MINNEAPOLIS, MN – DECEMBER 17: Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Minnesota Vikings takes the field for the first time since the 2015-16 season in the fourth quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 17, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

In almost every way possible, the Minnesota Vikings overachieved and exceeded expectations in 2017. While expectations weren’t extremely high heading into the season, an eight-game winning streak beginning in October changed perspectives around the league. The team would finish the season 13-3, good enough for the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

A miracle win in the divisional round against the New Orleans Saints had the Vikings on the cusp of becoming the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Those dreams came crashing back to Earth a week later when the Vikings lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 38-7 at Lincoln Financial Field.

Despite the loss, the Vikings will bring back a talented young roster in 2018. Questions still linger heading into the off-season, though. The top three quarterbacks on the 2017 roster are all free agents. Who will the team bring back to fight for the starting job? Is a young secondary ready to move on from an aging veteran presence? Will the team be comfortable giving promising second-year running back Dalvin Cook a heavy workload one year after tearing his ACL? The answers to these questions will not be fully answered for several months still. However, with free agency set to begin next month, the Vikings will look to their own pending free agents first to patch roster holes. With 14 players set to hit the market, let’s look at three that the team should heavily pursue to bring back.

Terence Newman, Cornerback

When Minnesota signed cornerback Terence Newman prior to the 2015 season, many overlooked the move. Even though Newman had played under head coach Mike Zimmer in Dallas and Cincinnati, the veteran cornerback was going to turn 37 when the season began. In a league that prioritizes youth, it looked like little more than the coach bringing in an old buddy for one last hurrah.

Fast forward three seasons and Newman has been a very reliable leader and player for the team. In 2015, he started opposite star cornerback Xavier Rhodes, intercepting three passes during the season and even filled in at safety when Harrison Smith missed a game due to injury. In 2016, Newman again held the starting spot at cornerback, holding off the Vikings’ 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes. And in 2017, as Waynes finally grabbed the reins as the team’s second cornerback, Newman took a majority of the reps at the team’s slot cornerback position, playing over 55 percent of the defensive snaps despite playing in sub-packages.

Newman only notched one interception on the year, but still graded out highly by the football analytics site Pro Football Focus, who rated him as the 66th best cornerback in the league, which is pretty good for a soon-to-be-40-year-old who doesn’t play every snap. Combine his production with his leadership in the secondary and it’s hard to argue that he isn’t one of the Vikings’ more valuable defenders. Second-year backup Mackensie Alexander had ups and downs in his limited time filling in for Newman in 2017, so it’ll be interesting to see if the team decides to play it safe and bring Newman back for a fourth season or if they’ll hinge their future with a talented yet unproven youngster.

Marcus Sherels, Cornerback/Punt Returner

While Marcus Sherels hasn’t made much of a splash on defense in his eight years with the Vikings, he has been a very reliable special teams player. While most fans think of him for his punt return ability (he has five career return touchdowns in his career), he has also been one of the best punt team gunners in the league. Despite his small 5’10”, 175-pound stature, he consistently beats double-teams on the outside to either force the punt returner to call a fair catch or be stopped for a minimal return. Between Sherels and the Vikings’ other special teams ace, Jayron Kearse, Minnesota had one of the best punt coverage teams in the league in 2017. Together they helped punter Ryan Quigley pin 29 kicks inside opponents’ 20-yard line. And up until the playoffs, the duo played a big role in making Quigley the first punter in league history to have zero touchbacks in an entire season.

One last small but important role Sherels played was taking over kick return duties from running back Jerick McKinnon. Attempting to fill the void left by star return man Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency, McKinnon attempted to run back too many kickoffs that were fielded deep in the end zone. With recent rule changes taking touchbacks to the 25-yard line, McKinnon’s boom-or-bust tendencies were backfiring, unnecessarily pinning the Vikings offense deep in their own territory. When Sherels took over, he was much more conservative, taking a touchback on all but 11 returns. While not flashy, he was able to sacrifice his personal stats for the better of the team. The team will likely try finding an upgrade at kick returner, but with Sherels as the default, the Vikings won’t be sweating too much.

Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback

This last target could be three different players at the sport’s most important position. With all three of their top quarterbacks hitting the market this March, Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman will need to figure out which, if any, guy is in the team’s future.

If it was purely talent-based, the easy choice would be former first-overall pick Sam Bradford. Despite coming in over a week before the 2016 season following a catastrophic knee injury to Bridgewater, Bradford led the team to a 5-0 start before injuries along the offensive line piled up. Despite the poor line play, Bradford completed a then-NFL-record 71.6 percent of his passes over the season, throwing 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. After a magnificent opening night this season against the Saints, his previously-injured knee began acting up and effectively ended his season (save for two quarters in Chicago). With his long injury history, Bradford is the biggest longshot of the three quarterbacks to come back.

If it was based on “what have you done for me lately,” the choice would be Case Keenum. By now, everyone knows how the journeyman quarterback helped guide the Vikings to an improbable 13-3 season following Bradford’s injury. Even though he doesn’t possess Bradford’s arm talent, Keenum used his mobility to avoid pressure behind a revamped offensive line, and he had a clear chemistry with teammates. He threw 22 touchdown passes to only seven interceptions. However, his interceptions came at costly times.

His lone interception in the playoff game against the Saints opened the door for a New Orleans comeback and his pick-six thrown against the Eagles a week later swung momentum and the Vikings never regained their composure. With a defensive background, Zimmer would much rather have his quarterback take care of the ball and trust his defense instead of risking tight passes that can turn into points for the opposition unnecessarily. And that, in itself, may be enough for the team to pass on Keenum, who surely will be expecting a big payday after his productive 2017 season.

Which leads to Bridgewater. Despite only throwing 28 touchdown passes to 21 interceptions in his first two seasons, many believed that Bridgewater was well on his way to taking the next step heading into 2016. A fluke knee injury ended his season, though, and despite reports that he was healthy enough to return to game action in 2017, he only saw the field once in mop-up duty. So why would Teddy be the choice over the other two?

The answer is that he and coach Zimmer have been tied to the hip since they both arrived in 2014. While his stats weren’t ever gaudy, Bridgewater rarely threw games away with risky throws and careless decisions. His touchdown numbers were down with star running back Adrian Peterson in the backfield, often handing off near the goal line, rather than throwing many of the play-action passes Keenum had inside the five-yard line in 2017.

Peterson’s presence also affected the offense as a whole, not always playing to Teddy’s strengths. With offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur leaving the team following the season to become the New York Giants new head coach, the new coordinator will have to tailor the offense to whichever quarterback is at the helm, which would surely help increase Bridewater’s productivity.

Teddy also has the full support of his teammates and is still seen as a leader, even helping Keenum while sitting on the bench in 2017. With two seasons to rehabilitate his knee, he could still be the franchise quarterback the team believed him to be prior to 2016. If he is, the team could be back in the conference championship game next year, and potentially be playing two weeks after that as well.

Embed from Getty Images

View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Three Pending Free Agents the Minnesota Vikings Need to Re-Sign