Inside the NFL  

 

Vikings' QB question, Jaguars' unenviable task and much more

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook, NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

» Gus Bradley's full-scale rebuild in Jacksonville.
» Are financial incentives playing a part in Rob Gronkowski's timetable to return?
» A cautionary tale that could impact the 2014 NFL Draft.
» And much more, beginning with the wide-open QB situation in Minnesota ...


The Minnesota Vikings aren't closing the book on the Christian Ponder era, but there certainly have been a few rewrites of late.

The acquisition of Josh Freeman came first. Next: Leslie Frazier making Matt Cassel the starting quarterback for Sunday's game, while implicitly acknowledging that Ponder is ready to roll (after missing time with a rib injury) by positioning him as the backup.

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That's where we are now.

And in the aftermath of the depth chart being thrown into a blender, questions abound for the Vikings at the game's most important position.

I asked Vikings general manager Rick Spielman on Wednesday night whether or not he still viewed the guy he took with the 12th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft as his quarterback of the future. The answer was less than definitive: "We still view Christian as a very good quarterback, and we view Matt Cassel as a very good quarterback, and we view Josh Freeman as a very good quarterback. We have a lot of depth right now at quarterback."

Look at how the three compare on paper:

» Cassel: 79 games played, 63 starts, 84 TD passes, 57 INTs, 80.9 passer rating; 1 playoff berth, 0 playoff wins

» Freeman: 60 games played, 59 starts, 80 TD passes, 66 INTs, 78.8 passer rating; 0 playoff berths, 0 playoff wins

» Ponder: 30 games played, 29 starts, 33 TD passes, 30 INTs, 75.8 passer rating; 1 playoff berth, 0 playoff wins (although Ponder was inactive for that postseason contest, due to a triceps injury)

All three are within five passer rating points of one another, all have mediocre TD-INT ratios and each has a short résumé from a team-success standpoint. So it's understandable that Spielman and the Vikings seem willing to pull any lever they can to get more out of the position, with the team carrying a good, young defensive core and a talented offensive cast to surround whomever is taking snaps.

"Christian, we still believe he can be our guy, he just needs to be a little more consistent, but he flashes a lot of good things," Spielman said. "Like in the Chicago game, after he threw the interception, he came back and brought us back in the game and got us the lead. When Christian fractured his rib, Matt came in, and Matt played well and got us our first win. Coaches are getting Josh up to speed on our offense, and we're just evaluating every day in practice.

"But I know by making this kind of move, you'll be able to take the next 12 weeks to try to determine which direction you're going to go in next year."

Here's the best way to read the last part of that: The Vikings are trying to be open-minded here. My bet is they wouldn't be afraid, if all this fails to work out, to dip into a deep draft class of field generals in May. For now, though, they have a handful of darts to throw at the board.

Remember, the Seattle Seahawks employed a similar strategy, starting Matt Hasselbeck and trading for Charlie Whitehurst in 2010, signing and starting Tarvaris Jackson in 2011, and bringing in Matt Flynn in 2012 before finally hitting it big last year with third-round draft pick Russell Wilson. The Vikings' situation, to some degree, seems similar.

Spielman said he liked Freeman a lot coming out of college in 2009 and repeatedly emphasized that signing the quarterback simply was about improving Minnesota's 53-man roster. Spielman also added it's unfair to throw dirt on Ponder, since this did, technically, all begin with an injury, not a demotion. But Spielman no longer is committing to Ponder or any other quarterback.

"It's all going to have to play out," he said. "And the evaluation process will take place, not only who's playing or how we're playing, because there's a lot of season left, but also what's going on in the meetings, what's going on being around that person, how practice is going. To me, if you can create competition, people either rise up or they don't. You have two choices. You either die. Or you live."

Bradley remains undaunted by Jacksonville rebuild

Gus Bradley knows the story. He's aware most people who tune in Sunday expect to be rubber-necking a 12-car pileup.

You don't have to remind the Jacksonville Jaguars' first-year coach of the historic aspect that's lingering here, either.

The way Bradley sees it, it doesn't make much sense for him or his players to care about that. This game is about what the previous five have been about for the Jaguars -- progress -- even if this time it must come in the face of Peyton Manning and his overwhelming Denver Broncos cast.

"Using external motivation is short-lived," Bradley said Wednesday, as he prepared to head out to the practice field. "I don't want to build our team that way. And I'm not really sure what impact talking about the point spread is going to have on Sunday. If we use that, how will it help us take care of the football? Will it help on third down? I don't think it really benefits us."

The stage the Jaguars are in is written all over their winless record, marked by the final scores and punctuated with national perception of this week's trip to Denver.

That's OK with Bradley, too. He knew it wouldn't happen overnight.

The Jaguars have claimed 13 players off waivers since the end of the preseason and made 208 roster moves since Bradley and general manager David Caldwell took over, with 48 of those transactions coming after the start of the regular season. To say this has been a transitional period is like saying 1987 was a little rough on the stock market.

Accordingly, through five games, the Jaguars rank last in the NFL in scoring offense (10.2 points per game) and second-to-last in scoring defense (32.6 ppg), and their five losses have come by an average of 22.4 points. By comparison, the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs and 2011 St. Louis Rams had league-worst point differentials of minus-13.4 ppg, and the winless Detroit Lions of 2008 lost by an average of 15.6 points per game.

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But Caldwell took the job in January -- and this was one of the things that appealed to him about it -- as a from-the-ground-up assignment. Which is part of why Bradley is here.

Knowing there would be change -- and a lot of it -- in 2013, Caldwell set out to find a coach who a) would commit to playing young players and b) have an ability to maintain the kind of culture necessary to, eventually, turn things around, even when things get bumpy. And as expected, the bumps have come quickly, and Bradley has navigated them.

"Today, we started with a great meeting, and we're going to go out there, and I can't imagine having anything but a great practice," the coach said. "It doesn't feel like we're 0-5, it really doesn't. The feeling is just, 'Let's go.' Josh Evans, Johnathan Cyprien, they don't care who we're playing. They just want to play, get better at their responsibilities, and that part is cool. Is that enough to get over the hump? We'll see. But I think that it's real important. We can't lose that."

Bradley knows because he's been here. In the first year of the John Schneider/Pete Carroll regime, the Seattle Seahawks reeled off 284 roster transactions, and that number went over 500 by November of Year 2. Then Carroll's defensive coordinator, Bradley developed lower-round draft picks such as Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright through that tumult. He understands "we don't want to miss the opportunity to better the bottom third of the roster."

That doesn't make losing any easier.

But what it creates is a chance to ride out bumps with younger players. The coach says he's seen enormous improvement on special teams since Week 1 and major steps by the defense, apparent in flashes, with three-and-outs and opportunities for turnovers (the Jaguars were in position for five picks against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, but dropped three of them). On offense, while the going has been tougher, Justin Blackmon provided a spark last week in his return from suspension.

Bradley recalls a time when the turnover became so noticeable in Seattle that players started counting transactions -- 168, 169 -- and he believes it's a good sign that hasn't happened in Jacksonville yet. In fact, from the coach's standpoint, there hasn't been much negativity at all, even as losses have mounted and job security has been at a premium.

"We've tried to focus on the things we can control," Bradley said. "Can we take care of the ball? Yes. Can we become more consistent? Yes. Can we work to protect? Yes. Can we get better on special teams? Yes. There are a bunch of yesses there. So let's go do those things and then let's see what happens. We're asking them to keep their competitive spirit every day, that's what our mindset (is). So we'll go to Denver, and we'll see what happens."

Most people think they know what'll happen. And that it won't be pretty.

However the game plays out, the process will continue Monday, and each Monday for the rest of the year. In the time in between, Bradley's forward-thinking approach in keeping players fresh and ready -- and a generally easy-to-relate-with manner -- has them buying in and sticking with the program.

There's no question the Jaguars have a ways to go talent-wise. But the belief is the right culture is emerging. And that if the new regime can add the right top-third-of-the-roster guys (the Jaguars have 10 draft picks in 2014) to that equation, Jacksonville will be back in business.

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"What a challenge, huh?" Bradley said. "It's my nature to be positive, to look for opportunity. People say, 'Gus, can you make that happen at 0-5?' What a great challenge for me, a great challenge to lead this team. It's easier if you're 5-0, but that's OK. We're 0-5, but I'm going to keep leading, keep our guys focused on that unbelievable challenge. I love that part of it. If you asked me if I was back in Seattle now, at 4-1, if I would take this job now, I would take this job again.

"I like the way the locker room is, seeing the growth. We have a really good culture. Now it's, can we continue to build it and start to see results?"

This week probably isn't the week it starts to happen. Not in Denver. Not against Manning.

But that doesn't mean the Jaguars can't take a few more steps in that direction.

Payton dynamic is playing out in New Orleans

It might surprise you to know the New Orleans Saints actually are behind their pace for points scored and total offense from a year ago.

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At 5-0, they seem to be ahead everywhere else.

The assumption you hear around the league is that, on game day at least, coach Sean Payton's return from suspension has made all the difference in the world. The Saints have cleaned up their turnover issue, are winning big in time of possession and, most importantly, look like the kind of high-octane machine that Payton's best teams have been. No mistake then that it's happening with the boss back in the fold.

"You watch Sean, and he's very, very aggressive, but he's also confident in whatever he calls," said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who coached with Payton in Dallas. "When you're calling a game, you have to be confident the guys can make it work. That makes it much easier, and he's a very confident person and has a right to be. That plays into it. He doesn't worry about two incomplete passes. It's on to the next one. That aggressiveness is unique."

Partly because of that, Zimmer remembers Bill Parcells calling Payton "Dennis the Menace", a nickname that has proven even more apt in the eight years since Payton left Dallas.

"Bill would temper that a bit -- Bill had a lot of input in what he wanted to," Zimmer said. "Now he's doing what he wanted to do the whole time."


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It's generally personnel, matchups and schemes that give coaches headaches while they prepare for an opponent during the week. Consider the Payton dynamic a wild card that the Saints missed last season. Because, in many ways, the coach's unpredictability adds another layer for foes, rendering their study of tendencies and patterns null.

"He does a really good job with personnel groups, mixing them, isolating guys he has in different places," Zimmer said. "Then, as a play caller, Parcells called him an 'indiscriminate play-caller'. It doesn't matter if it's third-and-1 or second-and-12. It doesn't matter. He'll run what he thinks works. He could run three shot plays right in a row. Those are the biggest things. Obviously, he has terrific personnel. But you can't get a bead on what he's calling. It could be a reverse on a third-and-1. There are no tendencies."

Four downs

1) Could Gronkowski's contract weigh him down? The Patriots rightly were lauded for proactively extending Rob Gronkowski's contract last summer, but his caution in returning from his four forearm surgeries, as well as June's back surgery, highlights a drawback in its structure. The six-year, $54 million deal includes $36 million packed into the final four years, with a $10 million option bonus fronting all of it in early 2016. Gronkowski's injury history, which goes back to college, certainly was a concern for New England, and that's proven to be valid. So the Patriots have an out. But they also have a player who can make himself significantly richer by ensuring he gets through the 2015 season healthy. I don't know if that's driving Gronkowski's thought process in taking his time. I do know the team has felt good about where he is physically for a while and his teammates believe he looks healthy, while people around Gronkowski have advised he exhibit caution. I also know there are more than a few million reasons for the latter group to take that stance.

2) The new Colts. Darius Butler has played with Andrew Luck and Tom Brady, and the similarity he's noticed in the quarterbacks is interesting, "Unselfishness," the cornerback said. "A lot of guys, especially a No. 1 pick, would want to come in and throw the ball 50 times a game, especially in the scheme we were in last year. But he doesn't have a problem handing it off and throwing for 175 yards if that's what it takes. And it was the same thing with Tom. If it was a team that we could line up, spread them out and run the ball, we would run the ball all the day." Luck threw for just 229 yards in the Colts' win over the Seahawks last week, but few would deny he was in complete command throughout the game. That's the whole idea here. I asked Colts owner Jim Irsay about it two days later. He showed me his Super Bowl XLI ring and said: "It's about world championships, and we have one. ... That really came down to inconsistent special teams, inconsistent defensive play, particularly against the run. So the vision when I brought (Ryan) Grigson and (Chuck) Pagano in was to have a really well-rounded team." And as Butler said, they do seem to have a quarterback who gets that philosophy.

3) London's next step. The NFL is holding two International Series games for the first time this season, and the league just announced that a third will be added in 2014, but it might take a little before the next step comes. The NFL didn't go to two games earlier partly because of uncertainty created by the 2011 labor situation, which explains the acceleration of the process to three. Now the idea, according to those in the know, will be to examine the league's ability to fill Wembley Stadium and draw viewers without the "circus" element. Sending the Jaguars over there on a recurring basis is another move to strip the novelty from the project so the league can get a clearer view of where it stands. The good news for the NFL is the blueprint is in place, and Jags owner Shad Khan, whose reasoning for buying Premier League soccer club Fulham was linked to this project, should be able to develop an intimate understanding of the market.

4) Pryor's potential. Sometimes it's fun to look back at recruiting rankings. Check out the QBs in Rivals' 2008 Top 250: Terrelle Pryor (1), Blaine Gabbert (14), Dayne Crist (25), EJ Manuel (43), Mike Glennon (59), Andrew Luck (68), MarQueis Gray (112), Star Jackson (132), Landry Jones (188), Jacory Harris (206), Jordan Jefferson (208). Robert Griffin III was just outside the Top 250, making him the fourth-ranked dual-threat QB behind Pryor, Manuel and Gray. Couple things to point out here. First, it's clear -- seeing as though five of the 11 QBs in the Rivals 250 have 2013 NFL starts -- that this isn't a total crap shoot. Second, it's also obvious why Pryor, who also was a top basketball recruit, is worth a long look from the Oakland Raiders, being such an elite athlete (warts and all).

Three checkdowns

1) The Bengals have drafted very well of late, but it's worth noting they've also been exceptional in picking from the scrap heap. Zimmer pointed out the play of defensive end Wallace Gilberry and cornerback Terence Newman as having been huge to Cincinnati early this season.

2) Much of the focus on schedule changes has been on the 18-game model, but don't discount a long-range view of 17 games, with more international contests in markets other than London. It's not happening in the next few years. It eventually could.

3) Thursday night's Louisville-Rutgers game -- which was well-attended by high-level scouting types -- is just another example of the scrutiny the 2014 QB class is getting. One reason is its depth. Another is the amount of teams with new (or newish) regimes looking for their guy.

Two college guys to watch Saturday

Oklahoma CB Aaron Colvin (vs. Texas, noon ET, ABC): The cornerback position is wide open in the 2014 class, and Colvin has a chance here to make a move. He'll likely see plenty of Texas' big senior wideout, Mike Davis, which is precisely the kind of test scouts want to examine. "It's a big-time matchup; both guys should go in the top three rounds," said one AFC scout who's assigned to the Big 12. Colvin has 30 starts under his belt, played safety as a sophomore and broke out with four interceptions after moving to corner as a junior. He has size, instincts and versatility, and by covering Davis, the scout said, he can prove "he can cover a legit NFL-type receiver with some size. It's one of the best guys he'll see this year, big rivalry game. This is the one we'll look hard at when we're evaluating."

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota (at Washington, 4 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1): This is the first major test for a quarterback with top-notch production and tools, and he compares physically to Colin Kaepernick, with maybe a little less arm strength. "I can't say he won't be a top-five pick, if that makes sense," one AFC college scouting director said. "He has the traits, good size, good arm. You can see him drive balls, and he's athletic." The issue here is the Ducks' offense, which doesn't force Mariota to get the ball into tight windows or stand in the pocket. So he's a bit of a projection. But scouts are excited to see him play in raucous Husky Stadium. "Washington will make them work for it," the scouting director said. "The crowd will be into it, it's going to be loud, and (Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian) will have them ready."

Extra point

Ponder and Gabbert are on shaky ground with their teams. The jury still is very much out on Jake Locker.

And while all three of those guys went top 12 in the 2011 draft, seven non-quarterbacks (Von Miller, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan) taken in the first half of that first round have made Pro Bowls. All 12 of the non-QBs selected in that range have been at least solid in the NFL.

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The lesson here?

"(Ponder, Gabbert and Locker) weren't great passers. They were good QBs, not great ones," one AFC personnel executive said. "You can argue each team took a quarterback on need rather than going best available. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that position can tempt you to take one too early, because if you don't have one, you're looking. And the hope of getting one could lead you to think it's taken care of."

Meanwhile, the Bengals took Green, the San Francisco 49ers took Smith, and both teams got their QBs in the second round. It's easy to say now that both teams did better there (with Andy Dalton and Kaepernick) than the Jaguars, Vikings or Titans did in the first round. Meanwhile, the Redskins and Dolphins made the conscious decision to punt on that class altogether and drafted Griffin and Ryan Tannehill, respectively, the next year.

My guess? These examples will be used in plenty of draft rooms this spring, with a deep group of passers coming out that, as of now, lacks a true, honest-to-goodness, slam-dunk top guy.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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