While they’re unlikely to admit it publicly, many NFL decision-makers are likely regretting the crucial mistake they made last offseason.
Twenty-nine teams—30 if you include the Minnesota Vikings because of their first pick in the first round, linebacker Anthony Barr—passed on Teddy Bridgewater last year. The two teams that didn’t pass on the Louisville quarterback prospect were Washington and Indianapolis, two teams with young quarterbacks who had already traded away their first-round picks before the draft began.
By now you likely know the story. Bridgewater was the presumed top quarterback for the 2014 draft until the draft process began. During the draft process, his stock plummeted for a variety of peculiar reasons.
Once Bridgewater saw the field, he showed off that same inconsistency that comes with all rookie quarterbacks. That inconsistency cost him the chance to beat out veteran Matt Cassel for the starting job during the preseason.
He wouldn’t wait long to assume that role, though.
In a Week 3 game against the New Orleans Saints, Cassel was injured. Bridgewater was forced onto the field under circumstances that weren’t ideal. It was somewhat of a fitting beginning for the quarterback. Playing on the road, inside a loud dome, against a veteran and aggressive coaching staff with a limited supporting cast.
Bridgewater was forced to endure a baptism of fire that would have made most rookies melt. While he was a touch too cautious, Bridgewater’s debut went as well as anyone could have expected. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 150 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also added 27 rushing yards on six attempts.
It was easy to see what had initially made the quarterback such a promising prospect. He showed off poise, intelligence and awareness within the pocket while making some highlight-worthy throws.
The statistical production was muted but efficient. Bridgewater’s rookie season began in the way it would continue. While playing behind arguably the worst offensive line in the league with receivers who largely proved to be unreliable, Bridgewater was able to avoid capitulating.
He was inserted into the type of situation that would have made it acceptable for his performances to collapse. Yet despite the struggles of the offense around him, his performances made him comfortably the best rookie quarterback last year.
Neither Blake Bortles nor Derek Carr could match the array of elements that Bridgewater repeatedly showed off from his skill set.
The above chart tracks interceptable passes from various NFL quarterbacks for the 2014 season. Interceptable passes are throws that quarterbacks made where the defense was more likely to catch the ball than the quarterback’s intended target. The chart also shows actual interceptions that weren’t the quarterback’s fault and is sorted by how many attempts each player has per interceptable pass.
As the chart shows, Bridgewater excelled at taking care of the football, while both Bortles and Carr had issues with ball security. Without context, these numbers could be misleading. However, in this case they are an accurate reflection of each quarterback’s play.
These numbers are affected by scheme and responsibilities. However, Bridgewater’s numbers weren’t warped by what he was asked to do. Although Carr lacked talent at wide receiver, the Raiders did everything they could with their scheme to alleviate the pressure on him as a starter.
He was eased into the position in a way that Bridgewater wasn’t. Bortles was asked to do more than Carr, but he simply didn’t show the same level of performance as Bridgewater. Bortles was drafted as a developmental quarterback, so that was to be expected.
For as good as Bridgewater was during his rookie season, he still had one significant flaw.
Even during his peak in college, Bridgewater’s deep accuracy was never considered impressive. He doesn’t have a huge arm like Joe Flacco or Matthew Stafford. His arm strength is just good enough to throw the ball deep down the field and good enough for him to excel throwing to intermediate routes.
While arm strength isn’t a positive, his overall accuracy throwing the ball down the field is a greater concern.
Bridgewater’s raw numbers on deep passes are fine. He had 38 20-plus-yard plays and seven 40-plus-yard plays, according to NFL.com. Pro Football Focus considered him the 10th-most accurate deep passer of qualifying quarterbacks last season. Yet these numbers are misleading.
They are misleading because Norv Turner did a good job of creating deeper throws that would better suit Bridgewater’s ability. Bridgewater still had to work to recognize when he could throw the ball to receivers in these situations, but the sheer throwing ability that was required wasn’t of a high degree.
Turner was able to create plenty of horizontal deep shots for Bridgewater to rely on. Horizontal routes are routes such as crossing patterns, deep out routes or deep dig routes. These plays require a different throwing ability from vertical routes, such as sideline routes, seam routes or deep curl routes.
When you look further into Bridgewater’s deep passes from the 2014 season, the disparity between the two types of routes becomes significant.
As the above chart highlights, an overwhelming majority of Bridgewater’s deep ball success came on horizontal routes. He not only struggled to throw receivers open on vertical routes when they were covered, but he also struggled to hit them when they were wide open.
Bridgewater’s ability to throw the deep ball isn’t an alarming aspect of his play at this point. It’s something that can improve over time. Maybe encouragingly, he showed better consistency late last season.
However, when the Vikings acquired wide receiver Mike Wallace from the Miami Dolphins recently, this area of his skill set immediately became more relevant. Ever since he entered the league as a Pittsburgh Steelers player, Wallace has been a receiver who relies on his speed to get open.
Wallace is a deep threat who lacks the rounded ability of other starting receivers, but he was arguably the best deep threat in the NFL earlier in his career. His play dropped off significantly after he left the Steelers to become the Dolphins’ No. 1 receiver two years ago.
Most of Wallace’s struggles have been brushed off on Ryan Tannehill’s struggles throwing down the field, but it would be unfair to fully cleanse the receiver of any fault.
In 2014, Wallace was targeted on deep passes (15-plus yards past the line of scrimmage) 35 times. Twenty of those passes were considered catchable, with 15 uncatchable for different reasons. Of those 20 catchable passes, Wallace was able to reel in just 12.
That means he had eight failed receptions, plays where he dropped the ball, misjudged the flight of it or couldn’t keep his feet in bounds.
Wallace has never been a natural wide receiver, but in Miami he regressed from his Pittsburgh days. An inconsistent level of effort and more reckless technique at the catch point with a drop-off in awareness led to him leaving too many plays on the field.
On this play against the New York Jets, Wallace was wide open on a corner route. Tannehill delivered an accurate pass on time that carried a trajectory that gave Wallace time to track it into his hands. Instead of tracking it properly, the receiver misjudged it and attempted a one-handed catch.
He could have reached both hands out to catch this ball in stride, but instead he ended up attempting to bring it in with his wrist.
On this play, Wallace does well to create separation down the field against Darrelle Revis with a double move. Tannehill throws the ball close to the sideline, but his ball placement doesn’t lead the receiver out of bounds. Instead, Wallace’s reluctance to catch the ball with his hands leads him out of bounds.
Instead of making a routine reception by running straight through his route. Wallace begins drifting out of bounds before the ball arrives so he can catch the ball into his chest. To do this, he needs to fall with his feet further infield than his shoulders.
By catching the ball in his chest and keeping his feet spread out and under him, Wallace takes himself out of bounds and fails at the catch point.
These are the kinds of plays that ultimately pushed Wallace out of Miami. The Dolphins coaching staff could never bench him for these mistakes, though, because of his massive contract and their lack of viable options. In Minnesota, it’s unlikely that Norv Turner will show the same reluctance.
Turner has already benched Cordarrelle Patterson for his inability as a receiver, so Wallace can’t expect to be assured of his starting spot.
Both Bridgewater and Wallace will need to be better in 2015 than they were in 2014 to create a worthwhile partnership. Bridgewater simply needs to continue his development, while Wallace needs to rekindle the performances that earned him that huge contract in free agency.
There are reasons to be optimistic surpassed the obvious talent that both players possess.
Seven of Wallace’s 12 deep-ball receptions from Tannehill last season came on horizontal routes. While he isn’t a precise route-runner, Wallace can replicate and even improve upon what Greg Jennings was able to do by using his straight-line speed.
Turner should understand how to best use Wallace’s skill set on the field. The soon-to-be 29-year-old should still have enough of his physical prime left to scare defensive backs on a regular basis.
Although the Vikings offensive coordinator is a well-respected coach, his impact is limited. Turner can only put his players in position to succeed. He needs both of them to improve on their performances from the 2014 season to get the most out of Wallace.
Bridgewater can’t afford to be so inconsistent while throwing to vertical routes, while Wallace needs to be better at the catch point.
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