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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Under-the-radar Ponder worthy of first-round status


It's trendy to say this year's NFL Draft features two potential franchise passers, clearly ahead of the rest of the quarterbacks.

OK, so which two?

The conventional thinking is that the top two are Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

Christian Ponder's running ability is an asset, but he should try to stay in the pocket more. (US Presswire)  
Christian Ponder's running ability is an asset, but he should try to stay in the pocket more. (US Presswire)  
I'm thinking that Florida State's Christian Ponder might be changing that.

"He's pushing it," one NFL coach said. "I think he's ahead of Newton."

After dissecting both Ponder's junior and senior tapes the past week, I wouldn't argue. Ponder's junior tape, which came before he was bothered by arm troubles as a senior, is as good as anybody's in this draft. His senior tape clearly isn't as good, but it's not bad. You could just see there were some troubles with the arm.

Ponder has spent the past month showing the arm is fine. He was named MVP at the Senior Bowl and then threw well at both the combine and his pro day at FSU.

"The arm-trouble talk isn't an issue," one AFC scout said. "It's just that any time there is an issue with a quarterback's arm, it gets overblown."

Ponder entered the 2010 season as a potential high pick. He didn't play as well as he did as a junior, which brought on the perception that his stock had dropped considerably.

Call me guilty.

Watching him on television, I didn't think he was as good as I expected and clearly not as good as he was in 2009. After watching the game tapes, I came away convinced he wasn't as bad as he looked on the TV screen.

Here's what I like most about Ponder: He has a feel for what it takes to be successful at the line of scrimmage. Like TCU's Andy Dalton, another quarterback I like in this class, Ponder handled a lot at the line of scrimmage for the Seminoles.

During the games I watched, he was pointing out protections, pointing out blitzers, checking at the line. He appears far more advanced in doing that type of thing -- the thing that makes players like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers so good -- than some of the other quarterbacks in this draft.

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"You don't question his smarts," the coach said.

Said Ponder at the combine: "I really think I'm the whole package at quarterback. I have great accuracy and can make all the throws. Intelligence is a huge advantage for me, being able to comprehend offenses and defenses. We ran a complex offense at Florida State and I think it will carry over well to the NFL."

I recently watched Florida State's game against BYU from Ponder's junior year. The Seminoles owned the game, winning 54-28. Ponder was 21 of 26 for 199 yards, two scores and he rushed for 77 yards.

Two throws really stood out.

One came early in the game with FSU leading 7-0. On a third-and-11 from his own 25, Ponder lined up in the shotgun. He took the snap and opened to his right. He glances to the middle of the field for a second, where one receiver is crossing, but then quickly turns and throws a strike to Bert Reed on the left sideline for a 25-yard gain.

That play is one of many where I saw Ponder spin his head, coming off receivers, to make a throw to the backside.

The second play that impressed from that BYU game came on a third-and-goal from the 5 with Florida State up 20-14. Ponder had two receivers lined up to his right and one to the left. Tight end Caz Piurowski was lined up tight to his right.

At the snap, both receivers ran slants against man coverage. Most quarterbacks would try and fire a quick throw into tight coverage to one of those receivers. Not Ponder.

He patiently stood in the pocket, in the face of pressure from his left, and waited for his tight end to run free behind those slants against the linebacker. Ponder lofted a perfect touch pass to the back of the end zone to Piurowski for a score and a 13-point lead.

That's another thing that impressed me about Ponder -- the touch. He doesn't have a bazooka for an arm, but he can make all the throws. It's the touch that really impresses. He drops it over linebackers and in front of safeties. He puts it where the receivers can catch and run.

Ponder is also far more athletic than you would think. The Seminoles often ran him, and he showed quickness and the ability to make people miss. That will help when he's moving to throw in the NFL since he won't have the called runs nearly as much on the next level.

That isn't to say he is without flaws. In some of the games, I saw Ponder come off a receiver and throw to the other side without even looking, anticipating instead of seeing it with his eyes. This led to an interception in the 2009 Clemson game.

He also needs to be a little more patient in the pocket at times. That running ability is nice in college, but not in the NFL

The senior tape clearly isn't as impressive. You can see that late in the season he had troubles with his arm. In some of the early games, he looked like he did as a junior. But late in the season some throws sailed, and he didn't look like the arm had the same zip. He said he hurt the elbow in the sixth game against Miami. He had surgery after the season to fix it.

"I got hit in the sixth game of the year and the fascia, which is the connecting tissue between your skin and your muscle, got separated from my muscle and a little pocket formed," Ponder said. "Every time I landed on it fluid would build up. I'd get it drained once a week and the next game I'd land on it again. Throughout that whole process, scar tissue had built up and that was what was impeding it from healing. They went in and cut out all the scar tissue and did some other stuff to heal it. Now it's fine."

Even so, the arm concerns seemed to drop his stock, with some suggesting he might be a third-round pick.

That isn't happening now. It would be surprising if he doesn't go in the first round.

It would be a mistake if a quarterback-needy team in the middle of the first round didn't take Ponder.

He just might end up being the best quarterback in this class.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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