During the summer months lists and catch-all topics for all teams become the standard fare for fans waiting for the next season.
Few take this challenge more seriously more often than ESPN – the same people keeping a daily season-long diary of a mythical player from the 1927 Yankees (which would have seemed more appropriate in 2017 than 2016). Through the last couple of months since the draft, lists, countdowns and comparisons aplenty have come and gone.
The latest configuration is to determine the most underrated player on each NFL team. In most instances, those players are truly underrated – kind of under-the-radar guys who are more than holding their own but aren’t getting the recognition they’re due.
In the NFC North, the other three players on the list are Chicago tight end Zach Miller, Detroit center Travis Swanson and Green Bay guard T.J. Lang. If you’re a hard-core football fan, you know all three of those guys, but you would likely be guessing if someone asked you what his number was? They are grinders. They are guys who do the dirty work and grade out consistently.
The Minnesota Vikings’ selection to that 32-player list?
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
At first blush, Bridgewater wouldn’t seem to make sense. He more realistically should have been on their “32 To Watch” list from May or their “32 Breakout Players” from June.
How is Teddy underrated?
Teamed with their often co-contributor for metric information, Football Outsiders, the case was made for Bridgewater being underrated. As ESPN noted that Bridgewater’s ranking among NFL QBs by any measure – the arcane NFL passer rating or ESPN’s QBR – rates in the mid-20s in just about any measuring system. But, that isn’t fair.
“The quarterback spent too little time playing football and too much running for his life,” ESPN opined. “No quarterback was pressured more often in 2015. Erase all pressure plays from all quarterbacks and Bridgewater’s ranking jumps to 12th. With a rebuilt offensive line, Bridgewater should have better protection and better production this season.”
Football Outsiders pointed out that, as a rookie, without suspended running back Adrian Peterson, Norv Turner had to throw out the game plan and put the load on Bridgewater to lead an offense that didn’t have the same cache with the backup band instead of the lead singer.
“Turner was forced to ask Bridgewater to carry an offense that lacked quality on the offensive line, in the backfield, and out wide,” Football Outsiders said. “The young quarterback didn't put up gaudy numbers, but he did consistently show off his potential. Bridgewater could do everything except hit a deep vertical route. He diagnosed the defense before the snap and adjusted when he had to afterwards. He mitigated pressure in the pocket with his movement while reading full-field progressions with haste. He could deliver the ball with a hand in his face or against an impending hit -- when he wasn't escaping that pressure to run into the flat or past the line of scrimmage. Maybe most impressive was his accuracy; Bridgewater threw with anticipation and precision to short and intermediate routes. He made it tougher for the pass rush to touch him, and made it easier for his receivers to get open. He was still a rookie, so there were bad days, but 90 percent of what Bridgewater did during his rookie season was extremely impressive.”
But, when Peterson came back, so did the original plan for the Vikings offense. As a rookie in 12 games, Bridgewater lined up in the shotgun on 66 percent of passing plays – 12th most in the NFL. Last year with Peterson behind him, the Vikings lined up in the shotgun on just 45 percent of plays, which ranked 29th in the league.
The Vikings became far too predictable for their own good. They ran on 65 percent of first-down plays because the O-line’s strength was in run blocking and you had Peterson carrying the mail. Nobody else in the NFL came close to that number of first-down rushing calls.
But the issue last season was in pass protection. By design, when an offensive lineman run blocks, he is pushing forward latching onto defenders. He may bottle a D-lineman up, but typically, at worst, a run blocking assignment is a stalemate that doesn’t create the anticipated push.
When pass blocking, it’s a completely different animal. You have plus-sized men backing up and digging in to keep defenders away from the quarterback. In terms of protecting their quarterback, the Vikings were the only team that had all five starters make starts in all 16 games.
They also had the worst offensive line in the league in terms of the number of blown blocks that allowed defenders to get a free shot at Bridgewater or force him off his spot and make him to take it on the run.
Only right guard Mike Harris graded out well in this regard. Left tackle Matt Kalil graded out fourth-worst among left tackles in the category of snaps per blown block (one every 56.3 snaps). Left guard Brandon Fusco was second-worst at his position (61.9). Center Joe Berger was second-worst (73.0). Right tackle T.J. Clemmings was fifth-worst (59.8).
The result of that futility meant that Bridgewater was deemed under pressure on 35 percent of his dropbacks – the highest total of any quarterback in the league. The theory goes that, if you’re going to base an offense on a power running back, you need a quarterback who is strong-armed and throws deep routes to keep defenses honest. The Vikings didn’t do that with Bridgewater because he isn’t a strong-armed rifleman in the backfield and the 2015 Vikings didn’t scare teams vertically that often.
The solution, according to Football Outsiders analysis, is to adopt a pistol-style offense like Denver used with Peyton Manning. It still has the running back seven yards deep and the QB in front of him, but the quarterback is four or five yards behind the line and can better survey the full field than he can under center.
The good news is that Bridgewater was one of the most accurate quarterbacks on his throws – having 81.6 percent of his passes deemed on target and catchable.
The point made was that Bridgewater spent much more of his time under duress in the passing game and, too often, was forced to improvise on plays that didn’t end up as they were drawn up. He was forced to know his secondary receiving options, often reading three or even four progressions before delivering the ball.
By that measure, Bridgewater over-performed what his raw passing numbers would indicate.
What if he is afforded the time most of his peers get? Clearly the Vikings’ free agency game plan included not counting on the healthy return of John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. The only early signings were to bolster the offensive line, complete with a new line coach.
Maybe ESPN hit the nail on the head with No. 24 of its 32 lists presented before the start of training camp. Bridgewater still has a long way to go to be an elite NFL quarterback. But we’ve seen what he can do when he’s running for self-preservation purposes. What if he drops backs and has the time he needs to complete deep passes?
It’s definitely something to consider.