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Vikings have no easy answers about their future quarterback situation

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Technically, Minnesota could lose all three of its quarterbacks this offseason.

NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, the Vikings have too many quarterbacks — which is just the right amount. In 2018, they might not have any.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. Someone is going to be standing behind center at U.S. Bank Stadium next fall, and it won’t be a tailback. But the days of Minnesota’s three-headed quarterback attack, as surprisingly successful as it’s been, will come to an end in 2018. Teddy Bridgewater, his emergency fill-in Sam Bradford, and Bradford’s emergency fill-in Case Keenum — all three with winning records wearing purple and gold — are all slated to be unrestricted free agents in a QB-hungry market next spring.

There’s no way the team will be able to keep all three, and even retaining two will be a chore. That leaves general manager Rick Spielman with some big decisions to make as he aims to keep his franchise relevant.

Keenum is the man who has put Minnesota at the top of the NFC North, but Bridgewater, the man responsible for the team’s last playoff appearance, is finally ready to join the active roster after missing 24 games due to a catastrophic 2016 knee injury.

While the former will remain the team’s starter — he’s 5-2 in games where he’s taken the bulk of the snaps this fall, though none of those wins came against teams currently over .500 on the season — having Bridgewater on the sideline provides more than just an insurance policy.

So how will Mike Zimmer handle his latest addition to the QB depth chart while planning for both 2017 and 2018? And how did the Vikings get here?

The Vikings have proved they can win by reviving mediocre quarterbacks

In many ways, Minneapolis has been a tremendous incubator for quarterback talent. After the disastrous Christian Ponder era, the Vikings have gleaned above-average passing from three different sources — a homegrown prospect, a tarnished former No. 1 overall pick, and a journeyman who served as last year’s top draft pick’s seatwarmer in Los Angeles. They’ve done so with two different offensive coordinators — Norv Turner for the first year-plus of the Bridgewater experience, then Pat Shurmur in his absence.

Shurmur has been Sam Bradford’s play-caller of choice after teaming with him in both St. Louis (RIP) and Philadelphia. In 2017, he’s shown he can apply the lessons he’s learned working around Bradford’s limitations to other journeyman passers. Keenum’s success, one year after going 4-5 as a starter with the Rams, has been the most surprising. He’s upped his completion and touchdown rates while throwing fewer interceptions, leading Minnesota to first place in the division.

Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, before and during their time w/ Vikings

Player QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds/Gm TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Rate
Player QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds/Gm TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Rate
Sam Bradford, pre-Vikings 25W, 37L, 1T 1378 2292 60.1 234.8 78 3.4 52 2.3 6.5 81
Sam Bradford, Vikings 9W, 8L 427 595 71.8 250.5 23 3.9 5 0.8 7.2 101.1
Case Keenum, pre-Vikings 9W, 15L 454 777 58.4 200.9 24 3.1 20 2.6 6.7 78.4
Case Keenum, Vikings 4W, 2L 149 233 63.9 230 7 3 3 1.3 6.9 88.8

It’s a small sample size that doesn’t apply to his other stops, but the combination of the Vikings culture and Shurmur’s experience has made the veteran assistant a loose analogue for Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. Searage has built his name on turning around former top prospects who had seemingly hit a dead end, including pitchers like Francisco Liriano, J.A. Happ, and A.J. Burnett.

In Minneapolis, Shurmur has had a similar impact. He’s even got proof quarterbacking is in his blood; his son Kyle has quietly become Vanderbilt’s best quarterback since Jay Cutler was taking sideline drags with the ‘Dores.

But Minnesota’s success without Bridgewater raises questions about his value

The Vikings missed the playoffs in their first season without the young passer but are primed for their best finish since 2009 with Keenum handling the bulk of the team’s starts. It’s not like the six-year veteran has been a mere game manager, either. Playing in Minnesota has pushed him to the highest QB rating of his career; he’s throwing for more yards per game in 2017 than passers like Eli Manning, Dak Prescott, and Cam Newton.

Minnesota was also the backdrop for the best season of Sam Bradford’s career. In 2016, he led the league in completion percentage while posting personal bests in total yardage, yards per pass, and interception rate. While he went just 7-8 as a starter, the team’s struggles couldn’t be attributed to him.

Two quarterbacks who produced mediocre returns with other teams played significantly better in Minnesota. So what does that say about Bridgewater?

Bridgewater already has to answer questions about whether or not he can still be the same player he was before he hit the turf that fateful day in Aug. 2016. Even if he fully returns to form, any team interested in signing him away will also have to consider whether the Land of 10,000 Lakes effect made his efforts impossible to replicate elsewhere.

Those two concerns will make the tail end of 2017 really important for the third-year passer. Bridgewater is fundamentally different than Keenum and Bradford thanks to the mobility that allows him to extend plays and run for first downs when his protection collapses.

While he often suffered behind a struggling offensive line — he was sacked on an extremely high 9 percent of his dropbacks in his first two seasons — he emerged as an accurate passer with solid instincts and a limited feel for big plays (only 14 touchdown passes in 16 games in 2015).

Bridgewater’s activation from injured reserve will give him the opportunity to prove he can still move in the pocket but only if Keenum (or a lack of competition in Week 17) gives him that chance. If he’s still the kind of quarterback who relies on his feet to open windows downfield, he’ll face questions about his health. If he’s become a more conservative pocket passer after injury — a la Sam Bradford — he’ll have to face questions about whether the Minnesota effect inflated his talent.

It’s a strange lose-lose for an exciting player — though it won’t stop him from finding a home in free agency, either with the Vikings or elsewhere.

The Vikings will have to choose between Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum

Minnesota has a problem on its hands — a good problem, but a problem nonetheless. The Vikings have to pick their quarterback of the future, and with all due respect to Keenum, the race appears to be between two Pro Bowl passers with a history of knee issues.

Bridgewater is the upside play, the young QB who got fans excited while looking like a franchise cornerstone in 2014 and 2015. Bradford has a lower ceiling and higher floor, but the will-he won’t-he nature of the knee injury that cost him the bulk of the 2017 season may be just as troubling as Bridgewater’s blown-out knee in the long run.

Bradford is on injured reserve, so he won’t get a chance to prove himself again this season — and that has likely cost him millions in free agency.

That’s what will make finding room for Bridgewater to take the field, even in the midst of a potential playoff run, so important. The Vikings have to balance the 2017 season against their future at the most vital position in the game. And while no one on the team will be rooting for Keenum to fail, the reps Bridgewater takes in his first action since a potentially career-ending injury may be the most important of the year.