Vikings pinning hopes on Ponder's development
WR G.Jennings, QB M.Cassel,
LB D.Bishop, DE L.Jackson
WR P.Harvin, CB A.Winfield,
(Sports Network) - Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson skewed a lot of perceptions last season.
You're not supposed to succeed as a rookie quarterback in the NFL but those three turned that kind of thinking on its head in 2012.
But, before you think there has been some sort of seismic shift in the development of signal callers at the college level, understand Luck, RG3 and Wilson are the exceptions that prove the rule, not the actual rule.
All you have to do is rewind back to 2011 and pay closer attention to the struggles players like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are still enduring.
T.S. Eliot once said: "Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough."
That seems to be the Minnesota Vikings' thinking when it comes to the underwhelming Ponder.
Sometime between January and July of this year Ponder evidently joined an elite group of quarterbacks headlined by names like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Or at least that's how coach Leslie Frazier has treated the third-year pro during the preseason thus far, giving Ponder just two offensive snaps in the opener and a quarter in Week 2 despite subpar efforts in both games.
"I do feel established. I do feel like I belong here, I feel comfortable," Ponder said. "Knowing everybody, all my teammates, all the coaches, knowing the area and everything, knowing how things work. I just know that I need to continue to become a better football player and a better quarterback."
It's a strange way to handle a player who has 26 NFL starts under his belt but remains a mechanical mess who plays with little self confidence.
If anyone needs repetitions in this preseason it's Christian Ponder.
Ponder is in a group -- or at least he should be -- that includes Gabbert, Locker and perhaps a rookie like Buffalo's E.J. Manuel; players that need every single opportunity they can get.
Injury simply can't be a concern here. Remember, these days Joe Webb isn't the backup in Minnesota any longer. Proven veteran Matt Cassel is and you can make a strong argument that Cassel is better equipped right now to lead the Vikings anyway.
Cassel, the ex-Patriots and Chiefs pilot, is far from a star but can certainly prey on defenses that pile eight or nine in the box to try to stop reigning MVP Adrian Peterson and the Vikings vaunted running game.
That is what makes the organization's slavish devotion to Ponder so perplexing.
Those who still believe in Ponder point to December when the Vikings made an unlikely playoff run by winning four straight games without star wideout Percy Harvin.
And to his credit Ponder did rebound from an awful midseason slump in which he would often have trouble reaching the century mark in passing yards, an almost unthinkable struggle in today's pass-heavy NFL.
To those watching closely, however, it was clear offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave dialed everything back and asked Ponder to do little other than manage the game as Peterson and a solid defense did all the heavy lifting.
Expect more of the same this season.
On The Run
The Vikings sport impressive depth and ability at the running back position with Peterson and the unheralded Toby Gerhart. A.P. is coming off the second-best single-season rushing year in NFL history with 2,097 yards and was named the league's MVP. A frightening combination of power and speed, coupled with a prodigious work ethic have turned Peterson into perhaps the best pure football player in the world. He's a true home run hitter who can take it to the house on any play and at the same time the best bell cow in the business, a guy who can handle 30 touches and wear down the opposition.
Peterson is so good you don't think about or see much of Gerhart, the bruising Stanford product who ran for 369 yards over the final five games of the 2011 season. Gerhart is more of a a move-the-chains type of back but he can also wear down a defense with his punishing style of running.
The third back figures to be Matt Asiata, a versatile hybrid who can handle snaps at fullback or tailback and is a solid special-teamer.
The starting fullback is Pro-Bowler Jerome Felton, a battering ram who turned into the best lead-isolation blocker in football last season. (-The Sports Network)
Walk The Line
The Vikings again expect to possess one of the game's best and deepest defensive lines, with ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison serving as the cornerstones.
Allen remains one of the game's best pure pass rushers and is just a year removed from a mind-blowing 22-sack performance. That number was cut in half in 2012 as Allen played through injuries but he still started all 16 games and always had to be accounted for. A well-rounded player who can also stop the run and drop off into coverage in zone-blitz concepts, Allen is the poster child for the cliched non-stop motor. He keeps himself in incredible shape and succeeds by outworking his opponents. Some think the 31-year-old Allen is a descending player and he will be entering a contract year so he has plenty of motivation for 2013.
NFC NORTH PROJECTIONS
1st in NFC, first-round bye
One game out of playoffs
Ponder can't take next step
Missing something in Motown
Opposite Allen at left end is the underrated Robison, an ascending player who mirrors Allen's work ethic. In his second full season as a starter, Robison actually played better than Allen despite struggling with elbow and shoulder injuries, posting a career-best 8 1/2 sacks.
Three-technique tackle Kevin Williams was once one of the NFL's best interior linemen but is slowing down and the Vikings will look to take some of the workload off his plate, especially with first-round pick Sharrif Floyd on hand to handle some repetitions. Williams isn't an All-Pro anymore but he can still make things happens on occasion and figures to improve playing fewer snaps.
Nose tackle Letroy Guion is the weak-link of the line. A natural three- technique, Guion doesn't have the bulk or strength to command a consistent double-team and his backup, Fred Evans, has been the more consistent player. Evans has upper-echelon quickness and a blinding first step, but is also undersized and wears down if he plays too much.
Super-sub Everson Griffen can play inside or outside and could be a future star as a pass rusher. Veteran Lawrence Jackson and Floyd, who was rated as a top-five talent by some in the draft, also figure in. Floyd, in fact, projects as a Richard Seymour-like factor playing the three-technique. Learning under one of the best of this generation, Williams, also won't hurt.
"I don't think I have any challenges ahead of me," Floyd said. "I feel as though I'm here to help the Vikings get better and play hard. That is all I'm focusing on is playing hard and doing the best that I can, everything else will take care of itself."
Looking at the linebackers, Erin Henderson moves from the weakside to the middle this season to captain the Vikings defense, something his brother E.J. did for years. A natural, instinctive run defender the younger Henderson needs to prove he can handle the coverage responsibilities in a Tampa-2 scheme.
Chad Greenway earned his second straight Pro Bowl berth last season and was named the team's defensive MVP. Few linebackers are asked to do as much as Greenway and he generally excels in all facets, although the former University of Iowa star is at his best when he is using his athleticism to run and chase.
Former Packer Desmond Bishop, if healthy, figures to handle the weak side although he was running behind special-teamer Marvin Mitchell for most of camp. Bishop was an ascending player before a torn hamstring caused him to miss the 2012 season and now a groin has hampered him early with the Vikings.
"You know at this point, playing football is the best fit for me," Bishop said. "It's been a long time for me so I'm just anxious to get out there and show what I can do."
Depth is promising but unproven. Mitchell is the only somewhat proven commodity. Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie, a former third-round pick in New England, are solid special-teamers and will be aiming to hold off a group which includes second-year man Audie Cole and Penn State rookies Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.
Mauti is especially intriguing. A third ACL tear in his final season in Happy Valley sent him tumbling from a second- or third-round grade. The Vikings took a flyer on Mauti in the seventh round and he is an instinctive, natural Mike who could develop into a starter at the NFL level if he stays healthy.
The Vikings boast the most talented defensive backfield they have had in years even without veteran Antoine Winfield, who was released after an excellent 2012 season.
The thought process on the 36-year-old Winfield seems to be "it's better to give up on a player a year too early than a year too late." Chris Cook, the team's best pure cover cornerback, is now the headliner at the position. A long, lanky player, Cook has the physical skills to be a top-10 corner in the NFL but has had trouble staying on the field due to injury issues as well as legal problems. He did start a career-high 10 games as well as the wild card game last season but he needs to be on the field for all 16 this time around.
The Vikings would like rookie Xavier Rhodes to step in as the other outside corner. Rhodes was in the top 15 pick on most draft boards and is a long, powerful corner, tailor-made for Minnesota's base Tampa-2 scheme.
"I just come here just to work hard and get better each day," Rhodes said. "I'm not expecting to start or anything. I'm just coming here to get better and help the team by any means necessary. I mean, corner, special teams or anything, I'm just ready to help the team win."
Second-year man Josh Robinson has been starting outside in the preseason and moving inside to the slot in nickel situations. The speedy Robinson was up and down as a rookie and must show more consistency moving forward but the Vikings are particularly high on him because he has high-end recovery speed and carries himself with the swagger you see in elite defensive backs.
A.J. Jefferson figures to be as good as a dime back there is in football while Brandon Burton, a fifth-round pick from 2011, remains a favorite of general manager Rick Spielman, but has shown little to this point. Bobby Felder, a former undrafted rookie free agent, has also played himself into the conversation.
The safety situation was really upgraded in 2012 with the addition of Harrison Smith, along with the improvement shown by Jamarca Sanford. A smart and savvy player, Smith is already the best safety Minnesota has had since Darren Sharper left for New Orleans after the 2008 season.
The team wanted oft-injured third-year pro Mistral Raymond to win the other safety spot in 2012 but Sanford overtook him on the field. A hard-hitter who has improved in coverage through hard work Sanford was re-upped in the offseason and figures to provide solid, if unspectacular play.
Raymond, an ex-corner in college at South Florida with decent ball skills, special teams stalwart Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton, Smith's college teammate at Notre Dame, provide the depth. (-The Sports Network)
Special Teams: K B. Walsh, P J. Locke, KR C. Patterson, PR M. Sherels
Special Teams: K B. Walsh, P J. Locke, KR C. Patterson, PR M. Sherels
Special Teams: K B.Walsh, P J.Locke, KR M.Sherels, PR M.Sherels
Fantasy - By The Numbers
It goes without saying that Adrian Peterson had a season for the ages in 2012, but of the previous seven backs in history to have rushed for more than 1,900 yards in a season, none rushed for more than 1,500 yards in the following season. None of them came back from a torn ACL in record time either, but it's fair to exercise some caution.
Get ready for the fantasy season with the latest from TSN.ca.
Rankings: QB | RB | WR | TE | DEF
Fantasy Schedules: AFC | NFC
2013 Auction Values: Cheat Sheet
Fantasy Depth Charts: AFC | NFC
QB Christian Ponder made progress in his second season, but he's still a long way from fantasy relevance, but he could be adequate enough for WR Greg Jennings and TE Kyle Rudolph to keep their fantasy appeal.
DE Jared Allen has 89.5 sacks over the last six seasons, which is phenomenal, and would have him challenging for the best defensive line options if not for J.J. Watt. OLB Chad Greenway has more than 140 total tackles in each of the last three seasons, good enough to be a fantasy starter. FS Harrison Smith had a strong rookie season in 2012, so he's also a fair starter for fantasy purposes. (-Scott Cullen)