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Vikings move toward difficult quarterback decision(s)

Case Keenum is getting his first game in below freezing temperatures when the Vikings travel to Green Bay and it could prove to be valuable experience for the postseason.

With Case Keenum helping the Vikings clinch the NFC North and, potentially, lock up a bye (and possibly nail down the No. 1 seed), it would take a massive collapse at this point for Keenum to land on the bench. A bigger question is looming.

Will he even be on the team in 2018?

None of the four quarterbacks under contract with the Vikings are under contract beyond this season. As to one of them, Kyle Sloter, the Vikings control his rights, since he’s an exclusive-rights free agent (i.e., not a free agent at all). As to the other three (Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford), all are headed for unrestricted free agency.

PFT reported earlier in the season that the team would make no decisions about their quarterbacks until after the season. There’s no indication that the team’s position has changed. Which means that, when the postseason concludes, it will be time to figure out who stays and who goes.

Bradford has become the forgotten man in the equation, and for good reason. A career-best performance in Week One against the Saints followed two days later by news of a balky knee led to eventual placement on injured reserve. With a healthy Keenum and Bridgewater, it makes no sense to keep Bradford around -- unless he’s willing to take backup money, and backup status.

As to Bridgewater, he still hasn’t played very much since shredding his knee in practice nearly 16 months ago, and it’s still not clear whether he’ll ever reach his full potential. While he’s a sentimental figure and a fan favorite, rolling the dice with Bridgewater could be a risky proposition.

Then there’s Keenum. With each passing week, he’s setting himself up for a major payday, somewhere. And if he gets the Vikings to their first Super Bowl since 1976 (and possibly to their first Super Bowl win ever), how can they let him leave?

Yes, it’s happened before. But Keenum is no Trent Dilfer. Keenum has undergone a Kurt Warner-style transformation, exploding after years of so-so performances (although Keenum had a handful of great games in his past) into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

It’s not a mirage or a fluke. He has the athleticism to buy time in and around the pocket, and he keeps himself away from defenders long enough for a receiver to spring open. Unlike plenty of other quarterbacks, Keenum consistently spots that one guy who ends up running free, after Keenum has moved around in a manner much more controlled than Fran Tarkenton but much more frenetic than the low-key graceful stepping and shifting of Tom Brady.

It could be much more difficult, then, to make a decision about Keenum. If he hits the open market, he can go wherever he wants. Sure, he has told me that he wants to stay in Minnesota, but that was before winter came. He also may have grown weary with Mike Zimmer’s week-to-week Jedi mind trick, hoping for a team that will finally embrace him as The Guy.

The Vikings, of course, have two tools for avoiding a defection from Keenum. The transition tag, which provides a right to match but no compensation, and the franchise tag, which gives a right to match and two first-round draft picks if the player leaves. (There’s also a pricier “exclusive” franchise tag option, that keeps him from even talking to other teams.) The non-exclusive franchise tag will cost roughly $22.5 million for 2018; more importantly, it will set the opening point for negotiations on a long-term deal.

As all teams have learned via the bungling of the Kirk Cousins situation by Washington, a quarterback can make huge money opting not to sign a long-term deal and to take the tag for as long as the team will apply it. As to Keenum, $22.5 million for 2018 would become $27 million for 2019, which would become $38.8 million for 2020. That’s a three-year haul of $88.3 million.

The Vikings likely aren’t making any firm decisions for now because the future will be driven by the present. Keenum’s remaining performances -- and the team’s ultimate achievements -- will be huge factors in whether the Vikings break the bank to keep Case around. And if he somehow delivers the silver trophy named for a Packers coach that Vikings fans have coveted for 52 years, the Vikings will surely be happy to pay too much money for someone who did something that neither Tarkenton nor none of his successors could.

Wherever it leads, the journey continues tonight in Green Bay, where Keenum will get his first taste of playing football in the freezing cold. Unless his game cools off even more dramatically, he’ll end up winning big, regardless of what the Vikings decide to do.