Why Case Keenum Can — and Can’t — Be A Franchise Quarterback

Harrison Smith

There’s nothing in sports like a good Cinderella story: the ’69 Mets, the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, or in football, Kurt Warner and the ’99 Rams, Tom Brady and the ’01 Patriots or Eli Manning and the ’07 Giants.

This year’s Cinderella story is Case Keenum. At 29-years-old, after bouncing around from team-to-team it seemed Keenum at this point in his career would be resigned to be a perennial backup. Back in April this year, Keenum quietly signed a one-year, $2M contract to be the Vikings’ third stringer behind Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. 67 quarterbacks in the NFL are playing on a larger contract right now.

And like Kurt Warner in ’99 or Tom Brady in ’01, Keenum is finally getting his shot with a good team around him, and he is making the most of it.

But is Keenum a true Cinderella story, or is he about to turn into a pumpkin come playoff time, or as soon as some QB-desparate franchise offers him $25M per year in the offseason? Keenum’s stats look great, but is that Keenum’s doing or his supporting cast? This article breaks down Keenum’s strengths and weaknesses to evaluate whether Keenum is a true franchise quarterback, or just another flash in the pan.


Pocket Presence

Pocket presence—the ability to stay aware of the pass rush, elude defenders by stepping up or to the side, and make throws from a collapsing pocket—is typically something you either have or don’t have. Keenum has it.

This year Keenum has been sacked on just 2.6% of his dropbacks. That’s not just the best rate of any QB this season; it’s the best rate since Peyton Manning in 2010.

You might think that rate is because of the offensive line, but the Vikings’ pass blocking efficiency actually only ranks 10th in the league, per ProFootballFocus. In fact the average PFF grade for the five starters on the line is only 58.5—well below average. The average NFL quarterback takes a sack on 18% of pressured dropbacks. Keenum is taking a sack on just 6.2% of pressured dropbacks—first in the NFL by a good margin.

The strange truth is that it turns out Case Keenum is like Mohammed Ali in the pocket—as soon as the defense thinks it’s about to land a punch, Keenum stays just out of reach or ducks just in time to land one of his own punches:

This is the greatest play of Keenum’s career.

Keenum makes a great pre-snap read and shows great post-snap vision, great pocket presence and great accuracy. The end zone angle shows that Keenum had this play figured out entirely pre-snap:

As soon as the second safety creeps down to show blitz, Keenum knew the corner route would be open. And he read correctly that the safety was blitzing, so he also knew that as soon as he throws this ball, he was getting laid out. Keenum stares the single high safety (Glover Quin) down in the middle of the field to buy space for Rudolph. Then at the last second, Keenum throws just a perfect pass on the corner route for the touchdown.

But great pocket presence means more than being able to throw darts while taking hits—it also means negating the pass rush entirely:

On third-and-six, Ziggy Ansah beats left tackle Riley Reiff to the inside immediately, so Keenum has a defender right in his face before he even finishes his dropback. For most quarterbacks, that’d be it—take the sack, punt the ball.

Not Keenum. Keenum not only sidesteps the pressure, he then immediately resets his feet back within the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield this entire time while simultaneously reading the pass rush—so when Thielen finds a hole in the zone coverage, Keenum is ready to climb the pocket and convert on third down to continue the drive.

On this next play, Keenum deftly sidesteps the penetrating 3-tech while climbing the pocket to evade the edge pressure, again all while keeping his eyes downfield and throwing a long dart to Diggs:

And on this play, Keenum climbs the pocket to evade edge pressure from both sides.  Keenum keeps his eyes up despite getting drilled right after he throws to throw a perfect pass to Stefon Diggs down the far sideline.

On top of great peripheral awareness, Keenum has a sprinkling of that Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck magic where he’ll disappear like Houdini and make plays out of nothing. On this play, the Lions scheme a free pass rusher who comes screaming down and appears to have Keenum dead-to-rights:

But Keenum jukes the defender, steps up into the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield to find Thielen for the first down.

All that’s not to say that Keenum moves like Tom Brady or Andrew Luck in the pocket (Keenum will still occasionally bail on a clean pocket and run into pressure), but it is worth noting that Keenum can elevate the play of the offensive line around him and mitigate pressure with his feet.


Accuracy

Case Keenum’s biggest weakness as a quarterback is his inaccuracy. You wouldn’t know that by looking at the stat column—Keenum’s 67.5% completion percentage is currently top-five in the NFL, but that statistic is buoyed by (1) Keenum’s below-average average depth of target (his 11.1 yards per completion ranks about 24th in the league), (2) Keenum’s receivers catching everything (the Vikings lead the league in fewest drops) and (3) most importantly, just how often Keenum’s receivers bail him out of inaccurate passes.  A typical quarterback has about 2% of their inaccurate passes reeled in by their receivers.  Keenum is getting bailed out on seven percent of his passes:

This pass is far too low and outside, and for most receivers it would be uncatchable.  Not for Stefon Diggs, though:

This is a very inaccurate throw, but thanks to Diggs’ spectacular fingertips catch, it goes into Keenum’s stat column as a solid 17-yard completion.

Laquon Treadwell has no business catching this ball—it’s too high and outside and should have sailed out of bounds. Yet Treadwell bails Keenum out with a spectacular one-handed fingertip catch, and Keenum’s statsheet is no worse for the wear.

You can see the pattern here. This pass to Adam Thielen was too high and outside:

Thielen nevertheless makes Keenum look good here with a leaping grab.

This pass to Kyle Rudolph is way too high, but Rudolph makes a one-handed grab nonetheless to reel the pass in.  This is a simple short curl pass that sails high and outside—Michael Floyd bails Keenum out with a leaping grab anyway. This is another short, easy pass; Keenum makes Treadwell jump backwards to the ball.  This is a short pass to Thielen in the flat; the QB should hit the WR between the numbers of his jersey to allow him to pick up yards after the catch without slowing down—instead Keenum overshoots the WR. Thielen adjusts to the ball brilliantly, high-pointing without slowing down, but Keenum shouldn’t be making his WRs jobs this difficult.

Every quarterback misses passes here and there, but Keenum misses them all over the place. And when he misses, he misses badly:

This is a simple dumpoff pass near the line of scrimmage from a clean pocket:

It’s uncatchable.

This crosser to Jarius Wright is off by a mile:

On this next play play, Keenum misses Thielen by about ten yards:

Stefon Diggs is wide open on this play:

Keenum throws the pass more than five yards out of bounds. Granted, Keenum is under pressure as he throws, but Diggs couldn’t have given him a bigger target to throw to, and Keenum’s pass sails almost into the stands.

Keenum does occasionally show great ball placement—he delivers a dime here while getting hit, and this pass as well as this pass each get caught perfectly in stride, but Keenum’s accuracy is about as reliable as a broken clock twice a day.


Athleticism

Case Keenum is not a dual-threat quarterback—but don’t tell him that. Keenum may not be the most athletic quarterback, but for a pocket passer, he still has a good amount of mobility. So while you can’t run power runs with him like he’s Cam Newton, you can run boots, play-action, designed-rollouts and the occasional read-option:

This play is pure Case Keenum:

It’s third-and-long, and Keenum is hungry for a first down, so as soon as he sees a running lane, he takes off. He’s not faster than any of the linebackers or lineman, but that doesn’t keep him from trying to outrun and outjuke them all. Keenum only needed 11 yards for the first down here, but he barrels forward for 22 yards, going until the safety makes him stop. Screw sliding.

On this play, the Vikings snag a touchdown off a read-option play where Keenum takes the ball. None of the defenders could believe that Keenum would be the runner, which is exactly why Pat Shurmur calls this play in the red zone, and it sets up the touchdown run.

This is a simple rollout turned-QB run:

While Keenum isn’t outrunning anyone here, he does see the field ahead of him and is willing to dive forward and take a few hits to pick up the first down.

Case Keenum faces early pressure on this blitz:

His mobility enables him to roll out to his left and force the defender to choose between defending the receiver or the run. Keenum does a great job making the defender choose, then making them pay once they commit to the run. Plays like these show you how you can open up the playbook with Keenum, even if he isn’t much of a running threat.


Arm Strength

Keenum has the aggressiveness of a gunslinger; the only problem is that while he’s got Brett Favre’s mindset, he’s got Chad Pennington’s arm:

On paper, Keenum makes a great decision to throw to Treadwell here:

Treadwell is running a skinny post designed to go right into the soft spot of this cover-3 zone defense. The pass is accurate, too. The problem is that Keenum simply doesn’t have the arm strength to deliver this ball on time before the defenders can catch up. For a quarterback like Cam Newton, this is an easy touchdown. For a weaker-armed QB like Case Keenum, it’s nearly an interception. That lack of arm strength changes how you can attack downfield.

Keenum’s limited arm make the passing windows downfield that much smaller because he gives defenders that much more time to catch up. Thielen does an incredible job here getting wide open in the hole between the corner and safety, but Keenum’s pass sails in the air, givng the safety enough time to catch up and lay a huge hit on Thielen. Thielen hangs tough anyway, but a stronger QB could make this throw without putting his WR in harm’s way.

Thielen runs a sideline fade on this play; ideally Keenum wants to hit his receiver in stride on the outside shoulder away from where the defender can make a play on the ball. But Keenum doesn’t have the arm strength for that throw, and instead the throw is drastically underthrown. Thielen manages to catch the ball anyway by doing a good job tracking it and coming back to the ball, again bailing Keenum on an inaccurate pass.  Keenum has a tendency to underthrow his receivers on deep passes (see here and here), which again limits what kinds of plays you can run with Keenum as your quarterback.


Pre-Snap Reads

The majority of a quarterback’s job comes prior to the snap—not just in receiving and dictating the playcall, but in reading the defense and adjusting the plan of attack accordingly.

Pat Shurmur is having a Coordinator-of-the-Year kind of season in Minnesota, having taken the Vikings’ offense from 26th in offensive DVOA last year to sixth. A huge part of that success has been Shurmur’s use of varied personnel packages and pre-snap motion that allow Keenum to read and react to a defense before the snap.

This is a simple 10-yard pickup, but it showcases how Shurmur is manufacturing pre-snap reads to make Keenum’s job easier:

After the snap, Jerick McKinnon lines up out wide like a receiver, and a linebacker follows him out into coverage. Shurmur is forcing the Bears to tell the Vikings if they are in man or zone—if it’s a cornerback out there, it’s probably zone; if it’s a linebacker, it’s probably man. Keenum puts McKinnon in motion back behind the line, and the linebacker follows—pretty much confirming man coverage. That makes Keenum’s pre-snap read a piece of cake—McKinnon is running a crossing pattern into the flat, an easy man-beater. Shurmur sets up the read for Keenum, and Keenum and McKinnon execute for a simple ten-yard gain.

On this next play, the playcall has Jarius Wright go in motion pre-snap, and the cornerback follows him across the formation—signalling man coverage:

This gives Keenum an easy pre-snap read—since Jarius Wright is a very fast WR running a fade, and since Keenum recognizes that there is only one safety up high, this is a good opportunity to take a shot. That’s exactly what Keenum does, and when Wright wins on the route, Keenum throws a great pass for a huge completion against a stingy defense.

This play is also a simple 10-yard pickup, and Keenum gets these easy yards with a good pre-snap read:

The Rams are playing off-coverage on first down, and on the outside, Treadwell is running a short curl route. Keenum knows where this ball is going before the snap—the pass to Treadwell is easy yards, so Keenum takes what the defense gives him to move the chains.

These plays make for easy yards that Shumur and Keenum will pickup every time (see here and here).  And if the first defender misses on these throws, these pre-snap reads can pick up way more than just a few easy yards.  Keenum is hardly Brady or Rivers behind the line, but he can be set up for success and execute in a well-designed offense.


Decisionmaking

Case Keenum is a gunslinger: he is decidedly not afraid to throw downfield, triple-coverage-be-damned. Pat Shurmur has done a great job reeling that aggressiveness in by emphasizing shorter throws and having Keenum make more of his decisions pre-snap when he’s calm than post-snap when he’s ready to throw YOLO balls.

When Keenum abandons his pre-snap look, however, he has a proclivity to take dangerous shots or miss defenders entirely:

On this play, despite the Vikings being up by 15 points with less than 20 minutes left in the game, Keenum completely misses the safety and heaves this ball up into coverage:

Three Washington defenders are closer than the closest Viking, and the pass is unsurprisingly intercepted.

That might almost be forgiveable were it not for the fact that on the very next play, Keenum threw another interception to the exact same safety after he again completely failed to see the defender near the ball:

This next play is third-and-long, and Keenum refuses to settle for the checkdown to Thielen on his left:

Instead he throws a YOLO ball to Diggs in double coverage. At no point does this look like a good decision. In fact, this should have been an interception, except Keenum is bailed out by the fact that his pass was so inaccurate that neither Diggs nor either of the defenders bracketing him are close enough to the ball, so the ball drops incomplete after grazing off the outside defender’s fingertips.

Here’s another third-and-long:

Again, no way is Keenum settling for the fullback checkdown in the flat. Who cares that he had room to pick up the first down when Adam Thielen is bracketed downfield on the corner route? The ball gets tipped incomplete, ending the drive. Even if Keenum refused to take the open checkdown here, even if he insisted on throwing up a prayer, he had Stefon Diggs wide open downfield. That segues into this next section on how Keenum sees the field:


Vision

Keenum generally reads the field and moves through his progressions well. He can read the full field (see here) and throw with anticipation: See how on this play, Keenum is quick to recognize that Treadwell will be open on the out route before Treadwell breaks based only on the cornerback’s leverage and hips:

Keenum understands the offense well and often deftly looks off defenders while going through his progressions. But sometimes Keenum moves through his progressions too hastily, like on this play:

Keenum completely misses the linebacker right in his passing lane, so when Keenum tries to fit the ball to Floyd, the ball is unsurprisingly tipped and intercepted.

More concerning, however, is Keenum’s tendency to lock into a read and thereby miss one of his receivers breaking free. You can usually find an egregious example or two each game, including missing Diggs wide open behind the entire defense here on a hi-lo read, missing Thielen wide open on a broken coverage here, missing Diggs beating his man off the line to get open here, or this play where Keenum locks into his first read and thus misses Thielen absurdly wide open in the middle of the field.


Conclusion

Case Keenum is a very talented but deeply flawed quarterback.

On the one hand, he’s a smart quarterback who sees and reads the field well both pre and post-snap, and his pocket awareness and mobility can really elevate the level of offensive line play around him.

On the other, his inconsistent accuracy and limited arm strength are unavoidable, and his aggressiveness needs to be strictly reeled in by his offensive coordinator to keep him from turning the ball over.

If you do not scheme around his weaknesses, he can look a little like a gunslinger without the guns. But in the right system, with the right offensive coordinator, he can absolutely be a starting-caliber quarterback, and with the right supporting cast, maybe even an MVP candidate.

 

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