MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings begin their rookie minicamp today, giving their coaching staff its first chance to work with rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. From now until September, the key question with Bridgewater figures to be, "How soon will he start?" It's always a tantalizing issue with quarterbacks drafted in the first round, but in this particular case, it revolves around a team that has the intent -- and the setup -- to have Bridgewater sit, and a quarterback who has little experience doing so.
Bridgewater was starting by the third game of his freshman season at Louisville, after graduating early so he could be on campus for spring football. "He came in in January, so we were able to get him at mid-semester," former Louisville coach Charlie Strong said last week. "He was able to come in, go through the winter conditioning, go through summer conditioning, and then he was ready to go play in the fall. We had a starter get injured in our rival game against Kentucky, and he kept the position and had a remarkable career."
He didn't turn 19 until the regular season of his freshman year was almost over, but Bridgewater had seized the job for the next three years, displaying a voracious appetite for film study and an aptitude for the Cardinals' offense that let offensive coordinator Shawn Watson give Bridgewater NFL-style control of his offense at the line of scrimmage (this MMQB piece from January is worth your time on that subject). But in Minnesota, there's no need to force the rookie into action -- not with Matt Cassel signed for two years, and not with an offensive coordinator who has never had a rookie start more than eight games at quarterback.
In Norv Turner's 23 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach, rookies have started exactly 12 games at quarterback. All 12 of those came in Turner's ill-fated first season as a head coach, when the Washington Redskins used first-round pick Heath Shuler for eight and Gus Frerotte for four more. Circumstances deserve some of the credit for why Turner hasn't used a rookie since then -- Philip Rivers was already established by the time Turner became the San Diego Chargers' coach, and he's had veteran quarterbacks in offensive coordinator stops in Miami and Oakland -- but when Drew Brees was a Chargers rookie in 2001, he only saw action in one game while Turner was the offensive coordinator. Second-year quarterbacks Alex Smith and Brandon Weeden started 16 and five games in Turner's offenses, respectively, but it's been two decades since a rookie quarterback got the majority of the snaps for a Turner-directed attack.
General manager Rick Spielman has talked about the benefits of giving any rookie quarterback a "redshirt" year to sit and learn the system. That doesn't happen often in the NFL these days, and barring injury, it means Bridgewater will only see the field in 2014 if he's good enough to win the job. It's a healthy situation for a young quarterback, and there's no reason to alter it unless Bridgewater merits more playing time.
"I'm all about competition. I want the best guys to play, the guys that can do the best job," coach Mike Zimmer said last week. "I understand there is a fine line with young quarterbacks of getting them beat up and those things but we have a very good offensive line here and we have, in my opinion, two good quarterbacks. I was watching them throw today and they were throwing the heck out of the ball today. I told them today, 'Norv and Scott are doing a great job of coaching these guys.' Teddy will play when we feel like he’s ready if he’s the best guy, which we hope that he will. We always want to have competition in our football team at every position. The more good football players we can get, the better off we are as a team."
Bridgewater might be able to digest a NFL scheme right now, but a closer look at his college stats would suggest he's got some work to do before he can completely handle Turner's offense. While Turner was the Chargers' head coach, the team threw 771 passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield -- the third-most in the league during that time, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and the Cleveland Browns were fourth in the league with 140 passes that traveled 15 yards or more while Turner was their offensive coordinator last year.
Spielman marveled at how quickly Bridgewater improved after some coaching from Turner during a private workout, but he'll still need to improve his in-game results on downfield throws; he hit just 45.4 percent of them last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and only connected on 39.1 percent of his throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Both figures put Bridgewater in the bottom half of the 2014 quarterback class.
If he can refine that part of his game, and others, in time to start some games for the Vikings this season, he will. If he can't, there's no rush to get him on the field. It's a good situation for both the team and Bridgewater to have that kind of flexibility in the quarterback's first season.