MINNEAPOLIS -- Teddy Bridgewater's impressive second half on Sunday in Denver -- during which he hit 13 of his 15 passes for 131 yards and nearly led the Minnesota Vikings to a comeback victory -- closed his 16th start in the NFL. Bridgewater now has the equivalent of a full season as a starting quarterback, and while his numbers to this point are firmly in the upper half of what current NFL QBs did in their first 16 starts, it's tempting to wonder how much better Bridgewater could have been if he hadn't spent so much time under pressure.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bridgewater has a passer rating of 85.2 through 16 starts, which puts him 11th among the 28 current NFL starters who made their first 16 starts after 2001 (for the purposes of our research, we're excluding Peyton Manning, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Ryan Mallett). Through his first 16 starts, Bridgewater threw for more yards than Matt Ryan, one fewer touchdown than Drew Brees and completed more of his passes than anyone but Ben Roethlisberger. Still, he's been blitzed on 35.3 percent of his dropbacks, and faced pressure on 30.2 percent of them.
For his first 16 starts, here are Bridgewater's numbers: 324-of-497, 3,543 yards, 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and 50 sacks. Only Blake Bortles (61) and Josh McCown (52) were sacked more often in their first 16 starts, and in part because of how much pressure he's faced, Bridgewater has averaged just 7.53 air yards per attempt in his first 16 starts.
The next 16 starts should give us a better sense of what Bridgewater will ultimately be, and it's easy to forget how many of the game's top QBs went through underwhelming starts to their careers. Brees posted a passer rating of just 76.9, Aaron Rodgers went 6-1o and even though he won a Super Bowl, Tom Brady had an early reputation as a game manager who threw for fewer yards than Bridgewater in his first 16 starts.
Ryan might be the quarterback whose numbers most closely resemble Bridgewater's, and he didn't post a 4,000-yard season or a passer rating above 90 until his third season -- which ended with a two-interception performance as the Packers blew the Falcons out at home in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. Since then, Ryan has thrown for at least 4,177 yards and 26 touchdowns every season, and is at the controls of the league's fifth-best passing attack this year. There's a reason the league's best quarterbacks are largely in their 30s; they've had time to see everything, learn from their losses and assert themselves at the controls of their team's offense. Bridgewater has no guarantees of being elite, but his up-and-down play to this point should be no indicator he won't make it there.
That said, the amount of pressure Bridgewater has faced in his first 16 starts certainly is a cause for concern, especially after he was sacked seven times in the Vikings' loss to the Broncos. He's thrown 108 passes, or more than 20 percent of his attempts, under duress, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and he'll need a consistently cleaner pocket to develop. The Vikings' protection of Bridgewater has been solid in their two wins this season, and they'll hope to see center John Sullivan return from back surgery in a little more than a month. However it arrives, more consistent protection would help Bridgewater move forward. It's difficult to expect him to do that without it.