Previous Re-Watching Columns:
Click Here for Julio Jones, Cam Newton, and Jake Locker.
Click Here for Demaryius Thomas, Stevan Ridley, and Leonard Hankerson.
Click Here for Shonn Greene, Randall Cobb, and Pierre Garcon.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder
During 2011 winter and spring, Ponder was considered perhaps the most pro-ready quarterback eligible for the draft because he was an accurate passer who came from a pro-style offense. The Vikings decided against throwing him into the fire after acquiring Donovan McNabb just after the lockout ended. They benched McNabb at halftime of Week 6, and Ponder took over from there.
Based on in-season game watching, I recall thinking late last year that Ponder played with more confidence during his initial six starts, before sustaining a painful hip pointer in Week 13. So in selecting three games to re-watch, I picked one that took place prior to the hip injury (Week 11 versus Oakland), the Week 13 game itself (versus Denver), and Week 15 versus New Orleans.
We'll start with the positives. Ponder is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. He is legit fast. The mobility was a big plus when Minnesota's receivers didn't get open, or protection broke down. Ponder is a positive-yardage scrambling threat, and the Vikings did a good job of putting his speed to use on frequent rollouts, as well as using Ponder on productive QB keepers.
I do think Ponder exhibited strong pocket composure, particularly in the Raiders and Broncos games. He's pretty comfortable even with pass rushers bearing down on him. Ponder's poise was lacking against New Orleans, probably because he was out there at less than 100 percent health.
While Ponder throws on a rope to intermediate sections and can sling it across his body with zip on rollouts, he rarely challenged deep in the games I viewed. Ponder made perhaps one big-time, "wow" throw in 111 attempts. For comparison's sake, I think he displays more velocity on digs and curl routes than Matt Ryan -- Ponder doesn't "float" anything -- but he was all too often unwilling to test the defense long. Ponder frequently didn't even look to; his eyes weren't down the field enough. You could argue that some of that was due to teammates. We'll get there in a bit.
Another negative may be that he plays small. Ponder measured 6-foot-2, 222 at the '11 Senior Bowl, but appears littler on the field. When he's checking down relentlessly and running around the field, Ponder can come off as an undersized, Jeff Garcia-ish scrambler, and he may struggle to shed that label until he shows more willingness to stretch defenses.
Another big issue for Ponder in the reviewed games was ill-advised decision making. On third-and-five in the second quarter of the Oakland contest, Ponder had a squeaky clean pocket yet pulled the trigger on an intermediate shot intended for Harvin with three defenders in the vicinity. Safety Matt Giordano jumped all over Ponder's pass and returned it 42 yards to the Raiders' 46.
On first-and-ten a quarter later, Ponder flipped a checkdown intended for Michael Jenkins into a sea of Raiders defenders. The ball caromed straight into the massive arms of DT Tommy Kelly.
Ponder was picked for a third time against Oakland when he rolled to his right, found nobody open in the end zone, and forced a throw to running back Toby Gerhart. CB Stanford Routt simply walked in front of Gerhart and picked off Ponder before stepping out of bounds at the goal line.
In the Denver game, Ponder committed two first-quarter turnovers. His strip-sack deep in the red zone cost Minnesota surefire points plus 42 yards of field position when DE Jason Hunter took the fumble to the 50. Ponder's interception was returned 16 yards for a score by LB Mario Haggan.
Despite the brutal start, Ponder kept his team competitive against Denver with a string of sharp second-quarter short and intermediate hookups inside the numbers. Ponder seemed to be finding a groove. With the score tied 32-32 at the 1:33 mark in the fourth, Ponder proceeded to make a back-breaking throw on the first play of Minnesota's final drive, airmailing an interception down the left sideline into CB Andre' Goodman's hands. Broncos K Matt Prater's field goal won the game.
In fairness to Ponder, the Vikings did not set him up for rookie success. They lacked outside receivers capable of creating separation down the field, and trotted out an offensive line that pass protected atrociously. That's a very poor combination. He needs more help from his own team.
I wound up viewing 111 attempts, giving him a pass for the Saints game because I'm convinced Ponder was playing hurt. Ponder's best throw was a bullet deep down the middle to TE Visanthe Shiancoe in the Raiders game. (The one "wow" pass I alluded to previously.) On first-and-ten with Minnesota down 13, Ponder showed pinpoint ball placement by fitting his throw right between LB Kamerion Wimbley and SS Tyvon Branch, with Shiancoe double covered. The gain went for 37 down to the Oakland one, and Ponder hit Kyle Rudolph for a one-yard TD on the very next play.
Ponder definitely exhibits intriguing tools. I thought his arm strength and velocity were much stronger than expected, and believe he has it in him to be a franchise quarterback. But he needs to dramatically improve his decision making, keep his eyes downfield, and get help from his teammates. Aside from Adrian Peterson in the backfield and Harvin in the slot, there were no explosive elements to Minnesota's 2011 offense. And unless you're the '11 Patriots, NFL teams must pose some semblance of vertical danger to defenses in order for big plays to happen.
Other observations from Vikings game reviews:
** In the Denver and Oakland games alone, Harvin accounted for 269 total yards and three touchdowns on 24 touches, and could have had even more if not for Michael Jenkins' holding penalty that negated Harvin's first-quarter 35-yard TD on a reverse against the Raiders. Jenkins actually blocked CB Lito Sheppard cleanly on the play. Harvin's fourth score should have stood.
** Rudolph wasn't utilized often enough in the passing game as a rookie, but he made a Gronkian play in the second quarter against Denver to snatch Ponder's lofted end-zone pass literally over the top of S Quinton Carter. Expect Rudolph to be Ponder's No. 2 target this year, behind Harvin.
** I wish Saints RB Chris Ivory had some semblance of durability, because he is an explosive and ferocious runner. He'd be regarded among the league's top power backs if he could stay healthy.
** It only takes a few touches for Raiders FB Marcel Reece's athleticism-size combo to catch the eye. Reece is a massive, upright runner with remarkable speed for a 6-foot-3, 240-pound man. I'm not sure how much Reece will be getting the ball in new playcaller Greg Knapp's offense, but Knapp would be silly to not consider making him a 5-10 touch-per-game player. He has rare skills.
** Toby Gerhart lacks elite talent, but he hits each hole with purpose, churns his legs through contact, and has made major strides in the passing game. He's one of the NFL's top No. 2 backs.
** The Broncos game was Tim Tebow's best passing effort of the season. You may already know this, but the issue with Tebow is that he's not a natural thrower of the football. Passing really isn't in his DNA, and that remained evident even in his most productive effort. Tebow purposely short-arms short throws to reduce velocity, and he misfires relentlessly in the intermediate passing game. I absolutely love Tebow the ballplayer, but a truly effective passer he will likely never be.
** Willis McGahee had quite a bit of juice left in his legs late in the season, at age 31. I think that bodes well for McGahee's chances of opening the 2012 season hot. Speaking strictly in fantasy football terms, McGahee is going to be a prime draft-then-bail pick, along with Isaac Redman.
** I alluded to this in his re-watching piece: Demaryius Thomas may surpass Brandon Marshall as the league's premier run-after-catch receiver as soon as 2012. Thomas is wound incredibly tightly for 6-foot-3, and he refuses to go down on initial contact. Thomas is 24 years old and as strong as an ox.