Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Just their Luck? Vikings move closer to landing No. 1 pick

Posted by: under Vikings, Bears, Lions, Packers, Leslie Frazier, Leslie Frazier, Vikings draft Updated: December 23, 2011 - 6:23 PM

Is your head spinning? All disoriented and confused by what happened last night?

Yep. The Indianapolis Colts sure are intent on making things interesting. Very interesting.

The Colts, the laughingstock of the NFL for the first 14 weeks of the season, have suddenly gotten on a roll. And on Thursday night, they stole a 19-16 win over Houston to improve to 2-13.

Remember the Andrew Luck jackpot Indianapolis seemed to be holding the winning raffle ticket for? Suddenly, three teams in the NFL now have two victories: the Colts, Rams and Vikings.

For the past year, Luck has been considered the automatic No. 1 pick for the 2012 Draft, a can’t-miss franchise quarterback with an extraordinary feel for the game. But if the star from Stanford had started researching real estate near Indianapolis in recent months, he might want to put things on hold until after the holidays. Because last night’s Colts win certainly has complicated matters and must have the Vikings’ front office folks at Winter Park in a stressed out but excited tizzy.

Is it possible that the payoff for the worst season in franchise history would be a chance to draft a can’t-miss quarterback who could help turn things around in a hurry? And do the Vikings even want to be in that position?

Like I said, things are getting interesting. Very interesting.

Here are six thoughts in the race for the No. 1 pick …

1)    On Thursday afternoon, Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder saw that Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley had opted to return to school for another year and joked about the possibility of Luck doing the same. After all, Luck surprised everyone after his sophomore year when he opted to head back to Stanford for another season. Wouldn’t it be a major curve ball, Ponder wondered, if Luck now decided to finish out his college eligibility? Seemed like a funny quip at the time. Now it might be becoming Ponder’s biggest holiday wish. (And as unrealistic as a 10-year-old asking for his own jet airplane for Christmas.) What in the world would the Vikings do if they landed the top overall pick? Do they have enough long-term faith in Ponder to pass on this golden opportunity to land Luck, deciding instead to trade the No. 1 pick for a healthy return? Or would they apologize to Ponder that fate broke as it did, invest their future in Luck and figure out all the accompanying complicated details from there? On the surface, it seems like a good problem to have. Unless, of course, you’re Ponder, head coach Leslie Frazier or vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman and you’re already under a lot of pressure without this hanging over your head.

2)    So just what would the rights to the No. 1 pick be worth in the trade market? ESPN’s Adam Scheffter visited with Mike and Mike on Wednesday and shared his insider insight. And guess what? That No. 1 pick could essentially become an auction item bid on by teams like the Dolphins, Redskins, Seahawks and others with great interest in Luck. Scheffter believes the top pick, in the hands of the Rams or Vikings, could be worth three first-round picks and two second-round picks on the trade market. Heck, Scheffter thinks some team might be willing to give up four first-round picks to land Luck. “There’s a huge amount at stake,” Scheffter said.

3)    Before the Colts’ win muddied up the situation, I asked Ponder hypothetically on Thursday what position he would target with the Vikings’ top draft pick. He was predictably non-committal but certainly lit up thinking about the possibility of joining forces with another big-time offensive difference-maker, whether that be Southern Cal offensive tackle Matt Kalil or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. Ponder said he received a recent vote of confidence from Spielman and a firm promise that the team planned to build around him. Taken at face value – which is always risky – that would seem to indicate the Vikings might be willing to pass on Luck and instead stockpile talent in the coming years with all the draft picks they could get in return.

4)    As we reminded everyone Tuesday, the tiebreaker for determining draft status between teams with the same record is strength of schedule. The team with the weaker schedule gets the better pick. So at present, heading into this weekend’s games, here’s a schedule strength chart that shows a current 1-2-3 draft order of Colts-Vikings-Rams if all three teams were to finish with the same record. Again, a weaker schedule leads to a better draft pick. And as you will see, even if the Vikings don’t win again, they still might need significant help to leapfrog Indianapolis on the draft board.
 

VIKINGS OPP.

WINS

LOSSES

RAMS OPP.

WINS 

LOSSES

COLTS OPP.

WINS

LOSSES

Chargers

7

7

Eagles

6

8

Texans

10

5

Buccaneers

4

10

Giants

7

7

Browns

4

10

Lions

9

5

Ravens

10

4

Steelers

10

4

Chiefs

6

8

Redskins

5

9

Buccaneers

4

10

Cardinals

7

7

Packers

13

1

Chiefs

6

8

Bears

7

7

Cowboys

8

6

Bengals

8

6

Packers

13

1

Saints

11

3

Saints

11

3

Panthers

5

9

Cardinals

7

7

Titans

7

7

Packers

13

1

Browns

4

10

Falcons

9

5

Raiders

7

7

Seahawks

7

7

Jaguars

4

10

Falcons

9

5

Cardinals

7

7

Panthers

5

9

Broncos

8

6

49ers

11

3

Patriots

11

3

Lions

9

5

Seahawks

7

7

Ravens

10

4

Saints

11

3

Bengals

8

6

Titans

7

7

Redskins

5

9

Steelers

10

4

Texans

10

5

Bears

7

7

49ers

11

3

Jaguars

4

10

TOTAL

127

97

 

132

92

 

120

106

5)    Remaining games for the teams in the Luck sweepstakes? Indianapolis finishes the season with a very winnable road game against Jacksonville. The Vikings play at Washington on Saturday and close the year on New Year’s Day with a visit from Chicago. St. Louis, meanwhile, has the toughest remaining games: at Pittsburgh this weekend and home against San Francisco in Week 17.

6)    In a self-assessment of his clunker performance against New Orleans last weekend, Ponder said he felt uncharacteristically hesitant to take chances and played most of the afternoon too uptight. Heck, in reviewing film, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave even pointed out that Ponder didn’t smile once during the game, his usually contagious charisma replaced by an obvious anxiety. After turning the ball over seven times against Denver and Detroit, Ponder’s apprehension was understandable. But over the final two games, the rookie needs to show his coaching staff and teammates that he can be loose and carefree without also making too many bad decisions. Ponder has vowed to have a much greater showing Saturday in Washington. Yet despite his self-confidence that he can develop into a reliable NFL quarterback, he also knows he has to prove that belief with his play and not his words. Think about the added strain of that dynamic. Then consider the pressure may have spiked four or five notches Thursday night with the Colts’ victory elevating the Vikings-Luck intrigue to an all-time high. Ponder’s new situation: he’s essentially got two games to remove worry that he’s a bust, two games to prove the Vikings can build around him long term without fretting much about Luck. And he has two games to prove all that without feeling so anxious to do so that he delivers another woeful effort like last weekend. Like I told you, things are getting interesting. Very interesting.
 

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