In what turned out to be a first-round dominated by linemen on both sides of the ball, it would seem the Vikings had their sights set on a quarterback. They knew Cam Newton wasn't going to be available and doubted Blaine Gabbert would be available either. While many draft analysts were surprised that Jake Locker, a player often associated with the Vikings, went No. 8 to Tennessee and the Jaguars jumped in front of the Vikings to take Gabbert, the QB run was nearing an end.
The Vikings realized that so, when pick No. 12 came up and Christian Ponder was still on the board, they felt that it may be their only chance to get a QB in the first round and felt obligated to make the move to get him.
"Quarterback was a huge need for us," Spielman said. "Everybody knows that. We're very excited to get Christian Ponder there at (pick No.) 12. He was one of our top-rated quarterbacks. After spending time with him and watching him though his '09 season – how well he played – (and) he had the (forearm) injury this year where it affected some of the throws he made. But as he got healthier through the season, he did an excellent job. Then you watched how he progressed at the Senior Bowl – he was the top quarterback at the Senior Bowl – and then watch what he did at the Combine. Christian is extremely bright and is one of the smartest guys that we evaluated. He's an A-plus character kid. Football is very important to him and he has a passion for the game."
When Washington traded back to No. 16, the Vikings felt they could lose out on Ponder, which took the option of trading back a half dozen picks to recoup their lost third-round pick away. They had a couple of elite defensive players still on their draft board, but the lure of a potential franchise quarterback took precedence when it came time to pull the trigger on the pick.
"You very rarely get a chance to take a swing at a young quarterback," Spielman said. "We felt when we made the final decision that it was a no-brainer to take Christian Ponder."
Head coach Leslie Frazier said that, despite his defensive background, he heartily endorsed using the third straight first-round draft picks the Vikings have made on another offensive player (joining Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin). Frazier said he realizes the importance of getting a franchise quarterback has on the overall success of a franchise.
"I think it's a great night for the Minnesota Vikings – I really do," Frazier said. "We get a chance to solidify, in my mind, the most important position on a football team, the quarterback position. He is the recognized leader of your team and we were able to address that tonight in drafting Christian Ponder, who I think is going to do a great job in the National Football League."
The biggest issue on Ponder among scouts was durability. In both of his last two seasons, he has missed time due to arm and shoulder injuries on his right (throwing) arm. But Spielman said he was cleared medically and that none of the injuries were structural type of ailments that have the potential to linger. He said, if anything, the injuries played up Ponder's toughness and passion for the game.
"Our doctors look at that and there was nothing significant," Spielman said. "It tells you how tough that kid is. When we visited with the coaches down there (at FSU), they couldn't get this kid off the field. They would try to monitor him during practices, but he would stay out there and wasn't going to miss a game regardless and play at a high level with that injury as well."
Spielman said the Vikings discussed the potential of moving up to go after Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert, but, without a third-round pick to sweeten any upward move – Jacksonville gave up a first- and second-round pick to land Gabbert – the team didn't have the ammunition to get a trade done.
The team is still likely to bring in a veteran QB. Frazier said he wants it to be an open competition, but said he is unclear if the Vikings will look to free agency to bring in a veteran to compete with Ponder and 2010 rookie Joe Webb.
Both Frazier and Spielman said they don't believe they "reached" to take Ponder, who many had slated as a late-first or second-round pick. While Spielman wouldn't admit the Vikings felt an obligation to take a quarterback, he said the prospect of curing an enormous need with a player they believe to be a long-term solution was worth the pick – regardless of fan or media perception.
"The thing we went back forth on was when are you going to get another chance to swing?" Spielman said. "If Ponder was gone, are you going to get another opportunity to take a quarterback in this draft? We didn't want to take that risk. You can't say, ‘If we don't get a quarterback this year that we like, maybe we're looking at a quarterback next year.' Who knows what the quarterback class will be next year? We are planning on sure as heck not picking at 12 again."
Frazier said there is a lot to like about Ponder, and his intelligence stands out. He earned his degree in two-and-a-half years and was the first FBS player in history to have earned a master's degree prior to his senior season. Intelligence doesn't always translate into success, but it is viewed as vital for a quarterback.
"I like the fact that, first of all, he's a really smart guy," Frazier said. "At that position that's a plus. That's a major plus, along with the fact that he's extremely accurate with the football, he's a tough guy, has good leadership qualities – the things you look for in a quarterback. Those qualities are some of things you look for beyond the talent. Those are the things that impressed me."
That intelligence, combined with a strong work ethic and passion for the game, had Spielman convinced that, of the Class of 2011, Ponder may well be the most pro-ready QB of the group.
"In talking to his coaches (at Florida State), he knows their offense inside and out," Spielman said. "The other thing is he has worked in a pro-style offense. He's taken snaps from center. You see how accurate he is when he gets back and sets his feet. All of (the rookie class of quarterbacks) are going to have to learn and work on things, but we felt that he was NFL-ready."
Frazier agreed, adding, "We took the guy I had the most confidence in."
While there may be speculation both locally and nationally as to whether the Vikings made the right decision in taking Ponder, the Vikings are hanging their impressive recent draft resume on the fact that he can be the type of quarterback who can make a smooth transition from the college to the pro game and that he could be the face of the franchise for years to come. Was Ponder a risk? Sure, but it was one the organization felt more than comfortable making.
"Christian Ponder, we feel, is going to be (a good quarterback) – that will determine itself three or four years down the road," Spielman said. "When your franchise needs to take a shot at a quarterback and you like that quarterback and like everything about what he brings to the organization, I think you can't pass that opportunity up."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board
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