each one is intriguing in his own way.
With Spielman opting not to use the franchise tag on Case Keenum, the Vikings have been tabbed as favorites to land Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency. That means not only Keenum, but also Sam Bradford and/or Teddy Bridgewater could find new homes next week.
“We’re always going to be looking at options in all areas,” Spielman said at the combine. “We’ll try to make sure we’re finding the best fit for the Minnesota Vikings, not only on the field from a schematic standpoint, but also with the leadership with Coach Zimmer, the culture that has been established in our locker room.
“Just to make clear, there have been no decisions made – I know it’s been a thousand reports out there on how we’re going to move forward.”
While each Vikings quarterback comes with a level of intrigue, they all also have their own caution flags. In the case of Keenum, he’s a career journeyman who picked the perfect time to put together his best season. In the cases of both Bridgewater and Bradford, there are significant injury worries.
Bridgewater suffered a career-threatening knee injury during training camp in 2016, an injury so gruesome it reportedly left some teammates vomiting and others in tears. There was initially concern that Bridgewater might even need to have his leg amputated. The injury came on a non-contact play and left him with a dislocated knee, torn ACL and other structural damage.
Bridgewater made it back from his injury, leading to one of the feel-good moments of the 2017 season when he came into a December game to close out a win against Cincinnati. Outside of that, however, he hasn’t taken meaningful snaps in two full seasons, making it a big projection for any team counting on him as a starter.
“I think we have a lot more knowledge of Teddy than anyone else,” Spielman said. “Our medical department has rehabbed him ever since the surgery was done. We’ve seen him in practice. Our coaches have worked with him. … We probably have more in-depth knowledge than anyone on where he’s at right now in his current status.”
Spielman won’t be eager to share that information with his counterparts, so each team’s medical staff will have to determine if Bridgewater, 25, is healthy enough to compete for a starting job.
“I’m just going to continue focusing on becoming a better football player, attacking the offseason with the mindset of getting stronger and doing everything that I can to show that when the time comes, I’m ready to play football,” Bridgewater told ESPN after the Vikings’ loss in the NFC Championship Game. “The best thing about it is my dream gets to continue to come true — that I get to play football next year. I’m going to be playing football next year.”
Before Bridgewater got hurt, he completed 65.3 percent of his passes in 2015 for 2,231 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions, good for a passer rating of 88.7. Given the uncertainty surrounding his health, Bridgewater is likely a candidate for a short-term contract, which would protect the team and give him a chance to show he’s back to 100 percent.
Bradford will likely be in the same boat. He has a history of knee problems that includes torn ACLs in both 2013 and 2014. He made it through the 2016 season healthy and got off to a spectacular start to 2017, throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns on Monday Night Football in a win over the Saints. Bradford, however, suffered a knee injury in that game and played just once more the rest of the season.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer referred to Bradford’s knee as being “degenerative,” during an interview at the Combine, but the 30-year-old wants to continue playing. Bradford, who has made more than $114 million in his career, set a single-season NFL record for completion percentage in 2016, connecting on 71.6 percent of his passes.
“It’s the $64,000 question with all three of these guys, right?" Zimmer said at the Combine. "Can Sam stay healthy? Is Teddy what he was? Is Case the guy that he was last year or two years ago? So that’s really the $64,000 question with us. With Sam, I love Sam – I love all three of them – they’re all great people. Sam was skiing in Jackson Hole last week. He’s a tremendous athlete. I think he’ll stay healthy, but who knows? I have a crystal ball, but I don’t have it with me. But it didn’t tell me if he’s going to stay healthy.”
The question about Keenum doesn’t deal with health, but rather production. Mainly, can he repeat what he did in 2017?
After replacing Bradford in the lineup, Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. He completed 67.6 percent of his passes (second in the NFL), had a 98.3 passer rating (seventh) and threw for 22 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.
Digging deeper, he led the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which stands for defense-adjusted value over average and represents the value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. All of that came on a one-year, $2 million contract.
Before his breakout season, Keenum had bounced between the Texans and Rams, going 9-15 as a starter and never throwing even 10 touchdowns in a season.
“You’ve got to go on your gut, you’ve got to go on what you see,” Zimmer said. “Case has a big heart. He’s a great competitor. He studies his rear end off. He works an unbelievable amount of hours. The question is exactly what you’re asking: Is he this guy? All three of our guys have questions. There’s no doubt about it, and it’s our job to do the very best we possibly can to figure out who is the right guy, the right fit … Whether we decide on it’s Case or it’s Teddy or it’s Sam, we’re going to walk out of there and we’re going to say this is what is it and we’re going to go.”
Of the three, Keenum’s contract is the most difficult to project. Quarterbacks who have accomplished far less than what he did last year have received big money in free agency, so he could get a sizable deal.
For that reason, he's the unlikeliest of the three to land in Buffalo. The Bills added salary cap space with the trade of Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns — the deal cannot be made official until Wednesday — and have roughly $32 million available. A deal for Keenum could put a significant dent into that total, leaving the Bills with little space to do much else in free agency (keep in mind the team will need more than $8 million in cap space for its rookie class).