After playing footsie with Brett Favre(notes) over the last two seasons, the Minnesota Vikings put themselves in a position to need a starting quarterback rather desperately in preparation for the 2011 campaign. With Favre out of football (at least, that's what he tells us in May) and a new Minnesota regime leading the way through what might be a painful rebuild, GM Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier surprised just about everybody by selecting Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick.
Not that Ponder doesn't come to the NFL with an impressive skill set – he certainly does – but it was a risky pick for a player who underwent three separate surgeries to his throwing arm in the last two years.
However, Ponder had a great pre-draft audition phase, starting at the Senior Bowl, where he was among the most impressive quarterbacks in the week of practice, and was the best signal-caller in the actual game. Without a rocket arm even before his injuries, Ponder proved attractive to NFL talent evaluators by way of his understanding of the game, the multi-read offense, and the soft spots in coverage often exploited via the West Coast offense. The post-Favre Vikings will be in need of a starting quarterback who can process those schemes, whether it's Ponder or a plug-in veteran to start.
"I had a little bit [of the multiple-read offense] in high school, but [Florida State] coach [Jimbo] Fisher did a really great job with that," Ponder told me at the Senior Bowl, when asked about his ability to fit in an offense more about route complexity rather than raw arm strength. "He really taught the quarterback position well – to make your reads, the great thing was that he taught me how to eliminate things in my head, pre-snap, which makes things a lot quicker and easier. There were a ton of reads and different formations, which kind of helps me prepare for the next level."
Ponder's best Senior Bowl play was his second touchdown pass of the game – it capped the scoring in the South's 24-10 victory, and it cinched Ponder's MVP status for the contest. Going three-wide against the North team's Cover 3 defense (deep cornerback coverage with a single-high safety and another safety in the box, covering the slot), Ponder showed all of his attributes: grace under pressure when he stepped up in the pocket and made the timing throw with bodies all around him, understanding of the route to sell as TCU's Jeremy Kerley(notes) ran the out-fake to post, and comprehension of the little things when he got a little shoulder fake off away from the play before the throw. Ponder got the ball right to Kerley at the perfect time between the two safeties for the score.
Ponder has his work cut out for him in the NFL – he's in a brutal NFC North division with elite pass rushers everywhere, and Minnesota's offensive line is questionable to the point where people wonder if he's going to be healthy enough to deal with the grind. However, based on the tape alone, there's no question that Ponder projects well as a future franchise quarterback if he can stay healthy – tough, smart, resilient, and able to get things done against the odds. Enough quarterbacks have proven through time that these attributes are far more important than the ability to throw a football through a brick wall.