The goal at the start of Tuesday was to settle once and for all what I think is the best course of action for the Vikings this offseason as they untangle their quarterback situation.
Instead, after weaving through several articles and statistical analyses, this much is certain: I’m less certain now than when I started. Here’s why:
*Speaking strictly about the Vikings’ in-house free agent candidates — Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford — all three have question marks. Keenum was way better in 2017 than he’s ever been. Bridgewater and Bradford carry significant injury risks because of their past. My sense is that Keenum is the safest and best choice out of those three because a team with Super Bowl aspirations ideally at least wants to know their QB should hold up for 16 games and because Keenum was excellent in 2017. I need to cross someone off, so Teddy and Sam are out and Case is in.
*But it’s not just about in-house candidates. Drew Brees would have been a dream QB to land for a Super Bowl contender with a stout defense, but the Saints’ surprising success this year suggests there is next to no chance he’ll switch teams.
The only other QB likely to hit the open market that’s worth discussing is Washington’s Kirk Cousins. I was pretty sure before Tuesday that I preferred Cousins over Keenum and everyone else, and this Chris Wesseling piece only fueled that belief. Which quarterback has the best chance of leading the Vikings to a championship? Based on his reputation and the idea that the Vikings can’t stand still if they’re going to move forward, I kept coming back to Cousins.
*Then, however, I dug into Pro Football Focus’s comprehensive year-end quarterback report (subscription required). Keenum was the analytics-minded site’s No. 9-graded QB in the NFL this year. Assumptions I had made about him, such as that he seemed to make a lot of risky throws that weren’t intercepted, turned out to be false. In fact, he had the fourth-lowest percentage of turnover-worthy plays (2.1 percent) among NFL QBs in 2017. He excelled under pressure, avoided sacks deftly and generally performed like one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Those things also helped Keenum to the second-best Total QBR (an ESPN-developed metric) in 2017, while Cousins was 15th. PFF graded Cousins 20th among NFL QBs last season (after being 14th and ninth the previous two seasons, respectively). His numbers were down across the board from 2015 and 2016, and he took far more negative chances than Keenum. That said, he played behind a shaky offensive line and didn’t get nearly the help from his receivers that Keenum did.
Cousins has been consistently better over the last three-year stretch than Keenum and has started all 16 games each of those seasons, giving him a big checkmark in the durability department. Cousins also has more arm talent than Keenum. But Keenum’s overall season in 2017 was as good as anything Cousins has done in a single year. If Keenum’s high end is similar to that of Cousins, and he can do it for $10 million or so less per season — giving the Vikings more cap flexibility down the road — why make a switch?
In the end, if the main choice is between Keenum (either on a multi-year deal or by designation with the franchise tag) or making a run at Cousins, it probably comes down to these two factors:
*How much do the Vikings believe that Keenum can replicate 2017 going forward? Based on his previous track record and the loss of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, there is good reason to believe Keenum was playing at a peak that will be hard to match in 2018 and beyond. But I could be wrong.
*Does Cousins represent a sizable enough potential upgrade and upside to mitigate his undoubtedly higher price tag? Again, the answer to that is inconclusive.
It would be nice if the answer was clear, but I’m afraid it’s not. But no pressure, Rick Spielman. It’s only a decision that will define the next several years of your tenure and the hopes of an entire fan base starved for a Super Bowl.