When it was all said and done, Christian Ponder’s rookie campaign left us with more questions than answers. There were promising moments that seemingly justified the Vikings’ bold decision to select him No. 12 in the 2011 NFL draft, essentially anointing him the future of the franchise. Conversely, there were far too many instances where Ponder made Tarvaris Jackson look poised, accurate and durable. At this point, all we know is that it will be Ponder—not Joe Webb, Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III—under center for Minnesota when the 2012 season kicks off.
With such a small sample size (pieces of 11 games) and so many moving parts on the Vikings’ roster, it’s difficult to establish a frame of reference from which to project Ponder’s future. After analyzing several recent draft classes, however, one player jumped off the page as a perfect Ponder comp: Mark Sanchez.
When you’ve finished dry heaving, check out the chart above.
Ponder and Sanchez's rookie seasons are closely aligned, both statistically and stylistically. What’s more, their physical measurements are virtually identical, and I’ve been told that both are stunningly good looking.
Both Ponder and Sanchez were late risers in the draft process, due in large part to their intelligence, athleticism and mechanics. Each was also tagged with durability concerns and “good enough” arm strength. Ultimately, it was turnovers, poor decision-making and worse-than-advertised accuracy that plagued the two signal callers in their rookie seasons.
While Sanchez has taken incremental steps forward in each of his three professional seasons, he appears to be plateauing as a middle-tier (read: very average) NFL quarterback. Does that mean that mediocrity is Ponder’s destiny as well? Of course not. At least not necessarily. But as of now, that’s the path he’s on.
For Ponder to progress to a higher level, he’ll need a major overhaul in supporting talent. While both Ponder and Sanchez spent their rookie seasons throwing to highly suspect (to put it kindly) groups of pass-catchers, Sanchez had the luxury of an offensive line that kept him upright, as well as an elite defensive unit that regularly put him in favorable field position. Ponder has neither, and if the Vikings don’t shore up the offensive line in a hurry, Sanchez’ middling status will become Ponder’s ceiling. The injuries and inconsistencies will continue to pile up, and Ponder will be at risk of going the route of Trent Edwards.
The fact that Ponder is already much more dangerous on the run than Sanchez is certainly encouraging, and it’s probably the reason he’s still alive today. Reinforcing the porous line is priority No. 1, but if the Vikings can also add a dynamic outside receiver (or two), Sanchez’ middling status will become Ponder’s floor.
Coming out of the draft, I felt strongly that Ponder’s size, athleticism, release and footwork were very similar to Tony Romo’s. While this high-level comparison is bound to induce more dry heaving, it’s safe to say that most Vikings fans would be thrilled if Ponder someday progressed to Romo’s level.