Current Vikings players are staying away from analyzing the possibilities of who will be their newest teammates in a week.
One week from now, the Vikings will have added at least a handful of draft picks and probably about a dozen undrafted free agents. At least one of those will be a quarterback, and possibly two.
Meanwhile, Christian Ponder, the first-round pick from 2011, sits precariously on the roster, hoping for another chance at a starting job knowing that he isn't the frontrunner for that duty. Because of ineffectiveness and injury, Ponder will be relegated to backup duty, or maybe worse.
The first indication of how the Vikings feel about him is the team declining to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. It would have been a relatively risk-free thing to do – save for two major problems. The option for 2015 would have been guaranteed only for injury, but Ponder has had plenty of those, although nothing debilitating that would have qualified him for the injury guarantee. The other problem was the salary that would have been required – in his case, nearly $9.7 million.
There is very little chance Ponder's play – if he even gets much of chance this year – is going to turn around to the extent of warranting that kind of investment in him in 2015. And not having that expensive 20915 add-on as part of his contract just might make him more appealing to trade if the Vikings grab a quarterback in the first or second round they are convinced could fill the backup role as a rookie and develop while Matt Cassel is the starter.
Kyle Rudolph, who was drafted in the second round after Ponder's first-round selection in 2011, believes getting Cassel back in the fold was the right move for the Vikings, who dished out a $10.5 contract over two years in March to retain Cassel before he hit free agency.
"I think it was extremely important. You look at what Matt was able to do since he got here last year. Last spring, coming in, offseason workouts, the team really gravitated towards Matt as a leader," Rudolph said. "He just has that personality in the locker room, around the practice field, the weight room. To have a guy like that back, we're not starting over. We're not bringing in another veteran. We're not bringing in a rookie that we need to rely on. It's nice to have a base already and now we can just move forward."
Easily the most likely scenario is that Cassel is the opening-day starter with a high-round rookie behind him, along with Ponder. But Rudolph, who became close with Ponder in their rookie offseason as the two worked out together while waiting for the 2011 lockout to end, believes there is another benefit to bringing Cassel back – and this one helps Ponder.
"I think bringing Matt back benefits Christian as well. He has a guy that he can learn from still," Rudolph said. "Christian was kind of thrown into the fire as a rookie and Donovan (McNabb) wasn't here that long that year. We didn't have the offseason before that, so he's never really been around a veteran quarterback to learn from and see how he goes about his business. It's important for Christian, for his future, for his time, wherever that may be – if it's not here, somewhere else – to have that guy that he can learn from because Christian is extremely talented and he has an opportunity to be a great quarterback in this league."
So far, Ponder has come nowhere close to that billing. But Rudolph is correct in saying that Ponder didn't get much benefit from veteran help in his rookie season. McNabb was collecting his paycheck in 2011 but didn't appear particularly engaged in accepting responsibility for his struggles and it's doubtful he was much of a veteran mentor considering he wanted out during the 2011 season – and was granted that request – instead of accepting a mentorship role behind Ponder once McNabb was mercifully pulled from starting duty after throwing grounders to the receivers.
In reality, Ponder's best chance to become a starter in Minnesota has already left the dock. Cassel is saying the right things, like he doesn't expect to be handed the starting job. But Cassel's $5.25 million cap hit in 2014 and the Vikings declining to pick up Ponder's option say otherwise.
Rudolph said Ponder was "doing very well" with handling the situation this offseason, and Ponder said he still expects to compete for the starting job. Reality says it would take a raw draft pick and a Cassel injury for that to happen.
The best realistic scenario Ponder can hope for is to have a chance here or there to show something during the season and hope that a new coaching staff and Cassel's veteran presence do for him what Bill Musgrave, McNabb and others were unable to do: help him develop. Ultimately, though, it appears the Vikings have spoken. They didn't pick up Ponder's option and they could further cement his future – one that isn't located in Minnesota after 2014 – with a quarterback selection in the first two rounds of the draft.
Last August, Vikings brass and Leslie Frazier were still trying to instill confidence in Ponder with their backing of him as a starter. Now? Frazier's in Tampa, the front office is making their assessment known by actions, not work, and Ponder appears to be a legitimate NFL quarterback – only this time NFL represents "Not For Long" in Minnesota.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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