Case Keenum and the 2017 Minnesota Vikings: A Perfect Match
In the first six months of marriage, I’ve learned -- more than anything else -- what makes for a happy, healthy home is compromise.
When one partner doesn’t have time to take out the trash, the other one steps up to help. When someone forgets to feed the cats, the other dishes out dinner instead. And -- of course -- when one partner’s favorite football team collapses in a heap, the other doesn’t rub it in their face.
That last guideline certainly wasn’t followed in the Redemann household in 2017 -- that’s for sure. The peaceful Sunday afternoons this fall and winter were perpetually shattered by my lovely wife shouting, “My man, Case!” every time Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum led a scoring drive.
Last year around this time, Keenum was a benchwarmer for a bungling Los Angeles Rams team; this year, he’s tossing touchdowns left and right and leading Minnesota to a first-round playoff bye. Yes, my wife has a crush on Keenum, but I can’t be too upset at her: the advanced analytics seem to agree.
How did Keenum go from career castoff to heralded heartthrob in just a year?
Keenum had attended the University of Houston, and in his Cougars career, he set the NCAA career passing yardage record (19,217) and career passing touchdown record (155). Both marks still stand to this day. In addition, every single season -- including an injury-shortened 2010 -- saw him post a completion rate above 65 percent, while three of the four full years saw him throw interception rates below 2.15 percent. Keenum was dominant in college.
However, his 6'1", 208-pound frame was considered small for an NFL quarterback. In addition, average-at-best arm strength meant he wouldn’t be putting up video game numbers in the pros. According to MockDraftable.com, Keenum’s physical profile was most similar to Max Hall, Greg McElroy, and Riley Skinner before him. Who? Exactly.
That’s why Keenum fell completely through the NFL Draft, signing an undrafted free agent contract with the Houston Texans. He saw no game action in 2012, but he got 10 not-so-great starts between 2013 and 2014, eventually bouncing over to the (then St. Louis) Rams. His stint there started with his backing up Nick Foles and ended with him behind 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff.
Long story short, Keenum was solid enough to fill in when his team was in need but did nothing to seize a starting gig and force his coaches' collective hand.
A Whirlwind Romance
In fact, when we look at his production by numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP), there wasn’t much to indicate that Keenum would or should be a franchise’s starter.
NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score production, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
The table below shows Keenum’s Passing NEP per drop back from 2013 to 2016, as well as his Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs that were converted into positive NEP gains. For comparison, I’ve also included the league average Passing NEP per drop back rate and Passing Success Rate for quarterbacks for each year.
In all but his 2015 season, Keenum was below league-average both in per-play value and consistency of production (that year he was fewer than two percentage points better than average in Passing Success Rate).
There was nothing in Keenum’s production profile to indicate that he would ever come anywhere near his college production, let alone earn himself a starting job in the pros. The highest he ranked in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks to drop back at least 100 times in a season was 21st in 2015 (out of 45). Even at his best, Keenum was middling in a small sample size.
That’s why the Vikings were able to sign him for a paltry $2 million this offseason. They had no idea what they got.
Once 2017 starter Sam Bradford got injured, Keenum stepped into the starting role and never relinquished it.
The table below shows Keenum’s Passing NEP per drop back and Passing Success Rate, along with the league average in each, just like before.
Keenum earned 0.13 Passing NEP per drop back more than the average quarterback this year, by far the best rate of his career, while also exceeding the average consistency rate by more than five percentage points. Among quarterbacks to drop back 100 times, he was a ridiculous ninth in Passing NEP per drop back and fifth in Passing Success Rate.
So, what in the world happened to change his success this drastically?
First of all, Keenum has a pretty good receiving duo to throw to now in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. NFL.com’s Matt Harmon outlined just how impressive the two Vikings wideouts are at providing a solid target for their quarterback:
Highest avg. separation on targets of 10+ air yards (40 tgt min.) #NextGenStats
Keenan Allen 2.77
Tyreek Hill 2.55
Stefon Diggs 2.54
Adam Thielen 2.52
Rishard Matthews 2.5
NFL avg. 2.12
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) January 2, 2018
Diggs and Thielen both excel at getting open and creating separation, so Keenum had plenty of easy throws to make. But that’s not the only supporting cast boost Keenum has received since arriving in Minnesota.
Using NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, we can see how much of a boon Keenum’s upgraded offensive line is. The table below compares Keenum’s 2016 with the Rams to his 2017 with the Vikings by sack rate and NFL’s time to throw metric (the average seconds from snap to release on all pass attempts).
|Year||Team||Sack %||Time to Throw (sec.)|
Keenum has been sacked 2.6 percent less frequently this year -- which is the equivalent of 12 fewer sacks at his 2017 volume of drop backs -- and he’s had almost half a second more to make his reads and throw.
In fact, Keenum’s time to throw in 2016 was second-least among 39 quarterbacks; in 2017, it was ninth-most among 41. This isn’t the be-all, end-all confirming that better receiver play and a more resilient offensive line have made Keenum who he is, but it’s surely a strong indication why he’s been able to thrive at the level he has this season.
Keenum is playing well beyond what we’d ever expected of him, thanks to a nearly perfect team situation this year.
An old saying about love goes like this: “If you have chemistry, you only need one other thing: timing. But timing sucks.” Case Keenum and the Vikings found each other at just the right time, though, and the romance of the 2017 season could be a story for the ages.