Sunday slant: ‘Unsexy’ pick needed early

The draft is loaded with dangerous pass rushers, but the Vikings need to concentrate on their protection program early on the second day.

Teddy Bridgewater had an impressive rookie season by most measures, third-best among rookie quarterbacks for completion percentage (64.4) in NFL history.

The Vikings’ trust in him was apparent from the outset.

  • He threw for more than 300 yards in his first start, 317 against the Atlanta Falcons.

  • He had three games with 40 or more passing attempts, six games with 30 or more attempts, and three games with 300 or more yards – all tripling the previous franchise records among rookie throwers.

  • He had 101 more completions than any other Vikings rookie.

  • He was the only Vikings rookie with more than one game with 20 completions, and he had five of those.

  • He had nearly 1,000 more passing yards than Fran Tarkenton as a rookie.

    The list of accomplishments goes on and on for Bridgewater’s rookie season, but after making him their second draft pick last May, it’s time Rick Spielman and company give him the protection needed to see what he can really do.

    Despite Bridgewater’s accomplishments in 12 starts (six of the Vikings’ seven wins), there is room for improvement – some of which he appeared to make as the season progressed and some that can only be cured with better talent surrounding him.

    Adrian Peterson’s return to the backfield – Bridgewater didn’t play one snap with him – would be a start and take pressure off the passing game by keeping defenders closer to the line and opening up pass lanes. The return of Kyle Rudolph, who played only four games with Bridgewater as the starter, would help, too, giving the quarterback a big target in the middle of the field. And the acquisition of Mike Wallace could be huge in concert with Peterson, Wallace taking safeties deep with him.

    But, ultimately, Bridgewater has to stay upright more often to have the Vikings’ 27th-ranked offense put the team in a position to win more often and allow the defense to “eat.”

    Bridgewater was sacked 8.8 percent of the time he dropped to pass. That’s far too high. Only five other quarterbacks were sacked a higher percentage (St. Louis’ Austin Davis, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Tampa Bay’s Josh McCown, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Washington’s Robert Griffen, the last of those taking sacks on 13.4 percent of his dropbacks). Some of Bridgewater’s sack were on him, as he admitted after taking 13 sacks in a two-game stretch against Detroit and Buffalo.

    Over the next four games, however, he took a combined seven sacks, but as the injuries piled up on the offensive line, the sack numbers started to increase once again. Over the last five games of the season, there wasn’t a contest where he wasn’t sacked at least three times, and two of those games produced four sacks each.

    Although some draft analysts believe the Vikings could be in play for Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, they don’t have to commit to the offensive line that early. Cornerback Trae Waynes appears to be the best option for them to give Mike Zimmer more flexibility with the defense.

    They have more needs on defense, too, with depth needs among pass rushers, linebackers and safeties, but as the draft matures into the second and third days, they have to come away with at least a starting left guard on the offensive side of the ball. Charlie Johnson was released for performance and salary-cap purposes and that spot remains unfilled.

    If Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil can rebound after injury-affected seasons, they should be the starting tackles again, and the organization’s understandable trust in interior linemen John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco was played out with extensions for both in the last nine months. But left guard remains the undisputed offensive weak spot, despite some that believe wide receiver needs to be addressed early.

    If Bridgewater’s protection doesn’t improve, how much will he improve? Give him the chance to survey the field and the savvy-behind-his-years quarterback can take the next step. Right now, he’s being celebrated as the best rookie quarterback of his class for sure and maybe since Andrew Luck. Certainly, the Vikings appear to have gotten a steal when they traded up for the final pick of the first round to nab him last year. Maybe a similar approach should be taken this year to improve his chances of playing a full season.

    As many as four offensive tackles could go in the first round, but besides La’el Collins, the guards after him are largely second- and third-round values, led by A.J. Cann and Laken Tomlinson.

    It’s the unsexy pick, but it’s time the Vikings invested early in the guard position to give Bridgewater the best chance to continue his ascent.

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