Teddy Bridgewater Emerging as NFL's Top Rookie Quarterback

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2014

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) warms up before an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Associated Press

If the divided opinions of Teddy Bridgewater were separated onto opposite sides of a scale, one side would clearly outweigh the other at this point.

The 32nd overall draft pick of the 2014 draft was the most hotly debated player of a draft that included both Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel. After his performance against Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, Bridgewater was regularly being discussed as the top quarterback of the 2014 class.

He was considered a potential first overall selection, not simply a first-round pick.

Ultimately, Bridgewater fell in the draft because of how he was perceived through the draft process. Whether his supposedly small hands were a problem (even though he had bigger hands than others who weren't regularly highlighted), according to USA Today's Tom Pelissero; his poor performance during his pro day was a problem, as detailed by SB Nation; or his skinny knees were a problem, according to Adam Himmelsbach of The Courier-Journal; Bridgewater's detractors had plenty to pick from.

Each of those aspects of Bridgewater became a major talking point during the draft process because very little of what was being criticized could be seen on his tape from college. Now, Bridgewater had flaws, but too often those criticizing him couldn't articulate their criticisms legitimately.

Take this example from former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik on NFL Live (h/t ProFootballTalk):

There were things you saw on tape when you watched him. Something that scouts internally, we talked about it in Tampa with Teddy Bridgewater last year. Is he really the premiere quarterback? I like the young man, I think he’s a quality individual, he’s got character and leadership and those things. But this is a quarterback, and you’re judged by what quarterback you draft, and I think Teddy Bridgewater might not have all the pieces you’re looking for.

No negative point made in this statement can be considered a specific.

There is no mention of arm strength, no mention of accuracy, no mention of his ability to read a defense, his footwork, his consistency, his athleticism or his ability to throw with touch and anticipation. This is an opinion that offers no evidence or actual discussion.

Despite the absence of quality reasoning, Dominik quickly received backing from another former NFL employee, Greg Gabriel:

The NFL draft is an inexact science and different elements that can't be seen on the football field must always be considered. However, when a player's character and leadership is being praised, it typically means that the only thing that matters is what the player does on the field and how he measures up athletically.

Athletically, Bridgewater wasn't and still isn't anything special. He doesn't have a JaMarcus Russell or Matthew Stafford arm in terms of strength. He isn't a Michael Vick or Colin Kaepernick type of player when it comes to running the ball.

Bridgewater's physical attributes resembled those of Aaron Rodgers when he entered the league. He was a pocket passer who could make plays on the run or scramble when given space.

During the preseason, Bridgewater competed with veteran Matt Cassel for the starting job. Cassel was the favorite from the very start because he had played relatively well in 2013 and was obviously more experienced.

Bridgewater wasn't being given a smaller playbook; he was competing while working in the regular offense.

Early on during the preseason, Bridgewater appeared to be on track to take the starting role from his teammate. However, inconsistency through the preseason cost him his opportunity. Cassel would start during a Week 1 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

The Bridgewater era was delayed but only for a couple weeks.

An injury to Cassel during the Minnesota Vikings' Week 3 matchup with the New Orleans Saints ushered Bridgewater onto the field prematurely. In a tough atmosphere against the Saints in New Orleans, Bridgewater played relatively well but never looked fully comfortable.

He was overly cautious and often too tentative. This is something that would continue over the coming weeks. A major reason for this is how the Vikings treated him. Unlike Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders, Bridgewater wasn't being eased into the NFL with a very quarterback-friendly scheme.

Instead, the Vikings asked Bridgewater to make plays most veterans can't consistently make by dropping back into the pocket, mitigating pressure and making coverage reads from sideline to sideline. This is something that Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner commented on just last week.

Without being asked, Turner offered a 545-word statement about Bridgewater's play and the situation he had been put in, per Vikings beat reporter Matt Vensel.

Comments from coaches must always be taken with a grain of salt because of how involved/invested they are in their subjects, but Turner has been one of Bridgewater's most outspoken supporters since the draft. Furthermore, Turner talks about specifics that can all be seen on the field.

Because Bridgewater is playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, is missing his best running back through suspension and has a very limited group of wide receivers, his statistics don't tell you much about the quality of his play.

Ahead of a Week 16 matchup with the Miami Dolphins, Bridgewater had completed 223 of 351 passes (63.5 percent) for 2,451 yards (7.0 yards per attempt), 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Seven of his 11 touchdowns came in the past four games, while he had consecutive 300-plus-yard games in Weeks 14 and 15.

In Week 16, Bridgewater didn't have 300-plus yards through the air, but he did have two more touchdowns as part of his best display this season.

The 22-year-old completed 19 of 26 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. His one interception came on an accurate pass underneath when the ball bounced off running back Matt Asiata's hands.

Credit: NFL.com

Early on the Vikings' first drive of the game, Bridgewater faced a 3rd-and-7 at midfield. The Vikings initially had two receivers outside the numbers to the right of the formation, but Bridgewater signaled to motion one into the flat.

A defensive back trailed the receiver into the slot, suggesting that the defense was going to play man coverage. However, it's also important to note the actions of the deep safety who drops further downfield when the receiver motions.

This deep safety is who Bridgewater is going to key onto at the snap.

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As the signs before the snap suggested, the Dolphins defense was playing press-man coverage underneath with a single-deep safety. That deep safety is alone because the Dolphins have called a delayed blitz to attack Bridgewater's blind side.

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Bridgewater's eyes never leave the safety as he drops back in the pocket. He isn't staring down one of his receivers; he is holding the safety in his position because he knows Jarius Wright is running a deep crossing route.

Had Bridgewater brought his eyes to Wright immediately at the snap, he would have drawn the safety to the route. By focusing on the safety and waiting for Wright to run his route into the quarterback's line of vision, Bridgewater created space for Wright to come free.

Bridgewater holds the ball for only a moment at the top of his drop before delivering an accurate ball for Wright to run through.

A relatively simple 20-yard gain is the result for the wide receiver. This is the kind of play from Bridgewater that appears easy because the physical throw wasn't tough, but he created that easy play by not staring down his receiver and understanding how his routes would work against the given coverage.

One of Bridgewater's strongest selling points from his college tape was his accuracy on intermediate passes. Although his accuracy hasn't been as consistent in the NFL yet and Greg Jennings has struggled this year independent of his quarterback, Bridgewater has shown that off on a number of occasions this year.

For his first touchdown pass in this game he hit Jennings in stride on an intermediate corner route.

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Early in the second quarter, Bridgewater and the Vikings offense faced another 3rd-and-long. Once more, the Dolphins defense is showing a relatively aggressive alignment at the snap. With seven defenders in the box and a nickel defender in press coverage against the slot receiver, the Dolphins have just one deep safety again.

Jennings is lined up against the Dolphins' best cornerback, Brent Grimes, to the bottom of the screen.

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The Dolphins attempt to blitz the quarterback again, rushing five defenders at the snap. The Vikings' protection is penetrated from multiple spots as soon as Bridgewater reaches the top of his drop. In spite of his offensive linemen failing, Bridgewater delivers the ball from clean space because he immediately lets it go once he settles at the top of his drop.

Bridgewater is able to drop a perfect pass to Jennings, who ambles his way into the end zone for a touchdown.

Once again, this play looked relatively simple because the throw wasn't immediately spectacular. However, if you break the throw down in detail, you realize that it really was spectacular. The touch was perfect, and the placement was perfect. But most significantly, the ball was thrown with anticipation.

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This is roughly the point when Bridgewater let the football go. Jennings is just working through his route to break back toward the sideline. At this point, Grimes is beaten, but he will have a chance to recover if the ball is late.

Not only does Bridgewater give Grimes no chance to recover on the route by releasing the ball this early, but he has also negated the pass rush up front by not having to wait to see his open receiver to throw the ball.

Executing the play like this is exactly the way it's supposed to be executed. While plenty of highlight plays come outside of the design of plays in the NFL, the most consistent and efficient way of running an offense is within the design of each given play.

The Vikings wouldn't add another touchdown before the end of the first half, but Bridgewater would compile multiple big plays in the passing game to set up an unlikely field-goal attempt.

With just 1:06 left in the second quarter, the Vikings started a drive at their own 13-yard line. The Dolphins had punted it away after reaching the Vikings 46-yard line. That deep in their own territory, the Vikings initially attempted to just run the clock out.

Because the Dolphins held the Vikings to four yards on the first run and just one on their second, they used both of their timeouts to stop the clock. A 16-yard run by Joe Banyard on 3rd-and-5 put Bridgewater in position to strike for field-goal range.

From his own 34-yard line, Bridgewater created 25 yards with his athleticism.

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The Dolphins didn't blitz on this play, but they did immediately penetrate the pocket up the middle. Bridgewater reacted to this pressure quickly and escaped the pocket to his right side. While showing off his athleticism, Bridgewater kept his eyes downfield. This proved vitally important.

Keeping your eyes downfield keeps the receivers involved in the play and allows the quarterback to take advantage of unnatural space. Too many quarterbacks, especially rookies, drop their eyes in these situations.

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Bridgewater was able to locate Charles Johnson down the right sideline. Johnson had originally ran a deep crossing route, and he was left wide open because of the route combinations that drew the deep coverage down the field.

Once left uncovered, Johnson turned back to face his quarterback and settled near the sideline. Bridgewater found him with an accurate pass, allowing the receiver to turn downfield to complete the 25-yard play.

From there, Bridgewater connected with Cordarrelle Patterson over the middle of the field with a precise pass into relatively tight coverage. That set the offense up at the Dolphins 22-yard line. A spike set up 2nd-and-10 with 19 seconds left in the half.

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This is an obvious blitzing situation for the defense. It wants to speed the rookie quarterback up, knowing that it can knock the field-goal attempt backward or even force a turnover. It doesn't need to be concerned by any running plays at this point of the game.

The Dolphins are heavily hinting a blitz from the right slot because their slot cornerback is aligned far inside the slot receiver with a safety lined up deep directly in line with the receiver. Understanding that cornerback is coming, Bridgewater needs to determine if the other slot defender is coming or the linebacker over the middle of the field.

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At the snap, the other slot defender comes after the quarterback, meaning the inside linebacker has to run across to catch up with the tight end. Bridgewater knows immediately at this point of the play that he is going to throw the ball to his tight end in the slot.

That is because his tight end is running a wheel route down the sideline.

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Bridgewater lets the ball go at the top of his drop, once again negating any potential pressure. Because of the route against the coverage, the linebacker has no chance of locating the football. Bridgewater drops a perfect pass to his tight end to catch it before going out of bounds at the 1-yard line.

His tight end was only just prevented from finishing the play for a touchdown.

Although time prevented the Vikings from going for a touchdown at the end of the first half, Bridgewater would make his two most impressive plays of the game during a critical fourth quarter. A Mike Wallace touchdown reception had put the Dolphins eight points ahead of the Vikings with just six minutes left in the game.

Bridgewater opened the drive with a nine-yard completion to Asiata on a checkdown after his initial read was covered.

Checking the ball down is a vitally important aspect of a quarterback's performance. It's something every quarterback must do, but he must do it when it's appropriate to do it. Too many quarterbacks struggle by checking the ball down too quickly, costing the offense yards downfield, or too late, costing the offense yards underneath.

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One of Bridgewater's best plays of the game was a checkdown, and it came a few plays into this drive. After being forced to throw the ball away because of a huge amount of pressure on first down, Bridgewater and the Vikings offense faced a 2nd-and-10 close to midfield.

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As the rookie drops back in the pocket, his eyes are focused on the left side of the field. When he reaches the top of his drop, his eyes are still staying in that area while two Dolphins defenders push their way past their blockers toward him.

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To evade the edge pressure, Bridgewater steps up in the pocket and brings his eyes across the field. After initially looking at the left side of the field, Bridgewater scans the right side before dropping the ball into the flat where his tight end is wide open.

When he turned to locate his tight end, a defender in the pocket was released into his face so Bridgewater was forced to adjust to get the ball out accurately.

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Because Bridgewater properly read the coverage and checked down at the right time, his tight end was immediately in enough space to get a first down. Furthermore, because the rest of the defense had been dragged to the other side of the field by the quarterback's eyes, the tight end only had to beat one defender to gain 40 yards.

That 40-yard play set the Vikings up in the red zone.

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At the 8-yard line, it was 1st-and-goal. Bridgewater was in the shotgun, with one running back to his right and a pair of receivers to either side of the formation. At this stage, the Dolphins weren't looking to be aggressive, so they weren't showing a blitz at the snap or hinting at one with their coverage alignment.

From the first moment that the ball touches Bridgewater's hands, he is looking to his slot receiver on the right side of the offense.

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Pressure is coming from the right side of the offensive line. Cameron Wake immediately beat his blocker when he contacted him, while another defender is following him through the hole he created. With this quick pressure, Bridgewater would ideally throw to his first read.

However, Bridgewater's first read is double-covered as soon as he begins working down the field.

Panic is the natural reaction to a situation like this. The first movement most quarterbacks make is with their feet; they attempt to buy time by escaping backward or stepping up in the pocket. However, Bridgewater doesn't do that on this occasion. His natural reaction is to use his eyes.

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As Wake arrives to hit him, Bridgewater speeds up his throwing motion. He doesn't alter it to affect the precision of his pass, but he does allow himself to get rid of the ball cleanly before absorbing the hit. Bridgewater again shows off anticipation and touch with this throw, but more significant was his poise.

This wasn't his slot receiver. This was his outside receiver who ran a double move. Bridgewater moved his eyes away from his first read and found his second read to negate the immediate pressure.

Bridgewater turned an obvious sack into a touchdown with simply phenomenal play from the pocket. This is the type of play that Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers have built long, successful careers on. These are the types of plays that even the best rookie quarterbacks aren't supposed to make.

Although the Vikings didn't win this game—a late safety on a punt attempt turned a tied game into a loss—Bridgewater's play only served to highlight his quality.

With just one week left in his rookie season, it's blatantly obvious what side of the scale is carrying more weight. Those who suggested Bridgewater couldn't be a franchise quarterback in the NFL should be recanting their ambiguous and illogical qualms.

Unless he dramatically regresses or suffers a serious injury, Bridgewater will one day be a franchise quarterback in the NFL. He's already a quality starter.

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