Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater may not know the elation of being a top-five draft pick like Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. Bridgewater also can't generate the same buzz that emanates from Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, who sometimes seems like a one-man walking reality show. About the only thing Bridgewater can claim for himself -- at least when it comes to the signal-callers selected in this year's NFL draft -- is impossibly good fortune. A few years from now, when we look back at this rookie class, he'll ultimately be the best quarterback of the bunch.
Bridgewater is the safest bet primarily because he has the right combination of exquisite talent and exceptional timing. As wretched as the Vikings have been at quarterback since Brett Favre finally retired following the 2010 season, they do have one obvious positive working for them when it comes to that spot. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has spent decades teaching young quarterbacks how to play this position at the highest possible level. He'll likely do the same for a young man as gifted as Bridgewater.
As much as Turner has been knocked for being a disappointing head coach, he's still the man who helped shape Troy Aikman into a Hall of Fame passer with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s. He also was running the San Diego Chargers when Philip Rivers blossomed into a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback for that franchise.
In Bridgewater, Turner has an ideal student to mold. The Vikings don't have to rush Bridgewater onto the field this season -- they re-signed Matt Cassel to be a bridge to that future -- and that means he can learn at his own pace. Bortles and Manziel have been told they'll be backups in Year 1 as well, but there's certainly more pressure for them to be under center sooner (Bortles because of his draft spot; Manziel because of the hype).
The beauty of Bridgewater is that he comes into the NFL with a clear sense of who he is and what he needs to do. When the Vikings traded up to draft him with the last pick in the first round, he didn't use that moment as a chance to say he'd make the 31 teams that passed on him regret that slight. He said he was blessed to be in the NFL. He saw this for what it was: the road he'd been given to travel on his own journey through professional football.
The reports coming out of Minnesota following his first rookie minicamp only reaffirm that invaluable maturity. Bridgewater impressed head coach Mike Zimmer with his early feel for the playbook, leadership skills and preparation. Bridgewater actually looked so good that Zimmer promised him some first-team reps once the Vikings veterans start participating in OTAs. You hate to make comparisons, but these are the things Russell Wilson did when he was just an eager third-round pick trying to gain the faith of the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. Two years later, he was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a two-time Pro Bowler.
Bridgewater has a long way to go before he'll be in a position to contend for a championship, but he does have another quality Wilson possessed: ample motivation. Bridgewater went from being hyped as a potential top overall pick in this year's draft to nearly falling out of the first round altogether. That's a humbling experience in its own right. It's an indication that he can't afford to think the same habits that led to his tremendous college success will equate to strong performances at the next level.
Bridgewater realizes he has to work harder to overcome the stigma that dogged him throughout his pre-draft evaluation process -- the belief that his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame isn't sturdy enough to endure the weekly pounding that the NFL inflicts. He should also understand how one bad moment can lead to a crippling ripple effect, because that's what his mediocre pro day at Louisville did to his draft stock. On that same note, Bridgewater won't forget that his career already has included some pretty impressive highlights up to this point. Unlike both Bortles and Manziel, he started as a true freshman at Louisville and spent three years under center for that program.
It became easy to forget that because Bridgewater doesn't have a catchy nickname like Johnny Football or the ability to keep talking heads debating for hours about his future in the NFL. Bridgewater also doesn't possess the prototypical quarterback size of the 6-foot-5, 232-pound Bortles, who came out of nowhere to become the third overall pick. It seemed that the more people saw Bridgewater, the more they found reasons to not like him. It's a familiar curse in the NFL, where upside can evaporate if there's too much film on a star.
The people who faced Bridgewater know what he can do at the next level. He didn't throw for 9,370 yards and 69 touchdowns solely because he was in the right system. In Minnesota he'll also find an All-Pro running back named Adrian Peterson, a beast of a ball carrier who should still have enough carries in him to help balance that offense for Bridgewater. Some mentoring from Cassel and a few more sound personnel moves and the Vikings should have a strong setup for their young quarterback in a relatively short time.
You can't say this about Bortles since the Jaguars have been a train wreck for the past six years. Manziel's odds of success with the Browns look even more daunting, as that franchise has enjoyed only two winning seasons since 1999. The Vikings, on the other hand, made the playoffs two years ago with the underwhelming Christian Ponder under center. It says here that they could return to that stage fairly quickly, as long as Bridgewater blossoms into the player he seems more than likely to become.