As our look at the starting quarterbacks from the 2014 draft class continues, today's progress report brings us to the most controversial quarterback remaining from that class. With Johnny Manziel out of football, that moniker belongs to Teddy Bridgewater for entirely different reasons. As Blake Bortles' status rose during the pre-draft process, Bridgewater's stock fell precipitously. Thought of as a possible first overall pick during his final season at Louisville, Bridgewater tested out poorly and had what was widely regarded as a dismal pro day, leading teams to drop him significantly on their draft boards. He eventually fell to the final pick of the first round, where the Vikings traded up to grab him as their starting quarterback of the future.
Since then, Bridgewater has put the pro day behind him and developed into a functional starter. In many ways, he is the antithesis of Bortles, even if their respective value and overall level of performance isn't entirely dissimilar. Bortles does things well that Bridgewater needs to work on and vice versa. And like Bortles, while Bridgewater has exhibited a set of skills that bode well for his future, there are areas of the 23-year-old's performance that might not be sustainable in 2016.
Some of the pre-draft concerns surrounding Bridgewater have looked accurate so far. Others seem absurd. The list of overblown concerns begins with fears about Bridgewater's hand size. Bridgewater, you might remember, had 9.25-inch hands, which paled in comparison to those of passers such as Manziel, who had 9.9-inch hands. There were fears that it would be too easy to knock the ball out of Bridgewater's hands, and that he wouldn't be able to execute in a professional offense, particularly one that operates in cold weather.
It is ironic, then, that Bridgewater's duties in Minnesota require him to do more with the football in his hands than any other quarterback I've seen in the NFL. In terms of ball manipulation, Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner asks for a lot out of his young QB. Bridgewater is liable to line up under center, in the pistol or in a traditional shotgun on any and all downs.
Turner is a traditional coach, but he has updated his offensive attack to throw in wrinkles of the modern game. A fair number of Minnesota's running plays have the look of a run-pass option (RPO) immediately after the snap, with Bridgewater looking up for a moment as if he's going to throw a quick screen or quick hitch to a receiver on the outside before handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson. There are times where Bridgewater actually does have the option to make that pass, but I suspect many of these plays are designed runs that are supposed to merely have the look of a quick pass. See what I mean on this run against the Cardinals at 4:15.
The rushing attack Turner has developed in Minnesota, probably in part compensating for a middling offensive line, is built around timing and slowing down the pursuit of opposing defenders. The Vikings discourage over-pursuit with the play fakes, freezing backside and secondary defenders, and bring blocking tight end Rhett Ellison and fullback Zach Line across the formation on wham blocks against those reacting defenders. The end result is a lot of plays where frozen linebackers and safeties have to try to bring down Peterson with a full head of steam. That doesn't go well for them. You need a quarterback who can reliably hold onto the football for all those pump fakes and play fakes, and Bridgewater has grown comfortable in that role.
As you might suspect in an offense with Peterson, the Vikings are a run-first team. The numbers put this in context. My best simple measure of what a team wants to do offensively is what it calls on first-and-10 while the game is within two scores. Any more or any less and you're reacting to game situations.
The most pass-happy teams are the ones you would expect: the Raiders, Patriots, Jaguars and the Le'Veon Bell-less Steelers. The run-first teams were the Buccaneers, Bills, Rams and, to a staggering extent, the Vikings. The average team ran the ball 51.2 percent of the time in that situation. With Peterson healthy for the entirety of 2015, Minnesota ran the ball in those situations 66.5 percent of the time. Running the ball two out of every three times on first-and-10 is about as run-first as it gets in the modern NFL.
Likewise, with such an emphasis on the run, the Vikings are heavily dependent upon play-action in stringing together their passing offense. The same principles of misdirection and timing that freeze linebackers in run support also slow them down in coverage. As a result, they can't offer support in the short-to-intermediate range, where Bridgewater throws the vast majority of his passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 27.3 percent of Bridgewater's dropbacks involve play-action, which was the highest rate in the league among starters. Anecdotally, I'd say that number might even be low -- defining a dropback as "play-action" can mean different things to different people, and on the vast majority of his pass attempts, Bridgewater at least hints at a handoff or begins his dropback with the cadence and tempo of a running play.
I mentioned short-to-intermediate throws as Bridgewater's bread and butter, and that represents the main criticism surrounding him: He can't throw deep. While I wouldn't say Bridgewater is incapable of throwing downfield, it is the most obvious hole in his game and one that is borne out by the data. Here's Bridgewater's career 2015 QBR split out by 10-yard zones, with the yellow line representing the line of scrimmage:
Hard to get clearer than that. Bridgewater last season ranked seventh in the league in QBR on throws that traveled 10 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage or less, sixth in the league on throws between 11-20 yards, and ... 30th on throws of 21 yards or more. If anything, he should have the element of surprise in hand on those downfield throws, given that just 9.6 percent of his pass attempts traveled 21 or more yards in the air, which ranked 29th in the league. Even the relative rarity of those throws doesn't matter. Vikings fans are probably screaming about how Bridgewater didn't have enough time to throw deep last year by virtue of the team's offensive line, but that didn't make a difference. When Bridgewater threw that deep on plays where he was not pressured by the opposition, his QBR was 31st in the league. That actually improved to 18th when he was pressured on bombs.
There was one possession in Week 17 against the Packers in which Bridgewater left as many as three touchdowns on the field by missing on deeper throws. The worst of those three passes was on a simple go route by halfback Jerick McKinnon, who motioned out of the formation late and was matched up one-on-one on the outside against Packers inside linebacker Jake Ryan. This is a touchdown with a good throw or a 50-yard gain with an adequate one. Instead, Bridgewater overthrew McKinnon by two yards:
Passers can succeed by dominating in the short-to-intermediate range, but their margin for error is small. Tom Brady and Alex Smith manage to pull it off by virtually eliminating turnovers, which is one of the next steps Bridgewater will have to take. His interception rate dropped from 3.0 percent as a rookie to 2.0 percent as a sophomore, and it will have to continue going south for Bridgewater to continue advancing as a pro. Both Brady and Smith have routinely posted sub-2 percent rates in recent years.
You also need excellent decision-making in close situations, and while Bridgewater was wise beyond his years in terms of his propensity for throwing the ball away when nothing was open, he did make the sort of mistakes that come early in quarterbacks' careers. He threw an interception with his left hand while trying to avoid a third-down sack against the Packers in that crucial Week 17 contest. Weeks earlier, he took a brutal strip sack with 13 seconds to go against the Cardinals while the Vikings were in range to try a potential tying field goal attempt. To be this sort of quarterback, Bridgewater can't make those sorts of mistakes.
In all, Bridgewater finished the season 13th in QBR, but that also overstates where he stands around the league as a passer. The Vikings don't ask for a lot out of their young starter in terms of volume. Minnesota finished last in the league with only 454 pass attempts last season; throw in sacks, and just 51.2 percent of their play calls were passes last year, ahead of only the Panthers and Bills.
Bridgewater had games in which he looked phenomenal and just didn't have to do very much. Take his best game of the year per QBR, which came in Week 2 against the Lions. Bridgewater posted a 98.5, which was the fifth-best game for any starting quarterback of the 2015 season. Looking back at that game, Bridgewater really was close to perfect: his throws were all in stride, he scrambled effectively, and when the Lions got pressure, Bridgewater took the right steps to avoid sacks. He also had to throw only 18 passes. Two of his four incompletions were drops, but Bridgewater still finished with only 153 yards and a passing touchdown to go with a fourth-and-goal scramble for an easy score. That's not Bridgewater's fault, but on a cumulative basis, a quarterback who played slightly worse on each given play but threw 40 passes would be more valuable and productive, just like how a shooter who takes 30 shots and hits 35 percent of them is more valuable than one who hits on 40 percent but takes only 10.
There's one other fascinating part to Bridgewater's season that he'll need to repeat in 2016: Both he and the Vikings did great work on third down. By down, both Bridgewater's individual QBR and Minnesota's offensive DVOA as a whole were significantly better on third down than they were on first or second down:
That didn't manifest itself in terms of overall conversion rate, strangely: Minnesota converted 34.0 percent of its third downs, which was below the league average of 36.2 percent. Instead, as the new Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 noted, the Vikings were great on third-and-short, which is probably a product of Peterson and teams fearing what AD can do as a runner.
While the Vikings have helped Bridgewater by giving him an excellent running back and a sound offensive scheme with an effective coaching staff, the next step is protecting their young quarterback. Bridgewater came out of school with a reputation for having preternatural pocket presence and ability to execute around pressure. The Vikings have done their best to test those reports. In part because of the absence of center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt, each of whom missed all of 2015 because of injuries, Bridgewater spent too much time running for his life last season. He was pressured on a league-high 36.6 percent of his dropbacks, beating out even the perpetually bothered Russell Wilson.
It doesn't help that Bridgewater held the ball for 2.81 seconds before his average pass, which was second longest in the league behind Tyrod Taylor, who was throwing far longer passes. Taylor had the second-longest average pass in the league at 10.3 air yards per throw; Bridgewater averaged 6.7 air yards per pass, which was 33rd and ahead of only Matthew Stafford and the aforementioned Smith for the shortest typical pass in the league. Bridgewater's patience can be a virtue as he cycles through his reads, but slow and short is a tough combo to pull off.
Minnesota has taken strides in helping out Bridgewater, even with Loadholt retiring this summer. It signed Andre Smith, who figures to step in as the starter at right tackle, and added Alex Boone as an upgrade at guard. The Vikings are still hoping that left tackle Matt Kalil returns to the form he showed as a rookie, but they should be better elsewhere along the line. Ellison, a crucial blocking component both in the running and passing games, will himself need to recover from a torn patella suffered at the end of the season. His absence could be telling.
General manager Rick Spielman also has given Bridgewater a deep group of receivers, even if there's no yet-obvious star among the bunch. Many of them have flashed brilliance at times, even if they haven't yet put it together for even a full season. Stefon Diggs last season averaged 105 receiving yards across his first four professional games before slowing down. Charles Johnson, for whom he took over, had 355 yards over a six-game stretch in 2014. Oft-injured tight end Kyle Rudolph stayed healthy and played all 16 games for the first time since his Pro Bowl season in 2012. Wright and McKinnon have been useful secondary weapons. The Vikings are even complimenting Cordarrelle Patterson, who isn't that far removed from a December rookie stretch in which he looked like a future star.
To that mix, Minnesota added another weapon by using its first-round pick on Laquon Treadwell, who might end up as the weapon Bridgewater needed most. Treadwell probably isn't going to be the downfield threat who might open up the offense by virtue of a lack of top-end speed, but the DeAndre Hopkins comparisons Treadwell received before the draft speak to what his role might end up looking like in the years to come. Bridgewater is proving that he can work through his progressions and put throws in stride to his receivers, arm strength be damned. Treadwell is the sort of big-bodied physical receiver who is going to create easy targets and steady chunks of yardage for his quarterback.
The Vikings didn't draft a downfield burner like Will Fuller to try to change their offense, and in the long run, I don't know that trying to change Bridgewater and molding him into another style of quarterback is the right move. Quarterbacks do occasionally pick up another few octanes of arm strength -- Brady's enormous leap after college at Michigan being the most notable example -- but chances are that the quarterback we've seen with Bridgewater is the style of passer he's going to be moving forward.
And if that's the case, the Vikings shouldn't be disappointed that Bridgewater isn't Aaron Rodgers. There's still some refining to be done, but the obvious comparison for Bridgewater is the post-Jim Harbaugh version of Alex Smith, who dinks and dunks his way to a consistently effective and successful offense by making smart decisions and avoiding turnovers. That's a valuable player, especially right now, given that Smith's $17.9 million cap hit is $16 million ahead of Bridgewater's ($1.9 million). His ceiling isn't as high as that of Bortles, but based on what we've seen so far, Bridgewater's floor looks to be higher.