Minnesota Vikings  

 

Rookie Ponder follows plan, takes leadership role with Vikings

Christian Ponder hasn't set foot on an NFL practice field, much less a game field, and that makes what's happening in Bradenton, Fla., all the more remarkable.

The 12th pick in the draft has gathered his new Vikings teammates at the IMG Academy for another of the player minicamps we're seeing across the league.

That a quarterback is helping organize one of these is nothing unusual. That it's a rookie is.

And, truth be told, it's just what the Vikings had in mind when they pulled the trigger on Ponder in late April and hitched the club's fortune for the next decade or so to his wagon.

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Whether Ponder was the Vikings' "guy" all along is debatable. What's not is that Minnesota had a plan in place to start a rookie at the game's most important position, had four guys pegged as viable pre-draft options, and is ready to go forward with Ponder as QB1, if the competition plays out that way.

On the day Ponder was drafted, he was quickly put in touch with receiver Percy Harvin, who also was working out at IMG, and the plans for this camp were quick to follow. And so into motion went the Vikings' plan to prepare the Florida State product to start, even under the adverse conditions of a lockout.

"You go back to the Peyton Mannings or even all the way back to the Troy Aikmans and how they struggled their first year. Eventually, they wind up being Pro Bowl guys," Vikings VP of football operations Rick Spielman told me right before the draft. "This year's going to be a little different because of the lack of them being here, if we're in a lockout position, so that time for development, that time for technical issues that they might have coming in, learning the system with our coaches, getting the timing with the receivers and tight ends -- basically, you're getting all that on the run when we do come back."

The Vikings might not like that part of the process, but they were prepared for it, and a quarterback's ability to deal with that dynamic in an unusual year was part of the evaluation on Ponder and the others.

There were three models laid out for the Vikings: The 2008 Falcons and Ravens, who went 11-5 with rookie quarterbacks, and the 2009 Jets, who made the AFC title game in Mark Sanchez's first year. All three of those clubs started neophytes from the first snap, and the burden each placed on its signal-caller was lighter than that put on an Aikman or Manning, both of whom were part of total rebuilds.

"I feel like we're a little bit further ahead than Atlanta was at that time, and even New York was when they drafted Sanchez," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told me just before the draft. "Or at least I'd like to believe that in my own mind, that we have some pieces in place. ... Surrounding him with the right people, it definitely makes it easier now to start filling the pieces to the puzzle if you get that position taken care of, because you know what kind of direction you're going and how you have to fill your roster."

As such, Minnesota drafted a security-blanket type of tight end, Kyle Rudolph, after Ponder and took two offensive linemen later to supplement an aging front. And the Vikings have the kind of bellcow running back, in Adrian Peterson, that Matt Ryan and Sanchez had to take the pressure off initially.

Of course, the makeup of the roster is a double-edged sword for Ponder. On one side, as detailed above, it'll ease his transition. On the other, it puts the pressure on to win now.

Although they slipped to 6-10 last year, the Vikings still have a core of Pro Bowl players in their primes, and that makes contending much more than a pipe dream. In fact, Spielman said it was important in the draft to evaluate the quarterback not just as a singular prospect, but also how he'd fit in the context of the existing roster.

So coming off a year when things went wrong every which way (Brett Favre, Brad Childress, Randy Moss, the stadium roof, etc.), Spielman's adamant the club still is in win-now mode. 

"I don't think anyone would ever say there was any regrets having Brett Favre," said Spielman. 

But he's also not planning on using No. 4's absence, or a rookie's presence, as an excuse.

"Who knows what happens? That's what makes the NFL so great, it's so unpredictable," said Spielman. "But we plan on (employing a win-now approach), because we think we have a very talented roster still. There are going to be some changes, there's going to be some younger guys playing, but with our core roster, we have some significant players that are at a Pro Bowl level. Adding a few pieces here and there, I don't think there's any reason why we wouldn't compete to win now."

And on some field in Florida, where the execs and coaches couldn't watch him, a 23-year-old quarterback was preparing to pilot that mission.

That his teammates followed him there is, at the very least, a positive first step.

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