Should Sam Bradford Be Minnesota's Quarterback of the Future?

Acquired right before the start of the season, Bradford had a solid year as Bridgewater's replacement. Did he do enough to secure a place as the team's quarterback of the future?

Fresh off a surprising NFC North division championship in 2015, the Minnesota Vikings had high expectations of success heading into this season. Returning many key pieces, like rushing title champ Adrian Peterson and a strong defensive unit, the Vikings were looking to make some noise in the playoffs.

Then, disaster struck. In a non-contact drill just before the season, third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater dislocated his left knee and tore his ACL. Those championship dreams were quickly in flux.

To keep those hopes alive, just four days later, the Vikings gave up a first- and fourth-round draft pick for the rights to Sam Bradford -- a move some thought was a bit of a stop gap. Bradford ended up having a decent year, which we'll get to, but the Vikings collapsed after a 5-0 start.

Now, speculation swirls around who the team's starting quarterback will be for 2017 as coach Mike Zimmer says the Vikings are unsure if Bridgewater will be ready to play next year.

If Bridgewater can't play in 2017, this question becomes moot, but is Bradford actually the better bet for the Vikings moving forward? Let's look at how the two passers compare.

Bridgewater's 2015 Campaign

Drafted out of Louisville in the first round, Bridgewater played 13 games in the 2014 campaign before making 16 starts for the Vikings in the 2015 season. And while the quarterback often plays a lead role in a division title, Bridgewater wasn't the most effective passer during his second season.

Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric gives a great way to measure a player's on-field contributions. For quarterbacks, we can look at Passing NEP, which tells us how many points a quarterback added for his team during a given season through the air.

For Bridgewater, 2015 wasn't so rosy. Out of the 37 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs, Bridgewater ranked 30th with a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.04. Bridgewater also suffered in terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of passes on which he generated a positive NEP -- as he regressed to a clip of 42.4 percent, down from his rookie year mark of 46.3 percent .

So with Bridgewater's less-than-stellar play, how'd the Vikings win the NFC North?

One of the main reasons was Peterson, who racked up a league-best 1,485 rushing yards. He was pretty efficient, as well. Among ball carriers with at least 150 rushes in 2015, Peterson ranked eighth with a Rushing NEP per play of 0.01, and he toted the rock a whopping 327 times.

It would be wrong to ignore the strides this defensive made in 2015. Using our schedule-adjusted per-play metrics, the Vikings' defense checked in 13th overall, with their passing defense ranking 11th and their rush defense sitting 17th.

The Vikings in 2016

While the Vikings missed the playoffs this past season, it's hard to fault the play of Bradford, who put together a strong year. Among the quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs, the former top overall pick ranked 12th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.16).

Bradford ended the year with an unbelievable 71.6 percent completion percentage, the best mark in NFL history, but as our own Dan Pizzuta showed, his completions weren't quite as impactful as those of the top passers -- although he still fared well, according to that study.

When looking at the two passers, Bradford's numbers are head and shoulders above what Bridgewater did.

Drop Backs Passing NEP/drop back Success Rate Completion Percentage Yards/Attempt
Bradford in 2016 589 0.16 49.96% 71.6% 7.0
Bridgewater in 2015 491 0.04 42.40%% 65.3% 7.2

Looking at those numbers, it's pretty difficult to make an argument for playing Bridgewater over Bradford.

This isn't a one-year blip, either. In 2015, when Bradford was on the Philadelphia Eagles, his Passing NEP per drop back of 0.08 was double what Bridgewater did that season.

It gets worse, too, once we take into account what went on around Bradford this past year. Whereas Bridgewater had help in 2015 in the form of a good running game, Bradford was almost on an island in 2016.

Peterson suffered a knee injury in the home opener, which led to a committee approach in the backfield for the Vikings. AP's absence combined with an offensive line that certainly had its challenges in 2016 resulted in a bad ground game. Matt Asiata (-0.15) and Jerick McKinnon (-0.13) each struggled in terms of Rushing NEP per play, and the Vikings ranked dead last in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.

In spite of the issues up front and the lack of a running game, Bradford still managed to check in 11th in terms of Passing Success Rate (49.6%) among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs. The defense was good again, checking in at third overall, per our numbers, but they weren't the same beast once Harrison Smith got hurt. So even though Bradford fared well, the Vikings' offense did play a key role in the team losing eight of its final 13 games and missing the postseason.

If there is one cause for concern, it's Bradford's lack of deep passing, which limits both him and his offense. He didn't chuck the ball deep downfield as much as most of his peers, ranking only 19th in yards per attempt (7.02 YPA). It's interesting to note the difference with Norv Turner, who resigned after Week 8, calling the shots, compared to the impact Pat Shurmur had thereafter.

Split Games Pass Attempts Yards YPA
Week 2 through Week 8 6 203 1442 7.1
Week 9 through Week 17 9 349 2375 6.8

While the 0.3 gap in yards per attempt may not seem that large, using passing data from 2016, Bradford's numbers under Turner would rank him 17th among qualified passers, whereas his numbers under Shurmur place him 24th.

Moving Forward

While Bridgewater did lead his team to an NFC North crown in 2015, we need to throw a cup of cold water on anyone heaping praise on him for the division title. The key cogs were the strong play of Peterson (thanks to a healthier offensive line) and a good defensive unit, which had another great year in 2016.

When your starting quarterback and your starting running back -- the latter of whom just happens to be one of the best of all time -- suffer significant injuries, and your offensive line plays a lot of the year shorthanded, you're probably going to struggle.

In that regard, even though the finish was disappointing after the 5-0 start, the fact that Minnesota managed to go 8-8 is a bit of a miracle -- and Bradford's play was a big part of that.

Looking at the numbers, it's pretty obvious Bradford is the better quarterback right now. Sure, there's an argument to be made that the young Bridgewater could improve with more experience, but when a team is built to win now -- and with their defense, this Minnesota team falls into that category -- it's hard to sacrifice the present with an eye on the future.

From a public relations perspective, benching your 24-year-old first-round pick for Bradford may look like a tough sell on the surface (assuming Bridgewater is healthy for 2017), but when you look at the data, it's clearly the right move.