Last week, in the midst of a discussion about potential quarterback shuffling this coming NFL offseason, a longtime personnel man began lining up names like dominos. In many cases, this is how free agency is viewed in NFL front offices. Players are framed as game pieces, with each needing to tumble a certain direction to dictate the rise and fall of franchises. And the game is never more entertaining than when the board is filled with starting quarterbacks.
With that in mind, the personnel man began rattling off proclamations.
Jimmy Garoppolo? Foregone conclusion. The San Francisco 49ers will lock him up.
Drew Brees? Wait and see. He’s not leaving New Orleans.
Kirk Cousins? He’ll be the offseason’s top free-agent domino.
Case Keenum? The personnel man paused.
“Mmmmm,” he said, pausing again to consider the quarterback pool. “Yeah. He’s probably got to be next, right? It will be interesting to see what Minnesota does there.”
That about sums up the Case Keenum conundrum. The guy who was seemingly hanging on to his NFL career by a thread not long ago suddenly has an intriguing future firmly in his grasp. Maybe not with the Minnesota Vikings, whom some in the league believe will retain free agent Teddy Bridgewater as their future centerpiece next offseason despite Keenum engineering a 9-3 record as a starter and staking his claim as a No. 1 quarterback. Regardless of whether that happens, one thing has crystalized: Like Mike Glennon last March and Brock Osweiler in 2016, Keenum is going to be the next offseason quarterback stunner in free agency. A $15 million per-season salary sounded reasonable one month ago. But with another month of solid performances and a playoff win, a $16 million per-year average might be the negotiating basement in talks, with Keenum’s upside potentially exceeding $18 million per year.
And not as a one-year bridge quarterback. As a legitimate multiyear starter. Maybe for the Denver Broncos, whose young quarterbacks need a lot of work, or the Washington Redskins, who may let Cousins walk in free agency. Or one of the bottom-feeding franchises perpetually in need of a quarterback. There could be three or four interested parties, depending how good or bad the early stages of the NFL draft evaluations go.
Keenum is playing well enough to draw that kind of interest on the open market. Particularly over the past seven weeks, producing 15 touchdowns against five interceptions and reeling in five games with a quarterback rating over 100. Keenum has also gone 6-1 in that span, walking away with wins over Cousins, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff, the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford, the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton. The lone loss, to the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton, featured some critical wide receiver miscues that may have cost Keenum and the Vikings a victory in that one, too.
In spite of all of it, Bridgewater remains squarely in the conversation for the Vikings this offseason. A reality that will be accentuated if (or when) he gets significant playing time in a likely meaningless season finale. Lest anyone think otherwise, Keenum appears to still be proving himself to the coaching staff and front office in Minnesota, if not the entire fan base, too.
That sounds familiar for Keenum’s backers, who have enjoyed his rise this season but also been irked by a pressing question: What does he have to do to prove himself once and for all for an NFL franchise?
“That’s a good question,” said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who coached Keenum through his absurdly prolific career at the University of Houston. “Maybe he has to win the Super Bowl this [season]? That may seal the deal?”
Kingsbury laughed with a twinge of disdain in his voice. He’s hardly unbiased – illustrated by the Keenum jersey that hangs in his office – but he’s also speaking from some experience. After all, it was Kingsbury who pulled his hair out trying to get NFL scouts, coaches and executives to commit a solid draft choice to Keenum coming out of college. Ultimately, Keenum went unselected, beginning a six-year nomadic career that has taken him from practice squads to rosters, and from the Houston Texans to the St. Louis/L.A. Rams and now the Minnesota Vikings. And maybe next offseason to his fourth team since 2012. Something that indicates (at best) a lack of respect. Or at worst, a failure to believe he’s a legitimate NFL quarterback.
“It was the same thing in college,” Kingsbury said. “I watched that kid throw for like 20,000 yards,  touchdowns and he goes undrafted. I’m screaming ‘Just turn on the film and watch who he’s playing against and what he’s doing!’
“It feels kind of the same thing this year [in Minnesota]. It’s like every week in the press conference it has been a question about who is starting or about Teddy Bridgewater. Even in the losses, he has been making throws and making plays and playing at a high level. I don’t know at what point people realize that, but it’s been fun to watch him prove everyone wrong.”
In a way, this is another familiar chapter in a frustrating book. One that has been told and retold: How Houston was the only college to offer Keenum a scholarship coming out of high school; how he went undrafted by the NFL despite setting multiple NCAA passing records; or how his arm strength or offensive style or height (he’s 6-foot-1) never quite fit anywhere in the NFL. You don’t have to dig too deep to find plenty of that doubt, or the residue that seems to follow even now, when he’s led the Vikings to the NFC North title and is playing well enough to make a Super Bowl push with the franchise.
It might have been best summed up by Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams earlier this season, following a 33-16 loss to the Vikings. Keenum finished that game with 288 passing yards and two touchdowns. Williams, who knows Keenum from their time together with the Rams, went to the tape and came away with a compliment that isn’t all that complimentary when compared against the league’s most impressive starters.
“He does a very good job doing what you are supposed to do at quarterback – taking what is there,” Williams said.
In the parlance of coordinators, that’s Williams saying that Keenum is serviceable. That’s a cousin to “game manager,” which might be better than the way Keenum has been viewed by other coaches. Like, say, the Texans’ Bill O’Brien, who basically had no faith in Keenum’s ability to be an NFL starter.
In a few months, Keenum will get the last laugh. He’ll get the kind of respect that matters most in March – a paycheck that dictates his footing as a starting quarterback, if only for a year. After that, it’s on him to prove that 2017 is a true representation of what he is. At the very least, he’s earned the right to be considered a legitimate piece in the free-agent game. And to have the Keenum conundrum move from “do we play him” to “do we pay him?”
As Kingsbury put it, “He’s always had the skill set. He’s always been able to extend plays. He’s always had an unbelievable mind for the game. … I knew it was a matter of time, if he was able to stay in the league, that he would break through.”