EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder’s pivotal third NFL season ended up with him confined to the Minnesota Vikings’ bench.
It’s where he might be staying.
With Matt Cassel opting out of the final year of his contract last week, Ponder is the only quarterback currently signed through next season for Minnesota. But the team’s once-hopeful franchise quarterback hasn’t proved able to secure the job and the Vikings will be looking to address the position again this offseason.
"Right now we’re looking at quarterbacks, so we would say we don’t have that position solidified," general manager Rick Spielman said Friday. "I know Christian does have the physical abilities to do it but for whatever reason things haven’t come together for him . . . You’ve just got to keep getting up there and trying to keep turning it over to try and find that right combination and that right quarterback for your franchise. We’re going to be aggressive to try to do that to try to get that position right."
Ponder, the team’s No. 12 overall draft pick in 2011 and Spielman’s hand-picked success to Brett Favre, failed to provide consistency at the game’s most important position. He received more chances last season to prove himself as a starter, but injuries again kept him out of the lineup as he was showing signs and Cassel eventually took over as Minnesota’s starter even after Ponder returned to health.
Ponder started nine games last season, and 35 of 36 games he’s played in his career. Injuries were a constant issue and he had a 77.6 quarterback rating last season, which ranked 28th in the NFL. He completed 63.6 percent of his passes — better than Cassel’s 60.2 percent mark — but had 13 turnovers in the nine games against 11 touchdowns and he was sacked 27 times, often looking skittish in the pocket.
Spielman said he expects Ponder to be with the team next season, but his chance to be the team’s starter appears over.
"Christian will be here," Spielman said. "I don’t anticipate anything, him not being here. We’ve got to look into the Matt Cassel situation because he’s become an unrestricted free agent, technically on March 11. I know we’ll sit down with his agent at the combine and see where that’s going.
"But we’re also going to look at other options out there, too; potential guys that are UFAs or potential guys that may be getting cut as well. I know Norv and Scott Turner are heavily involved in the process. They’re looking at every stone. Ultimately it’s my responsibility but we really have to do this as a group together to come up with the best solution for us."
The Vikings hold the No. 8 pick in May’s NFL Draft and have said they’re looking to add a young quarterback. Spielman also spoke to the need to have a veteran quarterback to mentor a younger player, and the team is open to a reunion with Cassel.
Spielman said the team is not forced into taking a quarterback at No. 8 overall with Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr the consensus leading options in the draft. Spielman said the quarterback class this season is deep and there’s no "preconceived" belief in needing to get a quarterback at No. 8.
"You’re definitely not going to be forced to take a quarterback at eight unless you’re totally sold on that quarterback," Spielman said. "I can guarantee you that it’s not going to be a forced issue."
Minnesota last dipped into the first round for a quarterback with Ponder, a pick many believed to be a reach at the time. Ponder was the fourth quarterback taken behind Cam Newton, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert, and ahead of second-round selections Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, who have become starters for their franchises.
Spielman holds true to a three-year evaluation window for draft picks and Ponder has finished his evaluation period.
"You know, the quarterback is a very difficult position," Spielman said of evaluating potential draft picks. "It really is, because you can see physical things, but there’s so much more beyond the physical that goes into that position . . . (Ponder’s inconsistency is) going to make us look and re-evaluate that position. Like I said, it isn’t because we’re not here working our rear ends off, trying to get it right, but I think teams that don’t have a franchise guy are always going to be doing that. You have to do everything you possibly can to try to get that right person. But I think it has to be the right scheme fit, the right coach. There’s a lot of things that have to align to make that go."
No trade of Peterson: With running back Adrian Peterson set to be 29 years old before the season starts and coming off surgery for the third straight season, some have wondered about the possibility of trading the 2012 NFL MVP.
Spielman, as he’s done before, shot down the potential of a trade of Peterson.
"No," Spielman said when asked about the possibility of trading Peterson. "Zero. Zero."
Peterson, who ran 1,266 yards last season in 14 games, had groin surgery this offseason after playing through the injury for much of the second half of last season. Peterson also dealt with a right ankle injury that limited him.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner spoke about working with Peterson last week and being careful of his amount of carries and wanting to get Peterson more involved in the passing game. Spielman said Minnesota just has to be mindful of the pounding its franchise back is taking.
"Getting a little bit older, but you know, the surgery he had this offseason was a minor surgery," Spielman said. "It did affect him some last year. But Adrian’s different than, say, if it was just a normal back that was getting close to his age. You might have a little bit more concerns. But also I think from when the coaches get there, what are the number of hits that he needs to take in a game and how can you preserve him through the long haul of a season too."
Spielman open to bringing in Sam: One potential draft pick, Missouri’s Michael Sam, shocked many last weekend when he announced he was gay. Sam, the co-SEC defensive player of the year, is a swing defensive end / outside linebacker that is generally expected to be drafted on the third day of the NFL Draft.
Spielman said Sam’s announcement on his sexual orientation wouldn’t change the Vikings’ opinion of him nor keep the team from drafting Sam, who had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season to lead the SEC.
"I think a team is wrong if it’s going to affect the draft status, because I don’t care if a guy has three heads, black, white, purple, green," Spielman said. "If we got a guy that can help you win football games, it shouldn’t matter and it doesn’t here in this building as long as we judge it on football and can they help us win football games or not. I don’t care about anything else and a lot of that comes from my family’s situation because I’ve dealt with a lot of things. Some I’m very sensitive to that you judge people off their ability and that’s it."
Minnesota is currently investigating former punter Chris Kluwe’s claims of homophobic remarks made by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, as well as the organization trying to silence Kluwe’s public activism.
Spielman wouldn’t comment on the investigation because it’s still ongoing. Spielman was asked if an openly gay player could fit in an NFL locker room.
"I’m not going to speak for other NFL locker rooms," Spielman said. "I don’t know that. I know that we will make sure that our culture is created where he could fit in to our locker room."