EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Rick Spielman is getting a second chance at finding a franchise quarterback.
The Minnesota Vikings’ general manager swung and missed with his selection of Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Many general managers only get the chance to make the critical selection once before they’re ushered out with a regime change.
Spielman will forever be linked to Ponder, whose erratic stint as Minnesota’s starter seemingly ended for good late last season when Matt Cassel continued to start even after Ponder recovered from another injury. But Ponder ultimately won’t define Spielman’s tenure as the Vikings general manager.
Spielman is entering Thursday’s draft with another chance to make the all-important decision on a young quarterback for Minnesota. Spielman must learn after learning from his mistake with Ponder. Hesitancy isn’t an option.
"You can’t be afraid," Spielman said Tuesday when asked how the 2011 draft shapes his thought process for this year. "Regardless of position, if there’s a guy there that you have strong feelings for, whether it’s at eight or 40, or wherever it is, or 16, then you take him. The one thing you cannot be afraid in this job is to take chances or take risks on guys that you feel strongly about. When you don’t do that, I don’t know how you get better. To me, I think you always have to be aggressive. You have to do things that you think are going to help your football club and help you win ballgames on Sunday. You always have to have that mentality and that approach."
The mentality led Spielman to draft Ponder in 2011, even though many evaluators didn’t feel Ponder was worthy of such a lofty selection. Ponder later started in his rookie season and squandered the opportunity to be the Vikings’ leader after mainly laboring through 35 inconsistent starts.
"I know I’m going to get criticized and I took full responsibility for Christian Ponder, is he a bust or is he not a bust," Spielman said.
But Spielman will eventually answer for another young quarterback, as well, as the team continues its search for a long-term starter since Daunte Culpepper tore up his knee in 2005.
This time, Spielman enlisted a new voice for help.
New coach Mike Zimmer has had input on the decision and the team has relied on offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s knowledge in working with quarterbacks.
"Norv is the expert on the quarterbacks," Zimmer said last week. "He always has been. I think like everything else in this building, there’s experts that are better at certain things than I am. Now my input is more about what kind of player, what kind of worker he is. What kind of things does he bring as a leader, as a team. And Norv is more about the technical things and then we sit down and we talk about what we think is the best for us."
Ultimately, it will be Spielman pulling the trigger on draft day, whether it’s during Thursday’s first-round or later in the draft. Minnesota owns the No. 8 pick in the draft and could be looking another franchise course setting selection early in the draft.
"All these stars have to line up," Spielman said. "Now, I know how Norv feels about Matt Cassel and I know how Norv feels about Christian Ponder right now at this time; and where we think we are with those two, and where they are potentially going to be coming up next year as well. So, Christian is still a very young quarterback and he’s shown flashes, but he hasn’t been as consistent as you want."
The writing on the wall for Ponder appears clear after the team decided to not exercise the fifth-year option in his contract for 2015. Spielman called it "purely business decisions," despite almost no obligations to fulfill the fifth year of the option.
Spielman shot down rumors of a trade with St. Louis for Sam Bradford saying he’s not had "specific talks with the Rams." Spielman also added he won’t trade Ponder during the draft.
"That would leave us with one quarterback," Spielman said. "I would not do that. We’re going to need two quarterbacks."
Spielman is still looking for "the" quarterback, though.
"I think that position is the hardest position to predict because it’s so unpredictable," Spielman said. "To me either you’re the franchise guy or you’re not good enough. That’s why teams are always trying to find that franchise guy."
Minnesota could look to the first round and a group that includes Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. Spielman said the position is deep in this draft and met with as many as 10 quarterbacks publicly or privately in the past few months.
Turner was along for each of the visits, sharing his advice with Spielman.
"I like a lot of these guys," Turner said. "I look for guys and what their strength is. The number one thing that I look at as an evaluation is where they can be in two or three years. There’s a lot of guys that are polished and have been extremely well-coached and their ready to go and you may not see a big upside. What you’re look for, to me, is guys that in two or three years can be a Pro Bowl type caliber player."
Spielman won’t be afraid to pick his quarterback. He just doesn’t believe the pick must be taken at No. 8.
"I would say if we covet a quarterback at eight, and let’s say the next quarterback we would not touch until the second round, we’re going to sit there and be patient and wait," Spielman said. "That’s where we have him. If he comes to us, great. If not, we’ll get another very good football player and move on. We have quarterbacks lined up, I would say, throughout the draft at different rounds where we feel comfortable taking them."