EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings had done their due diligence before the 2011 NFL draft, fully researching several quarterbacks in the hope of landing a player who could lead the team for years to come.
Minnesota met with Cam Newton, who went No. 1 overall and won the Rookie of the Year award last year. The Vikings also met with Jake Locker, who went to the Tennessee Titans at No. 8 overall, and liked what they saw from the athletic quarterback out of Washington. Of course, Minnesota researched Christian Ponder, whom the team took four picks after Locker was off the board.
In a draft class that had four quarterbacks selected in the first 12 picks — Jacksonville caused some moments of trepidation by jumping ahead of the Vikings and taking Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert at No. 10 — and six quarterbacks selected in the first 36 picks, Minnesota has been pleased with the results 20 games into the NFL careers of those quarterbacks. Ponder’s Vikings and Locker’s Titans will meet Sunday in Minnesota, and Locker will be sidelined with a shoulder injury.
“The pros and cons (between Locker and Ponder) that we had set up, it really didn’t come into play,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said, with Locker being taken before Minnesota’s pick. “We felt good about Christian, and we were fortunate he was still on the board. We knew there were some other teams that really liked Christian as well, and we thought they might try to jump us to get him. It worked out well for us.”
Newton has electrified the NFL in his short career, and Andy Dalton, picked No. 35 by the Cincinnati Bengals, has started every game since he was drafted and helped Cincinnati to the playoffs last season.
Meanwhile, Ponder received a crash course in NFL life after being inserted into the lineup early in his rookie season when Donovan McNabb didn’t pan out. Locker played in five games last year as a reserve and was named the Titans’ starter before the season began.
The two won’t face each other Sunday but will likely be linked throughout their careers as two similar players who were on several teams’ wish lists in April 2011.
“(Ponder is) a good quarterback,” Tennessee coach Mike Munchak said. “It’s tough. When we were picking where we were, we liked both guys. For us at that time, we just felt Jake fit more with what our offense was doing and what we were going to ask Jake to do. That was the only reason. Believe me, we thought Christian was a really good quarterback. I think Minnesota got a great guy that will be there for a long time and someone they’re going to be really happy with. I just hope it’s not so much this Sunday.”
Locker was the big, athletic workout star NFL coaches drool over. At 6 feet 3, 234 pounds, he was extremely mobile and a willing runner at Washington, but also equipped with a strong arm. Minnesota was reportedly highly interested in him. Ponder, 6-2, 229 pounds, was the cerebral, accurate passer from Florida State. He had been hampered by injuries during his career, and many draft analysts doubted his arm strength. Some projected him to go in the second round or later, but a few NFL teams had different ideas.
Both players ended up visiting with the Titans, but Ponder never thought of himself as competing against the other quarterbacks in his class.
“I had no idea who was going to get picked where,” Ponder said. “I went into that whole draft process, I knew that my senior season wasn’t that great and I had to do everything possible to make myself better. I wasn’t really looking at it as competing with other guys. Our film was our film; there was nothing really to change that. You can’t really change how certain teams feel about you.”
The Vikings scooped up Ponder and haven’t looked back. He struggled through an inconsistent and injury-filled rookie season but was deemed the team’s starter heading into the off-season program. He went back to work with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson and is having a strong second season.
Ponder is eighth in the league with a 97.7 passer rating and is tied for fifth in completion rate at 68.3 percent. More important, he hasn’t made the mistakes and turnovers that defined his rookie season.
Locker is working through many of those same learning opportunities Ponder benefited from last season. Locker owns a 90.2 rating as a first-time starter and is completing 63.2 percent of his passes.
“They’re similar in a lot of ways,” said guard Steve Hutchinson, who played with Ponder last year and is in Tennessee with Locker this season. “I think they’re both highly competitive guys, kind of natural leaders, guys that want to take control of the huddle and be a voice in the offense, not just a guy that kind of has a role. They understand the quarterback position is a leadership position on the team and they grasp that, both of them in a young stage in their career.”
Hutchinson said he isn’t surprised Ponder has progressed this season or that he’s helped lead Minnesota to a 3-1 start.
“I don’t think there was a doubt that Christian was going to be a great player for that team,” Hutchinson said. “I think last year with the new offensive system and the lockout and the no off-season and asking a rookie to come in and grasp every aspect of the game at the quarterback position at the NFL level was hard to do. I knew once he settled in, he’d be good.”
With Ponder settling in, he and the Vikings aren’t having any second thoughts about how the draft played out 18 months later.
“Yeah, I love being here,” Ponder said. “I feel I fit very well with Coach Musgrave and with this offense. Obviously, now playing early and getting the chance to play last year, I feel like I’m definitely in the perfect spot.”