The Vikings have until May 3 to decide whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Christian Ponder, and while the team’s 2011 top pick has not met expectations and could see the Vikings draft a new quarterback of the future next month, the decision could be tougher than you think.
By picking up Ponder’s option for 2015, the only risk they would be taking is that Ponder could get hurt, as his fifth-year salary would only be guaranteed if he suffered a major injury that lingered into the 2015 league year, which starts in March.
If Ponder is healthy at the end of 2014, they can sever ties without paying him a dime in 2015.
“If he continues to [play below expectations], all you do is after the Super Bowl and before the league year begins, just release him and you’re not on the hook for anything, assuming he is healthy,” said Joel Corry, a former agent who now analyzes the business of football for National Football Post. “It’s low risk from their standpoint. Some teams may not want to take the risk [in that situation], but I don’t think you’re exposing yourself that much if you exercise the option.”
It would be difficult -- at least one would think -- for Ponder to suffer a devastating injury if he was relegated to clipboard duty on Sundays. And if he plays well enough to legitimately take back the starting job, that could be a good thing, right?
The fifth-year options for first-round picks were a compromise between the owners and union when the current collective bargaining agreement was negotiated in 2011. Corry said they are team-friendly in that they are only guaranteed for injury, “so it gives you a window to figure out if you want to keep the guy around if it’s someone you’re not sure about.” Several teams have already exercised options on 2011 first-rounders such as Cam Newton, Patrick Peterson and A.J. Green.
“For there not to be a fifth year, you didn’t play well or you are someone who has gotten into a bunch of off-the-field problems like Aldon Smith, whose option may not be picked up,” Corry said.
Corry said there will be a “feeling-out process” by NFL teams this year, as this is the first time the fifth-year options have come into play. The majority of them will be picked up. However, Ponder’s status appears to be one of the few option decisions that aren’t obvious slam dunks.
In three seasons, Ponder has thrown for 6,436 career yards with 38 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. The Vikings made the playoffs with him under center in 2012 but last season they finished in last place in the division after Ponder faltered and threw more picks than touchdowns. Durability has also been an issue for Ponder, who has been injured in each of his NFL seasons.
Deciding to roll the dice on Ponder staying healthy will be a ten-million-dollar decision -- well, $9.686 million to be exact. Under the new CBA, players like Ponder who were selected between the 11th and 32nd overall picks would carry a fifth-year option equal to the average of the third through 25th highest-paid players at their position (in this case, in 2014). Quarterback is obviously the NFL’s most lucrative position. For comparison sake, All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt’s fifth-year option for 2015 will cost just under $7 million.
But general manager Rick Spielman recently suggested that the Vikings haven’t made their minds up, and that makes sense because Ponder will get an opportunity to make a favorable impression on head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner at the team’s voluntary veteran minicamp next week. A strong week could help convince them to keep him around.
The Vikings have re-signed Matt Cassel and he is penciled in as the starter for now. The team also plans to select a quarterback at some point next month, perhaps even in the first round.
Corry said the best-case scenario is that Ponder rewards them for their faith by winning the starting job and finally becoming the quarterback they thought he would become, just like what Drew Brees did in San Diego a decade ago. The worst-case scenario, he said, would be Ponder emerging like that after the Vikings declined to pick up his option by May 3.
“They really don’t have a whole lot to lose,” Corry said. “Granted, anything can happen. Obviously it’s a violent sport and injuries occur. But the risk for injury really isn’t that great. That being said, if they didn’t exercise the option, I don’t think the fan base is going to be critical because his play hasn’t really warranted that type of salary for the option year.”