NFL Insider MArk Craig
Each February, before they head to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine, the Vikings meet as an organization to discuss the upcoming pool of free agents.
This year, they did so knowing Shaun Hill, their backup quarterback and a pending free agent, had told them he was retiring. Hill had just turned 37, so the Vikings were preparing to go younger anyway.
But not too young. They liked some of the draft prospects and still were grooming Taylor Heinicke at the time. But those guys would be too green considering Teddy Bridgewater’s uncertain future and Sam Bradford’s twice-rebuilt left knee.
The Vikings needed an experienced quarterback in his 20s. Good, but affordable considering the massive financial dynamics lurking with two potential franchise starters unsigned beyond this season.
Let’s just say the pickings were slim. Matt Barkley, Kellen Clemens and Blaine Gabbert weren’t good enough. And Mike Glennon and Nick Foles probably wouldn’t fit financially, which proved to be the case.
Ideally, teams like to sign quarterbacks who have experience with the offensive coordinator and his system. The Vikings had no suitable options.
But a player did surface during those free-agent meetings:
Keenum, 29, was young and experienced with 24 starts (9-15). He went 4-5 in Los Angeles last year, but the Vikings were particularly impressed by how he played against Detroit, when he completed 27 of 32 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
The Vikings knew the 6-1, 215-pounder lacked prototypical size. They knew his arm strength wasn’t ideal.
But Keenum had two physical traits that would work in Pat Shurmur’s offense: accuracy and mobility.
The Vikings also had done pre-draft work on Keenum in 2012, when the NCAA record-shattering passer went undrafted out of the University of Houston. The team concurred with the consensus on Keenum being a strong leader with good character and personality.
Keenum visited the Vikings and liked what he saw.
“[I] had some other options, some other teams,” Keenum said this week. “But Minnesota was the one that stuck out.”
At the owner’s meetings in March, Keenum and the Vikings put the finishing touches on a one-year, $2 million deal.
Six months later, Keenum became the starter a week after Bradford hurt his knee while posting a career-high 143.0 passer rating in the season-opening win over the Saints. After a rough loss at Pittsburgh, Keenum also posted a career-high passer rating (142.1) in a win over the Buccaneers.
After showing off his accuracy and mobility in relief of a hobbled Bradford in Monday night’s win at Chicago, Keenum will start against the Packers on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He’s 1-2 with a 64.5 completion percentage, four touchdowns, no turnovers and a 97.6 passer rating that ranks 10th in the league.
“A team like Tampa signs a Ryan Fitzpatrick because they’re invested in Jameis Winston and they want Ryan to rub off on him and help him improve,” said ESPN analyst and former 17-year NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. “On the flip side, Minnesota loves Bradford, but they don’t know if he can last 16 games. So they get a guy they think can win them like four games. But Case has seized this opportunity and is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL so far. Maybe the Vikings are thinking Case is better than they thought.”
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was asked to name the No. 1 trait he thinks a backup quarterback must have to succeed.
“I think it’s confidence,” he said. “You need to be able to step in the huddle and have guys believe in you.
“I’ve been around Case. I really enjoy him. He’s one of my favorite guys we had in the workout group we had for a while when he was in L.A. He’s done a really good job for them and he exudes that confidence I was talking about. When he gets in there, they’re really not missing a beat as far as tempo and what they’re trying to do.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL