FREE AGENCY PRIMER: The Quarterbacks
At the top, the 2017 Vikings quarterback situation is cut and dried: Sam Bradford is the starter. Any prospects for a Bradford/Bridgewater training camp competition—or full-on reclamation of the starting job by Teddy—have been squashed by the speculation Bridgewater will miss all of the 2017 season, the reports he still has not resumed football activities, and the declaration by Mike Zimmer that Bradford has earned the right to be the starting quarterback.
So we wish Teddy well in his rehab, hope his career isn’t completely over, and perhaps even talk ourselves into the idea that he will return to practice at some point next year. But until we have a reason to believe otherwise, Sam Bradford is the Vikings’ starting quarterback.
However, the position isn’t settled. Bradford’s backup last year—Shaun Hill—is a free agent, and early indications are he will either retire or not be re-signed. And with Bradford’s injury history combined with the Vikings’ porous offensive line, having a capable backup is more important than ever. We’ll look at a couple ways the team could handle that.
One of Vikings Twitter’s favorite arguments is exactly how good Sam Bradford’s first season in purple was. The assessments range from “average at best” to “top five quarterback,” with the occasional “I don’t like him because he isn’t Teddy” (I’m paraphrasing) mixed in. In my simple estimation, the notion that Bradford was below average in 2016 is just as outlandish as calling him one of the best quarterbacks in football; he put together a very solid year statistically despite arriving in town eight days before the season opener and dealing with a number of offensive obstacles along the way (i.e. the rash of injuries, Norv Turner’s midseason resignation, and consistently inept blocking). Indeed, 2016 was Sam Bradford’s best season in the league—3877 yards, 20 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and an NFL record 71.6% completion rate.
I would argue that even without the roadblocks that were in place, Bradford’s 2016 was objectively “pretty good,” and considering what he had to deal with, borderline impressive. But alas, we can’t even agree on that; many Vikings fans believe the completion number is misleading due to the overwhelming ratio of short, quick routes Bradford threw (this is true), and he has displayed proven struggles in clutch situations throughout his career (this is debatable). There are also the issues of his pocket mobility and poor third down conversion rate, which are legitimate weaknesses. Still, to all this I say: Sam Bradford played with the hand he was dealt with the Vikings, and did so reasonably well. He’s not the perfect quarterback, but at last check, none of those were available on the open market, either. Bradford’s the guy in 2017, and it could be worse.
More pertinent to this discussion is what happened with the backup positions last year. Shaun Hill was always slated to be the number two, but there were rumblings that the Vikings expected second-year man Taylor Heinicke to push Hill for the job in training camp. But because of a bizarre home-entry accident in July, Heinicke missed all of camp and spent most of the season on injured reserve. The competition never happened, and you have to wonder if the Vikings’ excitement for Heinicke—who would have had a realistic chance to start after Bridgewater injured his knee in the preseason—has been dampened after the boneheaded offseason mistake and his subsequent lengthy absence.
Here’s the current roster and salary breakdown of the Vikings’ quarterbacks, via Spotrac.com:
Let’s try to ignore Bradford’s outlandish cap number (because it isn’t changing) and focus on the other three. Bridgewater is signed through 2017, with a team option for 2018, and will likely spend a good chunk of next season on injured reserve. Hill is an unrestricted free agent. That leaves Taylor Heinicke as the lone backup heading into free agency.
Aside from drafting a quarterback, which I think is unlikely, there are three realistic scenarios for how the Vikings could approach the position heading into 2017:
1. Stand pat by re-signing Shaun Hill, and once again carry Bradford, Hill, and Heinicke on the active roster. Again, most don’t expect Hill to return, but the team could bring him back because of his familiarity with the organization and relatively low price tag. In this scenario, Hill and Heinicke could battle for the backup spot.
2. Let Hill walk, and sign another veteran backup for Sam Bradford. If a quarterback with quality in-game experience can be had for a reasonable price—a Brian Hoyer or Josh McCown, perhaps—the team could keep Heinicke as the third quarterback and rest easy knowing they have a strong insurance policy for Bradford.
3. Elevate Taylor Heinicke to second string. If the Vikings feel comfortable enough with Heinicke to make him the backup, like some in the organization supposedly did before his injury, they could roll with him and sign an undrafted free agent or journeyman as the third quarterback. This would be a strong vote of confidence for a player who has never taken a regular season NFL snap, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Personally, my preference is for option number two. Only the Vikings know what they have in Heinicke, and even then, it’s impossible to gauge how an untested player will react when he’s forced into game action. But with Sam Bradford’s injury history—not to mention the deluge of losses suffered across the roster last season—it’s imperative the backup quarterback be ready to play. And given the nature of the Vikings’ offensive line woes (which cannot all be solved in one offseason), the quarterback is always at risk for injury, whether if it’s Bradford or someone else. So realistically, there’s probably a better chance Bradford does miss time at some point in 2017 than the possibility he plays every snap.
Quarterback depth is paramount for the Vikings. If they roll with Heinicke as the primary backup, they had better be certain he can carry the load for a game or two—or more—if and when Bradford goes down. And if not, they need to sign someone who can.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
According to Spotrac, here are the unrestricted free agents at the quarterback position:
|Player||Age||Team||Pervious Salary (Average)|
A few names that are intriguing for the Vikings:
Brian Hoyer: Hoyer is the top backup quarterback on the market, in my opinion. He has as much experience as any backup you’ll find, and is coming off a season in which he was very good in limited action with Chicago. The only hangups with Hoyer could be the price—he should get paid more than most in his tier—and whether or not he’ll accept a backup role. At this point, we’ve seen enough to know he isn’t an ideal every-week starter, and is far better suited to be a number two, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have an opportunity to compete for a starting job somewhere else. There are more NFL teams than quality starting NFL quarterbacks, so every year we see backup-caliber players thrust into starting roles. That could happen with Hoyer in 2017.
Josh McCown: He’s started plenty of games in the NFL, but hasn’t won many of them. This is partially due to the teams he’s been on, yes, but at age 37, McCown is probably ready for a reserve role after being cut by the Browns. Like Hill, he would be a short-term option, but a capable one if and when he’s called on to take live snaps. A one-year contract with McCown could be a serviceable way to put a veteran behind Bradford and buy some time while the Bridgewater situation shakes out.
Case Keenum: Keenum went 4-5 as a starter last year before the Rams handed Jared Goff the starting job. He’s another player who’s had success in spot duty throughout his career; in fact, since 2014, Keenum is 9-7 as a starter. He’s also younger (29) than either of the above players. Keenum doesn’t have a strong arm and struggles with deep routes, but fits the experienced backup mold well.
Matt Cassel: Could he be back? Cassel backed up Marcus Mariota last season and threw just 50 passes (58% completions, 2 TDs, 2 INTs). Now in his mid-thirties, he’s not a guy you want on the field for any extended length of time, if you ever did. He’d be a one-year stopgap, and I wouldn’t consider Cassel unless each of the aforementioned quarterbacks are off the market.
Mark Sanchez: No.
Geno Smith: On its surface, the idea looks intriguing: a former second-round draft pick and one-time Jets quaterback-of-the-future who, at just 26 years old, has plenty left in the tank. But Smith is still determined to compete for a starting job. And while competition is usually a good thing, at quarterback, it can be dicey; while Smith probably isn’t good enough to unseat Sam Bradford as the starter, he is good enough for fans to yell his name every time Bradford makes a mistake. This dynamic rarely works well.
Landry Jones: Solid option. Jones is young, cheap, and has filled in capably for Ben Roethlisberger in limited action. He would be a nice consolation if Hoyer/McCown are off the table.
The names above are only in play, of course, if the team doesn’t re-sign Shaun Hill and doesn’t feel comfortable with Heinicke as the primary backup—both probably safe assumptions. If the Vikings do think Heinicke is ready, expect them to add a third quarterback in the Matt Barkley/Kellen Moore/undrafted rookie mold.
As stated above, I think the best option is to keep Heinicke in the third-string/developmental role and spend a little money on a veteran backup with game experience. Hoyer, Keenum, and Jones have all been starters (if briefly) in the past, and have shown they have the ability to take the reigns for a few games if needed. McCown also fits this mold, though he’s older and would be a one-year stopgap.
There’s a strong possibility the backup will have to play at some point next season, considering 2016 was the first year in Sam Bradford’s career he hasn’t missed any time due to injury. Going into the 2017 season without a rock solid backup quarterback in place would be a serious mistake for the Vikings.