Let’s All Get Excited About Teddy Bridgewater
It’s pretty easy to get excited about Teddy Bridgewater. It’s the start of July, so it’s pretty easy to get excited about a number of football related things. But Bridgewater brings a special type of excitement.
He’s a young quarterback with the potential of breaking out into a star player. In the hierarchy of July NFL narratives, taking the leap is in the top tier. The league’s official website dedicates an entire offseason series about such a topic.
We’re here, though, to talk about the Minnesota Vikings quarterback specifically. Bridgewater was an analytics favorite prior to being drafted, but his rookie season metrics were rather mediocre, at least by our Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
By NEP Bridgewater’s 2014 performance was around the level of a league average quarterback. While it was easily the best season of the 2014 rookie class, Bridgewater’s 0.05 Passing NEP per drop back ranked just 22nd out of 43 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times. That placed him just below Ryan Tannehill (0.07) and on par with Andy Dalton and Nick Foles on a per drop back basis.
Those might not be the most exciting names to throw out as comparisons, but the rest of the rookies were down with Josh McCown, Jake Locker and Robert Griffin III. We’ve found rookie performance can be a good indicator of future success, but in this case it’s important to understand the type of rookie season Bridgewater had.
Tale of Two Halves
Bridgewater’s first few starts were rough. There’s not much debate about that. In his first three starts of the season against Atlanta (who ranked 29th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play), Detroit (fourth) and Buffalo (second), Bridgewater threw one touchdown against five interceptions.
He was also aided with easy reads and protected throws. Go through a play-by-play of starts through the first half of his games, and you’ll see a whole lot of “Teddy Bridgewater pass short…” The direction afterwards differs, but many of the throws were not meant to stretch the defense vertically. It’s something that, despite the 1:5 touchdown to interception ratio, allowed him to still complete 61.2 percent of his passes in his first three starts.
Though Bridgewater was ushered in with that game plan, he was let loose through the second half of the season. Bridgewater struggled some with reads early on but was much more comfortable picking apart defenses as the season progressed. The rookie finished the season with 3.54 air yards per attempt -- the average each pass physically traveled in the air -- which ranked just 23rd of 33 qualified quarterbacks. Thanks to the better second half of the season, it was still well above Carr’s 2.85, which ranked 31st.
Take Bridgewater’s two 2014 games against the Detroit Lions. Detroit was our fourth best defensive in the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and 10th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Facing the one of the league’s best defenses that excels at creating interior pressure isn’t an easy task for any rookie quarterback, let alone having to do it twice. There was a difference, though, in how Bridgewater was able to perform just eight weeks apart.
In the first game in Week 6, Bridgewater’s inexperience was evident and led to three interceptions, no touchdowns and just 188 passing yards. During the first meeting, he made throws like this after failing to look off the safety or even taking his eyes off of Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Vikings played the Lions again in Week 14, and Bridgewater was noticeably better. He still threw more interceptions than touchdowns, two to one, but again, the Lions were pretty good on defense. There were still some rookie mistakes, like a delay of game with five seconds left in the game with the ball on the Minnesota 44-yard line, down by two. That’s not great, but there were plays like a lofted 26-yard pass downfield to Greg Jennings that showed the type of touch Bridgewater can have when taking chances. It’s slightly off target, sure, but it’s to a place where only his receiver can get it.
After his first three starts and 128 drop backs, Bridgewater had a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.07. -0.07 is where Carr finished his rookie year, ranked 38th in the league. From that point in the season onward, Bridgewater played at roughly the ability of a 0.12 Passing NEP per drop back quarterback, which would have ranked 14th over a full season in 2014. The 14th-best quarterback in the league isn’t in the top tier, but it’s a promising sign for a rookie.
Thanks to Bridgewater and a few other factors in Minnesota, expectations for the 2015 Vikings are high. In the second year under head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings have already gone from a trendy sleeper playoff pick to fully caffeinated. With some defensive improvement under Zimmer, Minnesota could be a well balanced threat on both sides of the ball.
The return of Adrian Peterson at running back is also looked at a reason to help, though his impact may be overstated. Without him the Vikings still ranked third in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, giving Bridgewater and the Vikings plenty of help balancing the offense on the ground. The eight-man box argument is also overstated in its ability to help the passing game. This doesn’t mean the impact of Peterson won’t help Bridgewater, but it’s not going to be because the defense abandons pass defense each week.
While it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Vikings finish as the second best team in the NFC North, Bridgewater himself has already tried to temper those expectations. “Right now we’re not as good as we think,” he told USA Today. Our projections are also modest on the second-year quarterback’s 2015 outlook: 3,753.12 passing yards, 20.93 touchdowns, 16.31 interceptions.
“Right now we’re not as good as we think.” Right now in July, that is probably true. The regular season will be a different story. It’s okay to get excited about Teddy Bridgewater.