Note: This is the fourth of four offseason snapshots looking at the peaks and valleys of key 2017 Vikings contributors. Part III: Eric Kendricks. Part II: Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Part I: Harrison Smith.
Case Keenum’s season has people debating around the country from NFL meeting rooms to barstools.
A team will pay millions this spring to answer the questions about a 30-year-old quarterback coming off his first season with double-digit touchdown passes. What Keenum brings to the table is proof you can be successful with him via 12 wins, including a playoff classic over the Saints. Greater than 22 touchdown throws was his impact on a Vikings offense that lost two key players in the first month and made it to the NFC title game.
Despite immense production in college, Keenum was overlooked because of his smaller stature and his thriving in a spread offense at Houston. Then a first shot as an NFL starter ended with an 0-8 record, losing seven in a row with the Texans by an average of 4.1 points. The iron also didn’t heat up under Jeff Fisher’s Rams.
So few saw coming Keenum parlaying a one-year, $2 million deal into his first big-time payday, into Pat Shurmur’s head coaching job in New York and into the Vikings’ quarterback conversation.
Keenum’s Vikings debut caused some winces. He threw for 167 yards on 39 dropbacks, was hit eight times by the Steelers and lost in Pittsburgh with a nine-point effort. Making all the more important the Vikings’ play call on the first throw the following week against Tampa Bay. While being economical with his chances, the Vikings didn’t hide Keenum. After a lackluster start, they let him bare his teeth with a precise 49-yard throw over Vernon Hargreaves III as seen in the first clip below.
Most NFL starters had a better passer rating with play action than without, according to Pro Football Focus, and only one offense (Rams) ran it more than the Vikings. Helping was the fact Keenum produced better than most after faking a handoff. His 1,200 yards and 69.1 completion percentage with play-action ranked third and fourth in the league. Second clip: On third down, this play-action design hides Adam Thielen in the formation until the last second. The handoff freezes Washington defenders long enough while Keenum jumps to make the throw with pressure in his face. Third clip: Keenum gets a little too deep in his drop, but steps up to find the wide-open Thielen. Fourth clip: Keenum’s playmaking continued. Orchestrating at the line, he reads the Bucs’ slot blitz and throws into it for the 19-yard completion.
Keenum’s best asset might be his mobility. The Vikings leaned into that, often talking about “moving the platform” with Keenum, meaning he can throw on the run. Plays were designed with Keenum’s athleticism and accuracy on the run at the forefront, particularly those executed in the red zone. As seen below, Keenum turns a rollout into a 3-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. Second clip: A pick play for Jarius Wright nets a 2-yard touchdown with Keenum’s bootleg buying time.
Moving Keenum helped keep the Vikings out of trouble despite fielding the third-most pressured passer (39.3 percent), according to PFF. He also needed to dodge bullets. Only Philip Rivers was sacked less while under pressure than Keenum’s 10.7 percent. The Vikings seemingly loosened the reins on Keenum after the bye week, given 30 of his 40 runs came in the second half of the season. But much of his success while under pressure came while throwing into it. Third clip: Game tied with 2:16 to go in Chicago, Keenum finds Jerick McKinnon for 10 yards to set up the game-winning field goal while getting drilled. Fourth clip: An unchecked Steelers defender hits Keenum while he throws a 21-yard dime to Diggs.
Keenum’s play under pressure in 2017 was a deviation of his career. Even though he saw more pressure than since his first go as a starter, Keenum completed more of his passes (56 percent, which led the league) and took fewer sacks than his career averages.
Aside from shoddy pass protection in 2016, the Vikings already could have been labeled a quarterback-friendly offense while fielding the then-NFL record holder for completion percentage in Sam Bradford. Thielen, Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph are among the most reliable skill players in football. And the Vikings often succeeded in 2017 while scheming ways to get them open quickly, letting the receivers create.
Keenum hit his shots. He ranked eighth in deep-passing accuracy, according to PFF, but the attempts were around league average (t-14th). The downfield potential of a Thielen-Diggs duo is greater, especially as PFF claims they caught 22 of a combined 22 catchable deep passes last season. In the first clip below, Keenum misses Diggs on a deep post as the ball floats to the right.
Overall, Keenum produced around league average – 12th in touchdowns, 14th in yards per attempts and 18th in yards per game. That takes some managing. Often described as excitable, Keenum is fiery in his demeanor and chances he’d like to take on the field. Decision making can wane, as it did with a couple postseason interceptions. Below you’ll see one of those interceptions. The Keenum conundrum continues with a 27-yard dart over Wright’s shoulder on the next throw in the NFC Divisional win against the Saints.