In the weeks before the NFL Draft, Vikings coach Leslie Frasier made it clear that he wanted a quarterback that he could plug in to the starting lineup early on. Now that he has his man in Christian Ponder, what will it take to get him on the field in week one?
Ponder has two things going for him with the Vikings that any successful young quarterback needs. He has an effective running game headlined by Adrian Peterson, and a strong defense. However, there are a few big questions that will need to be answered prior to Ponder being pronounced the starter vs. San Diego on September 11th.
Ponder’s largest road block at this point is the 8th circuit court in St. Louis. Without getting too far in to the legal process, the longer the lockout drags out the less time Ponder will have to prove to his coaching staff that he is ready to start. Frasier admitted as much shortly after the draft when he stated “some of it depends on, when do we start football?” Even though Ponder is thought by many to be the most NFL ready quarterback in this year’s draft class, he has a steep learning curve ahead of him and needs to get on the field as soon as possible to prove that, like other successful rookie quarterbacks, he can play within himself and limit turnovers.
In order to do that, Ponder will need an effective offensive line. I’m of the minority that believes that the Vikings offensive line didn’t regress last season so much as it wasn’t ever healthy and never had a chance to gel. Center John Sullivan suffered a calf injury in training camp that plagued him all season and guards Anthony Herrera and Steve Hutchinson ended the year on injured reserve. Continuity and effectiveness along the offensive line is a must for any quarterback to be successful, but a healthy line throughout training camp will give Ponder a chance to start week one.
Perhaps as important is the return of free agent #1 receiver Sidney Rice. The Vikings receiving corps suffered greatly with Rice being either out of the lineup or ineffective as he recovered from hip surgery last season. Rice’s absence forced Percy Harvin to the outside, away from his natural position in the slot and all but killed their red zone passing attack. Rice’s ability to find an opening in the defense or catch the jump ball make him an ideal safety net for a young quarterback. That coupled with the addition of Kyle Rudolph in two tight end sets will prevent Ponder from trying to do too much in the passing game.
Speaking of Rice’s future with the team, the Vikings placed a first round tender on him prior to the lockout, but his status as either a restricted or unrestricted free agent will remain unknown until this mess is resolved thanks to the 8th circuit court’s granting of a stay yesterday. While it is promising that Rice and Ponder have talked about getting together to work out, as mentioned on this site earlier this week by Dan Zinski, the Vikings will have a tough time resigning him if he ends up as an unrestricted free agent. With an unknown quarterback situation and open bidding, the Vikings would be forced to overpay to keep him. As a restricted free agent, a team would have to surrender a first round pick in exchange for signing him, greatly increasing the likelihood that he remains in Minnesota.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, their quarterback of the future is forced to helplessly watch as the lockout lingers and the odds against him earning the starting job mount. On the bright side, those odds aren’t yet insurmountable and if the lockout is resolved in time for Ponder to get on the field before July and the things mentioned above work in his favor, he will have every opportunity to be your week one starter.
Judson Coleman may be followed on Twitter @jacalope37