Uncertainty remains at signal-caller for Vikings, just not at starting spot
When the Minnesota Vikings ended the 2012 season, Christian Ponder was entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback even though he was forced to miss the team’s playoff game because of injury.
Yet, the inconsistency that defined Ponder’s career with Minnesota was still a bit evident and there was no firm feeling the Vikings had found themselves a long-term quarterback who could become one of the league’s top signal-callers.
The backup situation was just as curious. Joe Webb’s dismal performance in the playoffs signified Minnesota needed to find another quarterback at least as insurance to Ponder. The Vikings found the fit when Matt Cassel was released by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Fast forward two years and Minnesota has another young quarterback. Of course, this time there’s a bit more belief in the long-term upside of Teddy Bridgewater.
"We put an unbelievable amount of effort into finding a quarterback and we were extremely fortunate to find this guy," coach Mike Zimmer said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Minnesota does enter the offseason with possible changes at quarterback, however.
Ponder’s time with the team is coming to a merciful end for both parties. His rookie contract has expired and he likely will end up elsewhere in 2015. Cassel has one more year remaining on his contract, which will pay him a $4.15 million base salary and he will count $4.75 million against the Vikings’ salary cap.
In the process of evaluating the entire team, Minnesota has looked at Cassel, his impact, his role behind Bridgewater and the money the veteran quarterback will be paid after he signed a new, two-year contract with the Vikings last offseason.
"Well, nothing definitively has been decided for you to know," general manager Rick Spielman said last week at the combine in regard to Cassel.
Cassel, 33 before next season begins, opened last year as the starter and posted a 57.7 percent completion rate with three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 65.8 quarterback rating before he suffered a foot injury which ended his season.
Behind Bridgewater, Cassel could be the perfect veteran complement. Cassel has, by all accounts, been a strong teammate in the locker room and helped Bridgewater. Cassel also re-signed in Minnesota knowing the team would be adding a young quarterback who would eventually take his job.
He could return in a backup role again, help Bridgewater and also give the team a quality backup option and keep the team competitive if Bridgewater were to miss time.
"We went through our process, we evaluated all of our players," Spielman said last week when asked if he’s committed to bringing Cassel back as the No. 2 quarterback. "We looked at everything from what they bring to our football team, in the locker room, off the field, what they bring to us on the field. But we also have to look at where they’re at from a standpoint of their contract, where we’re at from a cap standpoint. We have a lot of unknowns right now from that standpoint.
"We assess all our guys. Matt’s done a great job. Came in and has won some games when he had to play. He’s a great locker-room guy. Matt has a lot of value to us."
Cassel’s contract likely isn’t prohibitive, particularly with Bridgewater coming cheaply on his rookie contract and two years away from any possible extension.
Cassel wouldn’t count as dead money against the salary cap if he were released, but the Vikings would have to go into free agency and sign a replacement. Options are limited and include Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Mark Sanchez, Shaun Hill, Matt Hasselbeck, Michael Vick, Colt McCoy and Jake Locker among the more experienced quarterbacks.
Ponder will be part of that group, as well. Without Ponder, Spielman said he would like to add a young player as the third quarterback on the roster.
"You’d like to have, if Christian is not here, have another young third quarterback to develop and to bring along," Spielman said. "Whether he’s on your practice squad, or there may be some potential guys who are currently out there, too, that could be potential to develop into No. 2s, as well. We’ll look at all those things. Ideally you’d like to have another young quarterback that you can bring along and develop."
Like Ponder, Bridgewater became a starter in his rookie season. Bridgewater then developed in the spotlight and finished with the third-highest completion percentage (64.4 percent) for a rookie in NFL history behind only Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (66.4 percent in 2004) and Washington’s Robert Griffin III (65.7 in 2012).
"I kind of knew all along that he was going to be our guy and just when was the right time to do it," Zimmer said last week. "And a lot of factors went into it with how the rest of the team (and) how the offensive line was playing, how the receivers were. There’s so many variables that come into it, and then the quarterback himself. What kind of person he is? (How) quick he handles things?
"I’ve always been under the assumption the best guy plays. I just didn’t want to get him shell-shocked or hurt or something like that that might happen. This kid is very, very tough so but that was my main concern why we didn’t start him right away early and then Matt Cassel played well early in the preseason, as well."
Who will be behind Bridgewater is the Vikings’ question this offseason.
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