As Friday gave way to Saturday and the midnight deadline passed for NFL teams to exercise fifth-year options on 2011 first-round picks, Christian Ponder's future in Minnesota was crystalized. Best-case scenario: He has one more season with the Vikings, the team that drafted him 12th overall in 2011, before free agency and, most likely, life as an NFL backup elsewhere.
As the 2011 draft approached, the scouting report on Ponder was that he was NFL ready, both physically and mentally. On paper, the Vikings made sense; a dominating running game and a very good defense are often cited as the top two reasons a rookie quarterback can succeed. But injuries and maddening inconsistency doomed Ponder, who lost his job last season to Matt Cassel.
Cassel is back in 2014 and with Ponder relegated to backup duty, there was no way the Vikings would pick up a fifth-year option that would pay him $9.68 million. Instead, he'll earn $1.76 million in the final year of his deal and hope that he has another chance to prove he can play in this league.
“I think the expectation is that [Cassel is] going to be a starter," Ponder admitted this week, via StarTribune.com. "But for me, I'm competing for the job. That's what's going on in my mind. It's a competition. It's a clean slate for all of us. I don't think any of the coaches have made a decision about what's going on yet, but hopefully the best guy gets to play."
In three NFL seasons, Ponder started 35 games, completed 60 percent of his throws, including 38 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. Over that time, he never ranked higher than 21st in Football Outsiders' QB efficiency metric.
Despite not playing up to first-round expectations, former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, who later won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, says it's unfair to call Ponder a bust.
"He led them to the playoffs [in 2012]," said Johnson, according to Chris Tomasson of St. Paul Pioneer Press. "And last year was just kind of weird for the whole team. Not only just the quarterback play, but they lost some weird games last year. I think Christian can play in the league. It's hard to sit there and say he's a franchise guy, but I think he can definitely win a bunch of ball games in the league. He already has proven he can take a team to the playoffs."
The Vikings appear ready to move on from Ponder, and no one would be surprised if they drafted their next franchise quarterback with the No. 8 pick in next week's draft.