The recent history of quarterbacks picked in the top 35 and the pro-readiness Teddy Bridgewater brings to the NFL make it very likely that the Minnesota Vikings will start him early and often during his rookie season.
The Vikings moved back in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft to take Bridgewater at No. 32 overall. He's now entering a quarterback room in Minnesota with both Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, who each started games with varying, yet underwhelming results for the Vikings last season.
Cassel signed a two-year deal worth $10 million over two seasons in March and Ponder is a former first-round pick.
Still, head coach Mike Zimmer has no reservations about Bridgewater starting games for his club as a rookie.
“Teddy will play when we feel like he’s ready, if he’s the best guy, which we hope that he will be,” Zimmer said, via Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We always want to have competition.”
Recent history suggests Bridgewater will start plenty of games in his first season, and the percentages say his first start will come in Week 1.
|Starts from Rookie QBs Drafted in Top-35 Picks, 2008-13|
|Year||Starts||Start Week 1?|
|Robert Griffin III||2012||15||Yes|
|*Bridgewater drafted No. 32 overall|
A total of 17 quarterbacks have been selected within the draft's first 35 picks since 2008. Those 17 quarterbacks averaged 12.5 starts during their rookie seasons, with 10 starting at least 15 games.
Jake Locker, who was taken with the eighth pick in the 2011 draft, represents the only top-35 quarterback to not start a game during his rookie season. Fourteen of the quarterbacks started at least 10 games, with only Tim Tebow, Josh Freeman and Locker failing to crack the 10-start milestone.
The majority of the 17 quarterbacks started in Week 1, too.
Twelve of the 17 were handed the keys on opening day. Only five started their NFL careers on the sideline. Two of those five—Ponder and Blaine Gabbert—took over the starting job early on and started at least 10 games as rookies.
Locker threw 66 passes over five games in 2011, but veteran Matt Hasselbeck started all 16 games for the Tennessee Titans.
Bridgewater is much further along as a pro quarterback than the likes of Tebow, Freeman and Locker. Tebow needed refinement in every facet of playing the position. Freeman had prototypical size but was raw throwing the football. Locker required big improvement in the accuracy department.
Bridgewater is much more in the mold of an Andy Dalton or Sam Bradford, two experienced, well-rounded college quarterbacks who went on start all 16 games as rookies in the NFL. He's accurate, cool under pressure and mentally tough.
The Vikings are in no way locked in to starting Bridgewater early, with both Cassel and Ponder perfectly capable of starting games while the rookie soaks in the pro game. But if Bridgewater can handle everything thrown at him early on, there's no reason for the Vikings to hold back the better player.
More than likely, the following factors will determine when Bridgewater makes his first start.
Learning the Norv Turner Offense
There is no precedent for a rookie quarterback starting the majority of games in a Norv Turner offense.
According to Ben Goessling of ESPN, first-year quarterbacks have started a total of 12 games over Turner's 23 seasons as an offensive coordinator and head coach. No one rookie has started more than eight games in a single season.
|Rookie QB Starts under Norv Turner, HC or OC|
|Source: Ben Goessling, ESPN|
As Goessling points out, circumstance has played a role in those numbers. He inherited good quarterbacks, such as Troy Aikman, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith, who were all into their second year or later in the NFL.
Learning Turner's complex offense as a first-year player is an obvious deterrent to playing right away. The Vikings' offensive coordinator employs a high-volume playbook that can make a rookie quarterback's head spin. In an effort to bring along a young player slowly in the offense, Turner has preferred to have his inexperienced quarterbacks sit and learn while holding a clipboard and wearing a ball cap.
Maybe Bridgewater is different. Maybe he'll break the mold.
He did become Louisville's first true freshman to start at quarterback since 1976. Over three years in college, he started 35 games—winning 27—in a pro-style offense that allowed Bridgewater the freedom to make calls and adjust the action at the line of scrimmage. Not many college quarterbacks are entrusted with that kind of responsibility. He's pro-ready on the mental side of things.
Turner already has a good idea of how Bridgewater will handle learning his offense. Per Dan Pompei of Sports on Earth, Turner gave Bridgewater a condensed version of the Vikings' offense in advance of a private workout in Florida before the draft. The young quarterback aced the eventual test.
"When Bridgewater explained the Vikings offense to the Turners, it was clear he had absorbed it well, and he could communicate what he had absorbed," Pompei wrote.
He'll be playing catch up on Cassel and Ponder in terms of learning the offense, but nothing about Bridgewater's past suggests he can't digest the Turner playbook or get himself ready to play early on.
More than likely, Turner and the offensive coaches will need to see Bridgewater in live-game situations to accurately judge if he's ready to play—and start—in the NFL. He has hours of college tape available, and Turner will get to see him every day in OTAs and training camp. But until the Vikings see Bridgewater put it all together under the bright lights and against the speed of NFL defenses, they won't know anything for certain.
If Bridgewater struggles in August, the Vikings will have an easy decision: sit him—let him slow down the game behind the veterans.
But if he's as good or better than Cassel and Ponder over the Vikings' four preseason games, Minnesota might be tempted to give the rookie a start during Week 1.
Russell Wilson in 2012 is a prime example of a rookie winning a job otherwise slated for a veteran.
But when Wilson kept outplaying Flynn in August, the Seahawks eventually sat their prized free agent and handed over the keys to Wilson. Seattle certainly eased Wilson into the job, but the decision—two years and a Super Bowl win later—was obviously the right one.
It will be very interesting to see how the Vikings give out quarterback reps during the preseason. Will Bridgewater get nothing more than third-team snaps against NFL scrubs? Or will Turner give his young quarterback a chance to show what he can do against the big boys?
Opportunities for reps will be earned in camp. If Bridgewater earns his fair share and makes the most of them, he'll have a strong case to begin the season as the starter.
Assumptions made in May can look very foolish come September, but it appears—at least right now, on the surface—that the Vikings face a difficult early road.
A Week 1 visit to St. Louis could be a bloodbath. The Rams have a terrifyingly disruptive front four that figures to make life difficult for any quarterback, much less a rookie. From there, the Vikings welcome New England and travel to New Orleans, before hosting Atlanta and traveling to Green Bay on a short week.
Again, assumptions about any of those teams and the individual matchups against the Vikings are based on nothing more than projections, but it's certainly possible Minnesota could struggle early on and decide to turn over the starting job to Bridgewater—much like the Buccaneers did with Freeman and the Vikings did with Ponder in 2009 and 2011,respectively.
The schedule could even be one reason the Vikings decide to keep Bridgewater on the bench early on, although that's probably not how teams decide whom to start at the game's most important position.
Starting 1-5 or 2-4 would put a lot of pressure on Zimmer and his staff to put in the first-round quarterback. Struggling teams with an untested asset at quarterback are probably better off giving that untested asset time to learn on the job.
Bridgewater's First Start: Week 1
Starting in Week 1 might be a stretch considering Turner's avoidance of rookie quarterbacks over the duration of his career, but this is the modern NFL, where first-round quarterbacks play early and often as rookies. And Bridgewater is as pro-ready as any passer in this class.
Over 70 percent of the top-35 picks at the position have started in Week 1 over the six years, and the Vikings' situation feels like one where a young quarterback could thrive right away. Minnesota has the offensive line, running game, perimeter weapons and big tight end to keep a rookie comfortable and productive. Let Bridgewater learn and grow with this group.
Much of this equation is still unknown. But, for now, I'll throw my name in the "Week 1" pool for when Bridgewater will start his first game for the Vikings.
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