What’s next for Case Keenum and the Vikings’ QB situation?

Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford are all set to hit free agency in 2018.

The last time the Minnesota Vikings won a playoff game, Brett Favre was the team’s quarterback. The Vikings have since used three first-round picks on quarterbacks — two to take Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater, and another to acquire Sam Bradford. But it’s journeyman Case Keenum who has a chance to get the team to the NFC Championship.

His unlikely path to starter of a 13-3 team has been a well-documented storyline for the Vikings in 2017. After starting 14 games over two seasons with the Rams, Keenum was benched for Jared Goff and allowed to leave the team in the offseason.

He was scooped up to be Bradford’s backup while the Vikings waited for Bridgewater to heal up from a devastating knee injury. But when Bradford’s knee became a problem, Keenum took the reins and never looked back.

An offseason afterthought leading a team to a first-round bye in the playoffs is a compelling story, but it also sets up an intriguing beginning to 2018: who will be the Vikings’ starting quarterback next year?

Minnesota may not want Keenum back in 2018

The NFL is a cold business and watching Keenum go would be about as icy as it gets. He threw for 22 touchdowns in the regular season with seven interceptions and finished with a 98.3 passer rating. He also loves being in Minnesota.

“I’ve got an organization that believes in me, and a system that I can succeed in,” Keenum wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “I’ve got this great group of close-knit teammates, who have become this great group of close-knit friends. And I’m living in this amazing community — that loves, and lives, and breathes football.”

But do the Vikings want him to be their long-term solution at quarterback? That answer, despite his successes in 2017, is probably a no.

Minnesota’s 13-3 record is a product of its No. 1-ranked defense, first and foremost. The team finished the year No. 2 in rushing attempts and just No. 21 in passing attempts. Keenum has been a pleasant surprise for the Vikings, but not the reason the team has been a winner.

Keenum has made the plays when they’re there to make — hitting Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on a fair amount of deep strikes — and he’s mobile enough to give the Vikings offensive line some help. But his greatest strength in 2017 has been avoiding mistakes and letting the Minnesota defense pick up wins.

The issue for Keenum is that the Vikings probably want to see if their 2015 first-round pick is still a piece of the future.

Teddy Bridgewater takes priority over Case Keenum

Bridgewater, a 25-year-old former first-round pick who went to a Pro Bowl in 2015, is healthy again.

In August 2016, he suffered a knee injury so bad that it was questionable if he’d ever be able to play again. But in December — 16 months after his injury — Bridgewater played for the Vikings again. It was garbage time in a blowout over the Bengals orchestrated by Keenum, and Bridgewater promptly threw an interception on his first pass.

It wasn’t exactly the Hallmark moment for Bridgewater’s return, but it was the end of a long journey back to the field that was celebrated by a team and community that has stayed by the quarterback’s side every step of the way.

Bridgewater is still someone the Vikings likely think has a shot at being their passer of the future — or at least a better one than Keenum — even if the team’s successes in his two seasons as starter were also thanks largely to good defense and a heavy ground attack.

The Vikings probably don’t think the same of Bradford, who played well in Week 1, but again struggled with a knee injury that has bogged down his career. The 30-year-old quarterback returned in Week 5, but was clearly not 100 percent and benched late in the first half. Bradford missed the rest of the regular season, undergoing another minor knee surgery in November.

Bradford is active for the Vikings’ playoff run, but it’s hard to imagine the team sees him in the long-term plans knowing the damage his knee has accumulated.

With Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater all set to become free agents in 2018, the only one it’s difficult to imagine the Vikings parting ways with is Bridgewater.

And if they really want to see what they have in Bridgewater, keeping Keenum would make that difficult. Imagine Bridgewater having even one bad game in his return to the starting lineup in 2018, while Keenum — the 2017 hero — watches from the sideline.

If Bridgewater gets his shot to start again, the best option for the Vikings could be letting Bradford and Keenum both walk. Maybe a new rookie quarterback or another discount backup would make sense in Minnesota in that case.

Then what does the future hold for Case Keenum?

There could be some big-name quarterbacks hitting free agency in March. Kirk Cousins could potentially become one of the most blockbuster players ever to reach the market. Alex Smith may also be in a new uniform in 2018, although that could be via trade.

But it shouldn’t be hard for Keenum to find a place where he’ll have a chance at competing for a starting job should the Vikings choose to go in another direction.

The Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals are just a few of the teams that would gladly sign up for Keenum replicating his 2017 season.

And the prospective competition for his services mean he’ll definitely do better than the one-year, $ 2 million contract he got from the Vikings as a free agent a year ago. Even if Minnesota chooses to keep him, Keenum stands to make much more.

So yes, it’s a harsh that Keenum’s time in purple could be reaching its end soon. But his 2017 season means a hefty pay day is probably on the way, regardless.

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