Vikings’ Christian Ponder enters pivotal third year

This is the first in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 26 start of camp.

TODAY’S POSITION: QUARTERBACKS

Rating (1-to-10 scale):
5

Projected starter: Christian Ponder (third year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *McLeod Bethel-Thompson, *Matt Cassel, James Vandenberg.

The breakdown: It all comes down to Ponder. Entering his third year with 26 career starts, this is likely Ponder’s make-or-break season. He has shown flashes and Minnesota has had reason to stick by him because he was the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, but he needs to prove himself this season. Ponder needs to develop more consistency, eliminating the big waves in his performance. He needs to be the quarterback he was at the beginning and end of last season. While the Vikings were conservative, Ponder was still the last quarterback in the NFL to throw an interception last season, going the first four games of the season without throwing one, while he had four touchdowns and one of the league’s best completion percentages and quarterback ratings.

Then the interceptions came in bunches. From Weeks 5-13, he threw 12 interceptions and 10 touchdowns as Minnesota went 4-5 and appeared to slip out of playoff contention. But he recovered again, with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the final three weeks and had perhaps his best game as a pro his last time out in the regular-season finale by leading the Vikings to a must-win against Green Bay in which he was 16 of 28 for 234 yards passing and three touchdowns and a career-best 120.2 quarterback rating. Of course, he suffered a deep triceps contusion and had to miss the playoff game the following week. Minnesota has to hope Ponder, who has a career 59.2 completion percentage and 77.1 quarterback rating, can duplicate the late-season success and make those performances more of the norm, or it might be time to admit he isn’t the franchise quarterback they believed.

The Vikings at least have somewhere to turn this season if they decide to move on from Ponder as the starter. Because of the playoff game, in which backup Joe Webb went 11 of 30 for 180 yards, a touchdown and an interception, Minnesota went and acquired a proven, veteran backup in Cassel. Webb’s athleticism was always tantalizing, but the experiment of Webb as a quarterback is over. Webb is now a receiver and Cassel is the unquestioned backup. Cassel is coming off his own struggles as Kansas City’s starter after two down seasons, but he fits perfectly as a backup with the Vikings. Cassel says he knows his place as the backup and will help mentor Ponder. Three seasons ago, Cassel was a Pro Bowler with over 3,000 yards passing, 27 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and had a 93.0 quarterback rating. He has been a starter for most of the past five seasons. If Ponder fails and is pulled later in the year, Cassel can at least be a bridge to the team’s next future starter. McLeod Bethel-Thompson spent his entire first season watching as Minnesota’s third quarterback. He is an intriguing project with a big, strong arm.

Best position battle: There likely is no battle to consider here for the Vikings, unless undrafted rookie free agent James Vandenberg can show enough early in training camp. Despite the Cassel signing and rumblings there is a competition for the starting spot, it isn’t the case. Cassel admits he’s the backup and has said he was brought in to back up Ponder. Ponder is the starter and it’s in Minnesota’s best interest to find out if he can be a long-term answer at the position. Cassel is a solid backup, maybe one of the better backups in the league. The only semi-competition might be between Bethel-Thompson and Vandenberg. Bethel-Thompson has physical gifts and is worth holding onto to see if he can develop. Vandenberg, out of Iowa, would really have to show something to stick over Bethel-Thompson.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Lions; 4 Vikings. There’s not much question which teams are at the top and bottom of this ranking. While Minnesota fans might not like to hear it, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is maybe the best quarterback in the entire league. Rodgers can seemingly do it all. He’s smart, has a strong, accurate arm and is even mobile. Ponder is fourth on the list by a good margin until he proves himself further and develops more consistency. The nod here in the middle goes to Jay Cutler in Chicago. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford has wowed with big numbers, but he still hasn’t won much. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau this week, Stafford is 1-22 against teams that finished with a winning record.

A couple of seasons with more than 4,900 passing yards are nice, but the Lions haven’t won with Stafford racking up big yardage. Cutler and Stafford have two of the strongest arms in the league and both have been known to make mistakes based on reliance of their arms and poor judgment. Cutler, while much maligned, has a better career quarterback rating and completion percentage than Stafford, and also has a winning record as a starter. Last season, Cutler also had a better touchdown to interception ratio in his 15 games (19 touchdowns to 14 interceptions) than Stafford (20-17) in 16 games.

Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota have experienced backups in Shaun Hill, Josh McCown and Cassel, respectively. Graham Harrell is unproven as Rodgers’ backup.

Frazier says: “I really like the way that (Ponder) has matured mentally, just seeing how he has kind of taken the reins from a leadership standpoint. He’s more vocal than he has been in the past. His football above the neck has been impressive in the time that we’ve been out here on the field practicing. He’s got the athletic ability, but you want him to make good decisions under the center, and some of the things he’s done in these practices kind of leads me to believe, along with our staff, that he’s grown a lot in that area — making better decisions with the football, which should, in turn, help us down the line.”

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