The Vikings homed in on their latest quarterback of the future in the spring of 2014 when they made another draft-night trade to jump ahead of the Oakland Raiders and other teams.
Blake Bortles, a project with prototypical size, was long gone, to Jacksonville. Johnny Manziel, who became an overnight sensation while freelancing his way to the Heisman Trophy, was off the board, too, after the Cleveland Browns jumped ahead of the Vikings to take him.
When the Vikings acquired the 32nd overall pick, Teddy Bridgewater was the top quarterback remaining on their draft board, ahead of strong-armed Derek Carr.
The Oakland Raiders ended up taking Carr four picks and about 20 hours later.
Midway through the quarterbacks’ second season, both teams are pleased with how things worked out. Led by Carr and a potent offense, the Raiders are relevant again. And Bridgewater has steered the Vikings into a first-place tie with Green Bay in the NFC North.
“Me and Teddy, we text back and forth a little bit and keep up with one another and root for one another,” Carr said on a conference call Wednesday. “I always tell everyone I root for the guys to have Hall of Fame careers, except when we play them. I’m happy for his success and the things he’s done.”
Bridgewater practiced Wednesday and has one more hurdle to clear in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Barring an unexpected setback, he will start Sunday against the Raiders in a matchup featuring the two most promising quarterbacks from that 2014 draft class.
With twice as many career touchdown passes, Carr has the clear statistical edge on Bridgewater. In 2015, he ranks third in the NFL with 19 touchdown passes against only four interceptions. Bridgewater, meanwhile, has six of each. Carr, who ranks 12th in the league in passing yards, has averaged 53 more yards per game than Bridgewater.
“I think Carr is playing very well. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, seeing things, getting the ball out,” coach Mike Zimmer said, adding, “We’re going to have to be on our toes.”
But Bridgewater is the only full-time starter from the 2014 class with a winning record. He is 12-8 in his young career, including 6-2 this season. Carr is 7-17. The mistake-prone Bortles has five career wins, and Manziel, who has been unable to overtake veterans Brian Hoyer and now Josh McCown on the depth chart, is 1-3.
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski irked vocal Vikings fans, and some members of the coaching staff, this summer when he ranked Carr one spot ahead of Bridgewater in his annual preseason quarterback rankings. Jaworski slotted them 26th and 27th.
But Jaworski, a former Pro Bowl quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, said Wednesday that he ranked the passers by recent performance, not long-term potential.
“I think both quarterbacks have a very bright future,” he said in a phone interview.
Noting Carr’s improved supporting cast, which includes impressive rookie receiver Amari Cooper and the emergence of Raiders running back Latavius Murray, Jaworski says Carr has flashed the recognition skills to go with his above-average arm talent.
“He has really elevated his game. He is becoming much better in the pre-snap phase,” Jaworski said. “He’s got a fast, quick release. The ball just comes out with accuracy and velocity. … I thought their offense was really simplistic last year, which is exactly what you want to do with a young quarterback. This year, he’s taken another step.”
While Carr has been asked to air it out in a few shootouts this season, Bridgewater usually has been tasked with being a game manager for a Vikings squad that has the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson and the league’s second-ranked scoring defense. But Jaworski said he has noticed progress from Bridgewater in his second season, too.
“When you look at Teddy, he is a little limited in terms of arm strength. He doesn’t have that big-time gun we all like to see,” he said. “But he is excellent at running this offense. He’s smart, he’s careful with the football and he doesn’t make dumb plays and dumb throws and turn the ball over. He plays with intelligence and doesn’t beat himself.”
So which of the two quarterbacks does Jaworski rank higher heading into Sunday? It’s Carr again. But he believes both will climb into the top 10 of his “big board” someday.
The Vikings are focused on the now, though, which is why they have lessened the load for Bridgewater compared to the heavy lifting he had to do for most of his rookie year.
Zimmer credits Bridgewater for not trying to do too much when it is not needed. But he did say, “We have to do better in our passing game, there’s no question about it.”
“Sometimes he’s cautious with the ball because he doesn’t want to give the other team a chance,” Zimmer said. “When we get behind in games, he doesn’t play that way. He kind of lets it loose and just plays football. I want him to be more like that throughout the course of the ballgame. … He just needs to say, ‘The heck with it. It’s my ball. Let’s go.’ ”