Christian Ponder will be the Vikings’ starting quarterback heading into the 2013 season. That declaration has been made clear from within the organization all throughout this offseason. And it was reiterated Thursday on a day when the team’s activity in free agency heated up.
But if Ponder is to truly make the big leap forward that the team expects in his third year as a starter, he’s going to need more firepower in his receiving corps. And if the Vikings are to ensure stability behind Ponder, they want to feel confident in his backup.
So in what already had been a hectic week, the Vikings made one bold signing Thursday then headed out for one very important dinner.
Veteran quarterback Matt Cassel agreed to a two-year deal, expected to supplant Joe Webb on the No. 2 line of the Vikings’ depth chart.
The dinner? That was with receiver Greg Jennings, another veteran free agent with a proven track record of being able to enliven a passing attack.
The Vikings’ interest in Jennings on the open market always was dependent on the price point. And while several big-name receivers cashed in this week — Percy Harvin received a six-year, $67 million extension in Seattle and Mike Wallace got $60 million over five seasons from Miami — the Broncos managed to land prolific slot guy Wes Welker for $12 million over two years.
That was a discount purchase that presumably could impact Jennings’ asking price.
The Vikings’ talks with Jennings were expected to stretch into Friday. But you’d presume the ability to lure him to the Twin Cities on Thursday indicates ultra-serious interest and could heighten the franchise’s urgency to hammer out a deal before Jennings departs.
At present, it’s widely presumed to be a two-horse race for Jennings between the Vikings and Green Bay, where the soon-to-be 30-year old receiver caught 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 touchdowns over the previous seven seasons.
No, Jennings no longer has youth on his side. And yes, he missed 11 games the past two seasons because of knee and core muscle injuries. But after trading Harvin away, the Vikings have four receivers under contract with combined career totals of 126 catches, 1,651 yards and 10 TDs— the majority of that from Jerome Simpson.
Jennings’ best year: 2008, when he had 80 grabs for 1,292 yards and nine scores.
Translation: The Vikings aren’t exactly in a position of power in the negotiating phase. And while they intend to be practical, General Manager Rick Spielman can ill afford to be overly picky if he’s to make good on the vow to surround Ponder with much more weaponry.
As for Cassel, he might ultimately desire an opportunity to start but won’t be walking into an open competition. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was clear about the dynamic last month at the NFL combine, endorsing Ponder as his undisputed starter while putting out the team’s “Help Wanted” ad for a backup.
“Our guys need to know who the starting quarterback is and how confident myself and the rest of the coaches are,” Frazier said. “[We need to] kind of create some clarity for our football team as we are giving them direction about where we want to go and what we want to achieve. So it’s important to have that position solidified more so than any position as you are setting your goals for that next season.”
Still, Webb’s struggles during the Vikings’ playoff loss in Green Bay sent the team looking for a better insurance plan.
Ultimately, it’s hard to measure Cassel’s potential. His record as an NFL starter is a middling 29-33. He had a breakout campaign in leading New England to 10 victories in 2008 and threw for 3,116 yards with 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions two years later in Kansas City.
But a slide ensued with Cassel landing on injured reserve because of a broken hand in 2011 and then committing 18 turnovers in a 1-8 start and being replaced by Brady Quinn last fall.
Cassel was cut by the Chiefs on Thursday, a move widely expected after Kansas City traded for Alex Smith last month and then signed Chase Daniel to be his backup earlier this week.
A few hours later, Cassel fell into his safety net with the Vikings.
And even if he’s not walking into open competition, his presence alone should both educate and push Ponder.
Now the Vikings must wait anxiously for the Jennings talks to reach a resolution. One way or another, the receiver’s final verdict will deliver a significant conclusion to a busy week.