This is the first in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 25 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: QUARTERBACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starter: Matt Cassel (10th year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Teddy Bridgewater, *Christian Ponder
The breakdown: What a difference a year makes. Christian Ponder’s time as Minnesota’s starter — as much as the team says he’s competing to start this year — is over. Three inconsistent seasons filled with plenty of chances, plenty of injuries and too many turnovers forced the Vikings to address the position for the future and end the experiment of Ponder, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Now, Minnesota enters training camp with its present (Cassel) and future (Bridgewater) likely set. Cassel used his player option to opt out of the original two-year contract he signed with the Vikings last offseason to give himself more security. He was set to become a free agent, but the security came in the way of a new contract with Minnesota, which is for two years and $10 million.
Cassel, 32, isn’t going to remind Vikings fans of Brett Favre or be considered in the same class as the other quarterbacks in the NFC North. But Cassel did emerge from Minnesota’s unspectacular quarterback carousel last year to give the team competent play at the position, something which had been lacking since Favre.
Cassel completed only 60.2 percent of his passes last season, but the offense operated more efficiently and moved the ball. Cassel had an 81.6 quarterback rating, averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and was the only quarterback to finish with more touchdowns than interceptions. The Vikings won four of the seven games Cassel played at least a half in during a 5-10-1 season.
Bridgewater is the heir apparent, the future at the position after Ponder failed with his chances to establish himself. Bridgewater was considered the most pro-ready prospect in the draft this year and was the third quarterback taken after Minnesota traded with Seattle to make the final pick of the first round.
Bridgewater is poised, accurate and athletic. He worked out of a pro-style offense at Louisville, where he completed 71 percent of his passes last season for 3,970 yards and 31 touchdowns to four interceptions. He’s also impressed the Vikings coaches with his deep passing during the summer workouts.
Ponder is still around with one year left on his rookie contract. The team declined his 2015 option, which means he’ll be a free agent after the season and this will likely be his final year with the team. Ponder at least gives Minnesota another experienced starter who is athletic. Ponder has started 35 games since being selected in the first round and has a career quarterback rating of 77.3 to go with a 60.2 completion percentage. He has thrown for 38 touchdowns against 34 interceptions and run for six more scores.
Best position battle: No doubt, the best position battle is for the starting spot. When Cassel re-signed, everyone believed it was to be the starter. Inevitably, Cassel was expected to start and groom the next young quarterback for the Vikings.
But coach Mike Zimmer isn’t declaring anyone the starter before training camp and has said the competition is open. When asked if he thought Cassel was "the guy," Zimmer replied: "I’ve never said that."
In reality, it’s probably a two-headed competition with Cassel and Bridgewater. Bridgewater is the future at the position for the Vikings. The question is when does the future begin? While Zimmer won’t say Cassel is the starter, or even the leader of the pack, the snaps show Cassel having the edge.
Throughout the summer program, Cassel received the majority of the first-team repetitions. Bridgewater was worked in occasionally with the first-team offense, and Ponder was a distant third when it came to first-team reps. In fact, during mandatory minicamp last month, the majority of all the snaps were divvied up between Cassel and Bridgewater, with Ponder receiving only cursory reps.
While the team hasn’t put on pads, Bridgewater has looked impressive during the summer and will be given a shot to win the starting job away from Cassel. Zimmer said he’s not afraid to start a rookie, but the most likely scenario is Cassel starting, at least early in the season. Bridgewater looks poised to take the job sooner than later, though.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Lions; 4. Vikings. One look around the division and one can see why Minnesota’s development of Bridgewater is so critical. The North features some elite quarterback play. There’s no question which teams are at the top and bottom of this ranking. Arguments can be heard for the two teams in the middle.
Maybe injuries should be taken into consideration. There’s little dispute Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the division. Some would argue he’s the best quarterback in the entire league. The Packers fell apart without Rodgers last year, though. Green Bay was 5-3 before Rodgers missed seven games with an injury and the team dwindled with a combination of Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn. Rodgers returned in Week 17 to beat Chicago and win the division.
Tolzien and Flynn are back to backup Rodgers this season. Rodgers’ 104.9 quarterback rating was the fifth-highest in the league last year. He threw for 281.8 yards per game and had 17 touchdowns to six interceptions. He’s smart, has a strong, accurate arm and is mobile.
Cutler also deals with injuries, but Chicago coach Marc Trestman coaxed a career season out of Josh McCown last year. But Cutler is back healthy this time around and seems focused on proving himself as an elite quarterback with Trestman’s work with quarterbacks well noted.
Cutler had a career-high 89.2 quarterback rating last year and completed 63.1 percent of his passes, the second-highest percentage of his career. He earns the nod here over Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. Stafford has always wowed with big numbers and one of the strongest arms in the league, but he still hasn’t won much. His reliance on his arm also gets him into trouble.
Stafford threw for 4,650 yards last season, the third-highest total in the league. He added 29 touchdowns, the sixth-highest total. But Stafford also threw 19 interceptions, the sixth-most in the NFL and completed just 58.5 percent of his passes. And for all the numbers, Stafford still hasn’t been able to make Detroit a consistent winner.
Zimmer said: "I want to give everybody an opportunity and make sure it’s a legitimate opportunity for all of them and we’ll start narrowing down the reps as we get going. The thing I want to guard against most is rushing into a decision where we make a decision quickly as opposed to make the correct decision. Our main focus is making the correct decision, not so much for the fans or media or anybody else on this football team. That’s in regards to all positions, not just the QB position."