As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Quarterbacks
Current starter: Christian Ponder
Reserves under contract: Matt Cassel, Joe Webb, McLeod Bethel-Thompson
Biggest offseason move: When the inevitable finally occurred and Matt Cassel was released by the Chiefs on March 14, the Vikings quickly pounced. They had put out a “Help Wanted” ad for a back-up quarterback and saw a guy in Cassel whom they trusted to assume that role with professionalism and comfort. Cassel was given a two-year deal that could be worth up to $7.4 million. But there is also a fine-print provision within the soon-to-be 31-year-old’s contract that would allow him to opt out of the 2014 portion of things shortly after next season ended.
In essence, both Cassel and the Vikings have given themselves a safety net. For the Vikings, if it’s determined at any point in 2013 or at season’s end that Christian Ponder is not the long-term answer at quarterback, Cassel’s presence would provide a bridge as the organization searches for its next solution at the position. And Cassel himself could be an option there.
But if Ponder excels in 2013 and locks down the role as the starter with no signs of relenting it, then Cassel could weigh his alternatives and have the option to seek a starting role elsewhere.
Level of draft need: None. Heading into the season, Ponder is the undisputed starter. Cassel owns the back-up role. With so many other needs, using a pick on a quarterback next week seems impractical.
You should know: Vikings coach Leslie Frazier feels very strongly about what Cassel will bring to the team at practice and in meetings. Here’s an exchange Frazier had with the Star Tribune at the NFL’s annual meetings in Phoenix last month …
Before the offseason heated up, you guys made it very clear that Christian is the starter. The opening was for a back-up. Matt had experience as a back-up in college behind Carson Palmer, behind Matt Leinart. He gets to New England and backs up Tom Brady. What was your feel for his understanding of that role?
Frazier: “You sense that he gets it. In my conversations with him, he made that very clear. He understands the needs for a back-up and how the back-up should conduct himself. That was great to hear. That was such a big part of us consummating this deal -- that he would understand his role and then understand the importance of a back-up handling that role the correct way. He made it very clear to me that he understood that. He’s experienced this league as a starter, he’s experienced this as a back-up. So to me, it was hey let’s get the deal done.”
And obviously he has 2008. Brady gets hurt early in the first game and just like that, he’s got the controls the rest of the season for the Patriots.
Frazier: “Exactly. And we talked about that. And we talked about his time in Kansas City when he was a starter and how his back-ups handled themselves. I like that he’s been on both ends of it. He knows the importance of that role and how to handle it.”
So what can he do with Christian so they are working in tandem and obviously the back-up is at least helping your starter to grow and develop?
Frazier: “Matt’s experience will help Christian. Being in that meeting room and being able to see things, being able to point things out. Christian hasn’t really had that per se since he became our starter. He hasn’t had that veteran back-up who might see some things that the coaches might not see. Or to speak from a players’ perspective. That’ll be big. And I think Matt’s practice habits, the way he prepares are a big deal. All those same things he learned from Tom Brady, Matt will now be able to instill some of those values with our young quarterbacks. We talked about that. He noted a lot of the things he learned from Tom. He took those to Kansas City and now he’ll bring that to our situation in Kansas City. Some of the things he explained to me about his relationship with Tom and watching how he prepared, Matt felt it really helped him. And I think that’ll help Christian now as well.”
One more thing: With Ponder, the Vikings will be looking for more consistency and signs of growth in 2013. The excuse of being a young player with limited experience is no longer valid. Ponder has 26 starts under his belt and now must prove to be reliable week after week after week. To be clear, he won’t ever be asked to be the superstar of this offense. Not so long as Adrian Peterson is whizzing around the backfield. But Ponder will again be asked to be efficient, to cut down on costly errors. That again means avoiding drive-killing sacks and game-turning turnovers.
It’s hard for the Vikings to know which Ponder will show up more often in 2013. Will it be the guy who failed to throw for 100 yards in three contests last season, the guy who had a rating below 60 on five occasions, the guy who torpedoed the team’s upset bid at Lambeau Field in Week 13 by going seven consecutive possessions without a completion while also throwing two brutal red zone interceptions in the second half? Or will Ponder ride the momentum and confidence he built in the final four weeks of the regular season into Year 3? During that stretch, he helped the Vikings’ surge into the playoffs with four straight wins by taking only five sacks and turning the ball over just twice. He helped the team score on its opening possession in all four games (three TDs, one field goal) and the Vikings never trailed thereafter in any of those wins. And in the season finale against Green Bay, Ponder threw for 234 yards and three scores while posting a career-best rating of 120.2. Under the brightest of lights with the pressure at its peak. That’s the guy General Manager Rick Spielman believes will show up more often in 2013.
The worst-case scenario for the Vikings is that Ponder struggles enough to indicate he might never be the team’s long-term answer yet displays enough signs of promise to convince the coaching staff and front office that he still needs just a little more time to get over the hump.
The hope in 2013 is that one way or the other, Ponder proves what he is once and for all.
Lastly, on a side note, there has been speculation that Joe Webb may face a conversion back to receiver in 2013. But when asked on multiple occasions last month about a possible position change for Webb, Frazier said his mindset was to take Webb to training camp as a quarterback, asking him to compete for the team’s No. 3 job.
Could that change? Perhaps. Would the Vikings be better off trying to get Webb on the field in some way with his speed and athleticism rather than stashing him down the depth chart at QB? Maybe. But again, Frazier has said directly that he’d prefer not to have Webb change positions.
“I’m not thinking that way, as we speak,” he had said. “I’m seeing Joe as a quarterback. Things may change. But I see him as a quarterback and I see him coming in and competing for a position.”
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