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The Vikings’ Trade for Sam Bradford Is a Declaration of Intent

Jokes aside, Minnesota thinks it can win — and win now

Getty Images
Getty Images

Well, there it is. Four days after losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season (and possibly more) to a gruesome knee injury, the Vikings have dealt a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-rounder to the Eagles for Sam Bradford.

For Philadelphia, the thinking here is simple: In handing Bradford and Chase Daniel a combined $56 million, and in dealing a bounty of draft picks for rookie Carson Wentz, the Eagles spent way too much on QBs this offseason. When the words “next year’s first-rounder” came out of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman’s mouth, I’m assuming Eagles executive Howie Roseman’s reaction went a little something like this.

There’s no way Roseman ever could’ve thought he’d be able to recoup a first-round pick for a quarterback he was excoriated for re-signing in March. The thought process that netted Philly three QBs remains flawed, but being able to dispose of Bradford at this price is a reminder that there’s no such thing as having too many quarterbacks these days.

The Eagles’ outlook for this fall wasn’t all that bright with Bradford, but without him it’s even dimmer. I went to Missouri from 2006 to ’10, so Daniel is responsible for an embarrassing percentage of my favorite football moments, but as a quarterback, if he’s the answer, you’re probably asking the wrong question. That’s why it isn’t shocking to see the Eagles speed up their timeline with Wentz, who will reportedly start in Week 1 if healthy. The learning curve for Wentz should be steep, and if first-year head coach Doug Pederson’s team does crater and finish with one of the worst records in the league, handing the Browns — as a result of the Wentz trade — a pick in or near the top five of the 2017 draft is going to hurt. By grabbing a first-rounder, even one likely to be further down the board, that blow is softened a bit.

For Spielman and the Vikings, acquiring Bradford is even more fascinating, and it provides insight on a couple of different topics. First, it might be an indication that the prognosis for Bridgewater is bleak. From everything that has been reported, his knee problem is more than just a simple ACL tear. This is supposedly a devastating injury, one that might keep him out past the start of next season. Because Bradford’s deal runs through next season, he represents something of an insurance policy if Bridgewater isn’t ready to return come 2017. Bradford would carry a price tag of $17 million at that point, though, meaning the front office will face a tough decision about whether to retain him for a second year.

Still, part of the Vikings’ thinking this season was likely rooted in how (relatively) cheap Bradford is. The Eagles already doled out his $11 million signing bonus, so Minnesota is on the hook for only a $7 million cap hit. For a competent starting QB, that’s a bargain.

A price of a first- and a fourth-round pick isn’t, though. It is, without question, a lot to give up for a QB with Bradford’s history of middling success. Yet the Vikings’ willingness to do it speaks volumes about how they view their roster. Part of what made Bridgewater’s injury so tragic is that it seemed like the rest of Minnesota’s team was ready to compete now; the Bradford move is proof that Spielman and the rest of the Vikings’ staff agree. Minnesota’s defense has a chance to rank among the best in the league under third-year under head coach Mike Zimmer, and even with concerns along the line, the offense still has running back Adrian Peterson and an intriguing pair of young receivers in Stefon Diggs and Laquon Treadwell.

The Vikings’ roster is far from old — if defensive end Danielle Hunter and cornerback Trae Waynes win starting jobs, 28-year-old safety Andrew Sendejo will be the oldest member of the first-team defense — but time and again, we’ve seen that championship windows in the NFL close faster than anyone could have imagined. The “problem” with having a cache of young talent like Hunter, Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd, and Xavier Rhodes is that eventually all those guys have to get paid. Right now, every homegrown piece of Minnesota’s starting defense outside of safety Harrison Smith is on a rookie contract. That’s how title contenders are built.

Discounting Bradford, who may or may not be on the roster next season, the only player the Vikings will pay more than $8.2 million in 2017 is Peterson; that bill very likely had something to do with Spielman’s choice to grab Bradford. Peterson’s cap hit next year is $18 million, and there’s no penalty whatsoever if Minnesota chooses to cut him. That’s quarterback money, and shelling out that kind of cash for a running back in the modern NFL isn’t smart, even if that running back is a monster. So, if this could be the final year of Peterson’s time in Minnesota, tracing Spielman’s logic is easy: This season may be the last for this current iteration of the Vikings; Spielman wasn’t going to waste it, no matter what it took.

When viewed through that lens, it’s understandable why a team in the Vikings’ position would be more willing to give up such a haul for Bradford than to deal a sixth-round pick or something similar for a guy like Mark Sanchez. The latter deal wouldn’t bring Minnesota’s offense back to a level of competence that could keep it among the NFC’s contenders. Trading for Bradford, regardless of the ridicule it draws, might.

Obviously, Bridgewater had a year and change in Norv Turner’s offense; his ceiling as the Vikings quarterback was higher than someone who will arrive in town eight days before his first start. But let’s not confuse Bridgewater with Tom Brady. Bridgewater’s counting stats (3,231 passing yards, 14 TDs, nine interceptions) don’t do justice to how well he played at times last year (go watch that game against the Broncos again), but the same can be said for Bradford. If this is a downgrade, it isn’t a substantial one, and while playing the If only he were in the right situation card with Bradford is dangerous, there’s an argument to be made that with Peterson, some young and gifted receivers, and Minnesota’s ferocious defense, these might be the most comfortable surroundings Bradford has ever been in. Hell, Diggs could be the best wide receiver he’s ever had.

Bradford jokes are easy fodder at this point. Yes, it’s amazing that a quarterback with his track record has made around $78 million and cost two teams a first-round pick (and one team a second). But even if a first- and a fourth-rounder for Bradford seems steep, no one is going to blink at the cost if Minnesota manages to win the division or make the playoffs.

Few teams in the league have drafted better than the Vikings in recent years, and even if that’s not a reason to throw away a first-round pick, it’s easier to rationalize for a team stocked with young talent. With this move, Minnesota seems to think that its Super Bowl potential is at its peak. Now, we’ll see if Bradford is the guy to help realize it.