Christian Ponder is preparing for a departure from the Minnesota Vikings that seems inevitable.
The Vikings’ 2011 first-round draft pick never fully established himself as a reliable starter and enters the offseason preparing for free agency as the team’s 2014 first-round draft pick, Teddy Bridgewater, has established himself as the franchise quarterback Ponder never could.
Ponder knows the writing is on the wall.
“Once they drafted Teddy and didn’t exercise (my) option I knew that my time was coming to an end most likely, and so I’ve tried to enjoy this year and this season and we’ll see what happens going forward,” Ponder said Monday as he joined teammates who were cleaning out their lockers.
The Vikings extended the contract of tight end Kyle Rudolph and guard Brandon Fusco, who were in Ponder’s 2011 draft class, but the Vikings didn’t pick up the fifth-year option in Ponder’s contract last offseason, paving the way for his exit this offseason.
He said he wouldn’t close any doors, but the Vikings have made their trust in Bridgewater clear, and veteran Matt Cassel, who entered the season as the starter, remains under contract for 2015.
“It was an interesting (experience). It was up and down for sure,” Ponder said of his Vikings career. “It was a dream come true for me to be able to get drafted and play, and I want to thank Zygi (Wilf) and the whole Wilf family and Rick (Spielman) for giving me that chance. I enjoyed it. There were times that weren’t as enjoyable, but overall it was fun and I’ll remember my times here.”
Ponder got his first opportunity to start with the Vikings in his rookie season after the team moved away from veteran Donovan McNabb, who was signed that offseason to bridge the gap to Ponder. But McNabb was benched and Ponder started 10 of the 11 games he played as a rookie. In 2012, he started all 16 games, completing 62.1 percent of his passes for a career-high 2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
In 2013, he entered the season as the starter, but Cassel took over as injuries and ineffectiveness with Ponder took root. Ponder started nine games then and was used as a one-game starter this year when Cassel was lost for the season with broken bones in his foot and Bridgewater missed one game with an ankle injury.
“Obviously when you go through down times and adversity it’s tough, but again it’s the people that got you through everything and it’s the people that I’m going to miss,” Ponder said as he issued his goodbyes on Monday.
“The emotional part is saying goodbye to a lot of people. I feel like I’ve built some great relationships with people the past four years, and this has been my comfort and everything and a place I’ve called home. So it’s tough to leave, but I’m excited about new beginnings.”
He said he was able to have a little more fun this year knowing he wasn’t the starter – he began the season as No. 3 on the depth chart – and found the stress level to be “completely different.”
But in short order he will start analyzing his options with other NFL teams.
“I’ll be looking for a good team, a good organization, hopefully an opportunity to compete,” he said. “If not an opportunity to compete for a starting job, an opportunity to learn and be a good backup in a good situation. And a good quarterback room and a good place to live. I’ve got to talk to my wife – my daughter doesn’t talk yet so she’s not going to have much input – but we’ll find a good place that we’re going to enjoy living and we’ll have to weigh our options.”
Ponder’s first four years in the NFL have been a struggle. He started 38 games, completing only 54.3 percent of his passes for 6,658 yards, 38 touchdowns and 36 interceptions for a passer rating of 75.9.
But he also believes he’s grown from the experience and matured as a player and person.
“I learned to deal with adversity. I felt like I matured a lot the last four years,” he said. “I felt like I’ve grown up as a man and a football player. The adversity’s tough, but you’ve got to be thankful for it because it helps you out. And it has been helpful, and it’s going to be help me in the long run in my football career and being a father and a husband, and again I’ll remember all these times.”
Ponder prepares for his Vikings departure
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